Stargazing in War Zones
Artist Kyle Brown Jr. returns from a humanitarian aid mission to Ukraine.
by Kristine Hartvigsen
The stars of Orion appear the same whether viewed from Kyiv or Columbia. Artist Kyle Brown Jr. has gazed at his favorite constellation from both cities. But as he stepped outside to smoke a cigarette early one morning in Kyiv, he was reminded how war can obstruct the wonder and beauty of a night sky. “I looked up in the darkness and saw a flaming kamikaze drone fly overhead,” he recalls. It was a jarring moment and powerful reminder of the threats constantly around him.
Brown recently returned from seven months in Ukraine, the latest of numerous trips he has undertaken for the nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse. Such humanitarian aid missions have taken him to many places experiencing extreme hardship and conflict, from South Sudan to Rwanda.
“I have lots of stories,” he says. “I’m proud of the work that we are doing in Kyiv, distributing hundreds of tons of food, supplying wood-burning stoves to families, drilling wells for fresh water. In war zones, the needs of thousands of desperate refugees are the main focus.”
Over time, trauma takes its toll, and Brown recently decided to take a step back from humanitarian work, at least for now. As an artist with a poet’s sensitivity and a philosopher’s constitution, Brown internalized what he was witnessing. “It was just so severe. I got to where I couldn’t keep going. I was weary. Every six months there was a new country, new adventure, new language, new food. It was fascinating. And it changed me forever.”
There has been a constant state of flux and tragedy in Ukraine for more than a year, yet the Ukrainian people remain steadfast and prepared to die for their freedom. Brown was inspired by their strength while simultaneously considering his own mortality. “There were kidnappings in Kyiv,” he said. “The Russians were taking people back to Russia. I have a son. There are so many hazards. I lost my nerve.”
The Chime of Cicadas
Brown is a Georgia native. Most of his family still lives there, and his grandparents were from Louisiana. He has always felt a connection with the South. After living in Washington, DC for a few years, he eventually landed in Columbia, a city he is growing to love. “I moved to South Carolina for the chance to come home to the Deep South. I missed the chime of the cicadas, the thunderstorms, the forests, and, of course, the good food.”
Art has always come naturally to Brown, who is self-taught. He began painting with watercolors and drawing with pencil when he was about eight years old. His son, Levi, is now 10 and shares that early interest in art as a student at Ashley River Creative Arts School in Charleston. “I would ask Levi about his day: ‘I worked in pastels today,’ he would say. ‘Me too,’ I would say. I think he has some ability. He is drawing animals in a way that is very creative. This summer, we will be doing art every day.”
Among his influences, Brown includes Josef Albers, Mark Rothko, Donald Sultan, and Andy Warhol. He works in several mediums, notably watercolors, pastels, oils, and silkscreen. He also delves occasionally into three-dimensional art, notably his vivid cobalt-and-rust, acrylic-on-bone skull and antlers piece titled “Locust Deer.” He allows his creativity to come organically, with themes coming directly from his life yet pared down to their most basic elements.
“Minimalism is the goal. It’s always a challenge to encapsulate one’s experiences in art. So, I recall certain stories from my life and work to create something visually interesting in terms of contrast and color, along with finding a new way to create representational art,” Brown says. “Rothko, Albers, Sultan all found a way to represent common subjects in an abstract way. I would like to do the same for art in the South with subjects such as oysters or fish, sometimes paired with planets and constellations.”
Brown considers Warhol a true pioneer because of the photographic silkscreen printing techniques he introduced in the early 1960s. His boldly colored, repetitive images of celebrities and common household goods became recognizable around the world. “Warhol was the first to do some of these techniques,” he says. “I have not seen anyone do it better since then. He had a means of colorizing with this painterly effect that can really elevate the art of photography.”
Similarly, color is a powerful component of Brown’s art that requires him to make exclusive, intentional decisions. He admits to being particularly fond of blue. “You can’t do nine colors in a silkscreen print. You have to make decisions that reduce the colors. You typically have just two or three.” For a couple of years, fish were Brown’s primary subject with screen printing. While he still does screen printing, he is more recently enjoying watercolors and pastels. He is also working on some abstract pieces. “Abstract is extremely difficult,” he says. “It’s pure creative work. You don’t even know when you are done. That is a judgment call for the artist. It’s fun.”
In everything, one of Brown’s objectives is storytelling. Trauma, pain, heartbreak, and grief, he says, all have matured him. Now he is exploring exactly what he wants to say. It should be meaningful and informative. “You start to realize as an artist that most of your art will outlive you. What do you want your actual legacy to be?”
The thread connecting Brown’s art across the continuum is an allegiance to nature and the ocean as well as to species, planets, and the celestial universe. “In everything I do, I end up going back to nature. I love outer space. I feel incredibly privileged to lay eyes on galaxies and planets and moons. I love astronomy,” he explains. Accordingly, Brown has created a series of favorite works with celestially inspired titles, such as “Catfish Over Neptune,” “Double Jupiter,” “Oyster Moon,” and “Figs Under Cassiopeia.”
Roses in Kyiv
Even in wartime Kyiv, Brown was stunned to find a community intent on achieving as much normalcy as possible. While there, he found an art supply store that was open, so he purchased some watercolors. “I was noticing that Ukraine is so big on flowers,” he says. “They are quite inexpensive by our standards. There are hundreds of flower vendors on the streets. The refugees are back in the city. They are living there despite the dangers. So, I made some paintings.”