Adrienne Brown-David is an artist living and working in North Mississippi, whose work explores – among other things – individual, familial, and collective identity as informed by society and nature. She studied for a time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she began experimenting with a variety of styles and media. She taught art in St. Louis, Missouri and further developed her artistic process in the U.S. Virgin Islands, before settling in Mississippi with her family. Her figurative and portrait work focuses heavily on the experiences of her four daughters, through which Brown-David interprets the Southern landscape and humanity’s place within it.
THIS LAND is funded in part by a grant from South Arts with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Additional support provided by the Mississippi Arts Commission.
Much of Brown-David's gallery and museum work depicts her daughters as they assert agency within the Southern landscape.
(The horizontal image above is from a project at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, in which contemporary artists were invited to create work that added new color, shape, and interpretation to monochromatic block print designs made by Walter Anderson in the 1940s.)
"Despite the fact that their childhood looks very different environmentally, societally their childhood is going to be very similar... Black and brown children tend to be read as older, as less innocent.... And people say it thinking it's some sort of compliment without understanding that what they're actually doing is squashing my small child’s childhood. "
Adrienne Brown-David discusses how her art explores the convergences between nature's boundless freedom, fleeting childhood, and societal constraint.
In her nature journal, Brown-David records the days spent outside with her children during "Forest School", including the changing seasons, the migrations of birds, the birth and decay of plant life, and her daughters' own personal development.
"I'd been ... thinking about how fleeting all of those things are, like how quickly that bird is going to fly away, or how quickly that mushroom is going to shrivel and turn into something else. And thinking about how that connects to how quickly my girls are going to go from being children to being women, and how quickly they're going to be perceived as women, whether they are women or not."
I've been drawing since I was little bitty, like preschool age. My grandmother used to keep paper grocery bags and the little cardboard that came out of her pantyhose package for me to draw one when I was little. And so my family always really encouraged it. I never really thought of doing anything else. It just has always been a part of who I was. I was never a kid who was like, I’m going to be a paleontologist, I going to be an astronaut. I just always knew that I would create in some capacity for my entire life. And so, I've had other jobs, but ... if people were to ask me what it is that I did, I would always be like, “Oh, I'm an artist.”
My focus shifted a little bit from the direction it was going prior to having children to my art focusing mainly on my children and what the world looks like for them and what this experience looks like for them. And so now, my gallery work tends to focus mainly on my girls and using them as a representation of black girlhood in the American south. Their childhoods are very different from my childhood and my husband's childhood. We both grew up in the city. We have city upbringing. We have city memories. We don't have grass, trees, birds, freedom, wide open spaces. Those things aren't a part of our makeup as children. And so, it's been really interesting to watch our girls grow up in a completely different environment, and see how that shapes who they become as women and who they will eventually become as parents.
But to also still understand that despite the fact that their childhood looks very different environmentally, societally their childhood is going to be very similar. Black and brown children tend to be read as older, as less innocent as, you know, more mature and all of these things. And none of those things are true. And, and we've experienced it. I've heard people say, “I didn't realize she was only seven. I thought she was like twelve.” And people say it thinking it's some sort of compliment without understanding that what they're actually doing is squashing my small child’s childhood. And so, I've been using my work to sort of capture those moments of my kids just getting to be kids and just being kids and a situation where there's no outside influence, no one deciding what is good for them, what's mature enough for them, what's not mature enough for them. And so that's what a lot of my work recently has been about.
Since we homeschool, we sort of, you know, make our day look the way we want our day to look. Thursdays were our Forest School days. And we get up, eat breakfast, pack a lunch, get our Forest School clothes on, and go and just spend Thursdays in the woods. And it's the same little section of woods. And we've been going every week for probably five years, which means my youngest daughter, who is eleven, has spent half of her life in this area, in the wilderness. She knows the birds. She was the plants. She knows the bugs. She knows her way around like the back of her hand. I don't have to worry about her. She's watched the land change and grow. And we recognize when our impact has become too much and we need to go to a different spot to let that spot heal from all of us being there all the time.
And so those are things that she's picking up just as a part of her day to day life. And so, because we do that so regularly, I kept a journal for a year of just observations that I had out in the woods: of birds that I saw when I saw them, mushrooms that we foraged and when things started to bloom, and what bugs we saw and when things disappeared, and what the weather was like. And so all of those things became a record of just the environment over the course of a year. I'd been taking those and thinking about how fleeting all of those things are, like how quickly that bird is going to fly away, or how quickly that mushroom is going to shrivel and turn into something else. And thinking about how that connects to how quickly my girls are going to go from being children to being women, and how quickly they're going to be perceived as women, whether they are women or not. And so I'd been doing a lot of paintings of my girls in these environments and pairing those with drawings of flora and fauna in those environments.