Joy and the Everyman
Studio visit with South Kent ceramicist Joy Brown
Joy Brown sits in the doorway of her throwing studio, where she builds sculptures from a blend of material like Japanese clays she trained with.
Billy Morrison was like a kid in a candy shop. He’d just discovered a few creatures huddling together beside the subway-car sized kiln at the heart of artist Joy Brown’s ceramic studio. The four-legged ceramic beasts are bigger than cats, but smaller than pigs, with gently rounded bodies and sweetly expressive faces.
“So, what are they?” Brown says. “You know the term ‘Everyman’? Well, these could be ‘Everyanimal’. I’ve been drawing them since elementary school.”
“Let’s bring them to the gallery! What will we title them?” asks Morrison.
Brown replies, “We can call them Animal 1 and Animal 2 and Animal 3.”
“We’ll number them as we sell them!” Morrison quips.
Four of us had gathered for a visit to artist Joy Brown’s ceramic studio in South Kent, our group including Brown, her dealer Billy Morrison, and collector Deborah Foord. Morrison’s childlike enthusiasm for the work, combined with business-savvy thinking, typifies the relationship he cultivates with the artists he represents in his eponymous Morrison Gallery in Kent, which over the past 18 years has become somewhat of an institution for living Connecticut artists. In addition to building a new 5,500-square-foot gallery space and 10,000-square-foot art-storage facility, Morrison has turned his attention to exhibiting large-scale public sculpture in recent years. Joy Brown is the third artist represented by the gallery to be tapped for exhibition in New York by the Broadway Mall Association.
The appearance of Connecticut Artists on the Broadway Mall in recent years is in large part due to board member Deborah Foord, who is a resident in both Litchfield and New York, and an avid supporter of contemporary art in the Northwest Corner. “Spiritual and serene, those are words I like for Joy’s figures,” says Foord.
Arriving with a fleet of flatbeds one weeknight in May, Morrison, Foord, and Brown worked through the night to find the perfect locations for the work. Beginning opposite the entrance to the subway station at the intersection of Broadway and 72nd, these giant Bronze humans can be found all the way to 168th street. They will populate the Broadway mall for the next three to six months, delighting passersby from 72nd to 168th Streets, crossing diverse neighborhoods and New York City subcultures.
The response has been instantaneous, as the many playful posts on social media will attest. Perform a search of #joybrownonbroadway on social media and you see children and adults happily befriending the newcomers, enfolded in their arms or lounging on their backs.
“People have used the word ‘humanoid’ for my sculptures. It’s a really weird word. You hear it and you think ‘alien,’ as if they’re an empty shell—and I see them as full of spirit. There’s a spirit in there.”
Built and fired as ceramic sculptures in Brown’s studio in South Kent, the bronzes are enlarged and cast in Shanghai by Purple Roof Atelier, a small studio and gallery dedicated to supporting contemporary artists. The artist’s touch is integral to every step of this process; she travels to Shanghai to work on the foam and plaster molds, adjusting the facial features. She says cutting the eyes and mouth is a pivotal moment. “It pops alive. It’s just like a shell of metal, then at a certain point—it’s looking right at you,” she says.
Joy Brown has lived between Asia and America all her life, having been raised in Japan by parents of European descent. After college, she returned to Japan to train with a master ceramicist who she credits with “getting her out of her head,” after the more cerebral experience of an American art school. She tells the story of the first lesson she was given: she was handed a sake cup to copy.
She spent weeks throwing hundreds of versions of this simple cup on the wheel. The lesson was not about making a perfect sake cup. It was about connecting deeply with a process, learning to trust that “your hand and your heart know what to do before your head knows.” This notion is at the center of Joy Brown’s work and practice.