Harley Brown was 7 years old when his father shared drawings he had rendered, including a profile of actor Ronald Coleman. “He drew it for my mother when they were courting,” Brown recalls. “That particular piece inspired my future evermore.”
That future would take the kid from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, on a meandering path through the art world, from academia to practical application and top honors. After studies at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary and London’s Camberwell College of Arts, as well as sessions with Gustav Rehberger at the Art Students League of New York, Brown took to portraiture and selling his work door to door. “Yes, actually door to door,” he sheepishly admits. But acclaim lay in store for the developing artist, including notice in the Prix de West at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City and in the Masters of the American West at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles. Since establishing his name, Brown has given workshops and demonstrations around the world, illustrated magazine covers and published books, including the aptly titled Confessions of a Starving Artist and Harley Brown’s Inspiration for Every Artist. He has also earned entry into both the National Academy of Western Art and the Cowboy Artists of America.
“I was obsessed with creating life on paper,” Brown says of his life’s path. “All I did was draw, even in school classes. A great part was that teachers understood my love of art and gave me a bit of leeway with my studies. That obsession has carried on without letup to this day.”
In the early 1960s he started painting First Nations people in Calgary. “We lived just a few blocks from a reserve,” he recalls. “I went there as much as possible because they were grand to be with. And my drawing passion was always there when they wore their traditional dress. This went on for many years, including going to many other reserves in Alberta and Montana.”
When starting out as an artist, Brown also played piano—“sometimes in offbeat nightclubs”—and workshops took him across the world. He spent months at a time in Mexico. “Often I was so active that days and weeks would fly by,” he recalls. “I now wonder where I got the energy. But it was certainly there. The proof is stories I can tell and stories others tell about me.”
In 1995, having done a summer-winter split between Alberta and Arizona for a decade, Brown permanently moved to Tucson, home to his studio and many art world friends and colleagues. It doesn’t hurt that Arizona abuts Mexico, where he’s found many favorite subjects.
What’s a typical day in his studio look like to Brown?
“I go through a multitude of photos to see what will inspire me,” Brown explains. “I don’t necessarily think of a destination my work will go to. Also, I don’t wonder whether others will approve what I’m doing. I allow my inner instincts to make the decisions as to what I like and how I will do it. I put on the music, look outside the window at Mother Nature’s masterpieces and then sit, look at empty paper or canvas and allow myself to naturally begin.”
And a nontypical day?
“A real nontypical day would be when I’m not in my studio but painting someone on a beach, say, within the Fiji Islands,” he says. “That was very typical in my earlier traveling and workshop days. Nontypical in my studio would be when I’d feel eccentric and decide to create something that bends and stretches the mind—and I have many of those very personal works. Offbeat and sometimes semiabstract. When doing them, there’s a feeling within that they’ll probably not be seen by anyone. Still, when finished, I have that rush of satisfaction of creating out of my head and hands, a feeling of satisfaction I get no matter what I’m creating.”
While Brown is known for painting American Indians in traditional garb, he’s tackled everything from buildings and boats to Hollywood characters, Though he admits, “I’ve never painted a landscape.” He works mostly in pastels these days.
What’s next for the 82-year-old?
“What’s next will probably be a surprise,” Brown says. “Much has been built upon unexpected coincidences and me jumping into unknown territory. In other words, I’m ready for whatever may come my way. Whatever it is, I’m ready, of course considering I’m older than the good ol’ days.”
The picture his father drew all those years ago still points the way. “It’s now placed in my studio,” Brown says. WW
This article appeared in the August 2021 issue of Wild West.