Last night, my friend Bern Will Brown dropped by. Bern’s 86 now, but he’s still going strong. He’s spent the last 44 years in Colville Lake (pop. 100), an isolated outpost that is way up in Canada’s far north. Born in upstate New York, Bern spent his childhood looking across Lake Ontario and marvelling at the northern lights. “That’s where I knew I had to go,” he always tells me.
In 1948 he became an Oblate priest and was sent to a northern diocese. As a kid, he had painted in oils — so he took his paints with him. In 1971 he took up with Margaret, a part-native woman from Tuktoyaktuk, and this event precipitated his eventual defrocking. Along the way he and Margaret established the Colville Lake Lodge, a hunting and fishing resort that has entertained some of the crowned heads of Europe, politicians, movie stars, and just plain rich folks. He has a museum and art gallery on site, and this is where he sells his paintings. He hands his potential customers a key to the gallery and lets them look around in there. If they see something they like and bring it out to him, he wraps it up for them. Bern doesn’t like talking about his work.
While isolation and the long winters make for cozy reflection and undisturbed painting, there’s a price to pay for being out of the loop. Southern art dealers have trouble handling his work because he insists on getting his price. He resents dealer markups, and selling from home to northern travellers at direct prices has undermined his potential wider success. Further, he has made it even tougher for dealers by demanding that they supply him with the names and addresses of all purchasers. “So I can send them a Christmas card,” he says. Last year he and Margaret sent 750. The Browns have no email, no computer. But he knows exactly how many paintings he’s sold. “1342 to date,” he says proudly. “And there’s fifty in my gallery right now, ready to be sold. The prices are clearly marked.” He’s got a mind like a steel trap. Bern is his own best dealer.
Bern loves his adopted land — the people and animals of the tundra and taiga. His paintings honour both the traditions and the changes. Dogs and canoes have transmogrified into skidoos and jet boats. Up until a few weeks ago he flew his own float plane. There’s nowhere up there that Bern has not been in order to get his stuff.
PS: “I had no idea that things would change so rapidly, so drastically.” (Bern Will Brown)
Esoterica: Bern learned French and then the language of the Hare Indians. He mastered fishing and hunting, breeding huskies, building igloos and making snowshoes. As well as being the local priest, he served as carpenter, musician and medic — delivering babies, pulling teeth and flying medevacs. When he and Margaret married, they did so in “Our Lady of the Snows,” the log church that he built with his own hands. “It’s a great life,” he says, “and Margaret and I are going to stay put above the Arctic Circle where we’re happy. I figure I’m still good for painting until 95 or thereabouts.”
Bern Will Brown
Life a work of art
by Bob Cook, Dripping Springs, TX, USA
What a fantastic story. I was, however, disappointed with the paintings both in terms of the quality of seeing one and then noting that there was little variance between works. Perhaps this is the penalty he pays for his extreme isolation. Artists need to be nourished by seeing lots of new ideas or they slip into being craftsmen. But his life is still a work of art.
Fame not worth any price
by Jana Botkin, Three Rivers, CA, USA
This man’s work is stunning and I look forward to seeing more. About his resentment of dealer markups: does he not realize that the dealer has no reason to sell a painting if he realizes no profit? Would Mr. Brown sell the work of other artists for no percentage or commission? Further, if he is paying a price for taking himself out of the loop, it certainly is a price he can afford. Fame is not worth any price, and he has a wonderful life without being overwhelmed by demand. He can paint what he wants and has a ready-made client base. He has a great life in a beautiful place that he loves with a woman he loves, and since he is earning a living, there is no reason to chase after bigger sales.
Good people naturally wanted
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
Even though Mr. Brown’s methods of distribution may have limited his potential success, it may have also made his work more sought after. Being isolated from the general public, those that viewed and collected his work understand this unique collection’s availability. It’s not just the work of the artist that makes it sell, but the artist himself. When you become known as being good people, people want you around. Both in person or with your art. It appears Mr. Brown has that type of following.
Change of Father Brown
Your subject (Father Brown) sounds like a wonderful human being. The fact that he has evolved from the strictures and misguided principles of the Roman Church and managed to go to a normal life is a tribute to his clearer than average thinking. He is now ‘natural.’ That he has chosen to pursue an honest calling (art) is also commendable. The north has a remarkable effect on people — bringing out human values commensurate with the magnificent mystery of the place. I suspect that the “change” of which you and he speak also includes the changes that have taken place in Father Brown’s world view. Good on ya.
Change vital to growth
by Chantell Van Erbe, NJ, USA
This tiny fragment of Bern Will Brown’s fascinating biography is heartwarming. Despite his minor quirks and logical concerns with the art industry, he appears to be a bright, considerate individual. Living in bliss as well as finding sanctuary in his environment is commendable. Change is vital to emotional and intellectual growth. Making such a profound alteration in his life demonstrates that he is a master of his own destiny.
Painting the north country
by Virginia Hemingson, Banff, AB, Canada
Painting in the north country has it’s own challenges. The light is strong and the water a deep navy blue, unlike the phthalo green lakes in the Canadian Rockies. Isolated and peaceful is how I remember the north. I understand how Bern feels about these special places. I am painting now one large canvas that is a collection of my memories of Arctic Lodges. Hudson Bay trading post, fishing, log cabins, boats, float planes, canoes, Cree Indians in their teepees, husky dogs, fishermen, blueberry picking and sitting on the dock playing my accordion are all the things going on in the painting… like a Grandma Moses landscape.
People look in museums
by Paol, Australia
What an inspiration! I am a young painter, just turned 50 and sold more than hundred of originals. Very few sales change my life as the dollars keep flying through the door. I thought also to open a Museum like Bern Will Brown as I find that people will take more time to look at a painting or sculpture if it is in a Museum rather than a gallery. I am in the process to do so after a trip to Paris, France in the 12 of June for a month. I will be returning the 18 of July to Australia, where the light is so exceptional (like the south of Spain).
Spell of the north
by Chris Riley, Edmonton, AB, Canada
It warms my heart to read stories that hit home. I too was raised in the NWT by a bush pilot and although most of my work doesn’t reflect my heritage I do long to return and visit the places in the north that my sisters and I were sure we had discovered. As an adult now and animal lover I often find myself in conflict with the anti-fur / vegetarian campaigns and sympathize with the keepers of tradition. It’s the way we were raised. His painting of Margaret with the dogs is very reminiscent of checking trap lines before skidoos were the norm. I could feel the bite of the cold and the warmth of the sun on her face all at the same time.
Even now my parents, who have retired and live nearly full time in the bush, have tea and bannock and dry meat often from their trapper friends. It seems a lifetime ago for me. But my memories of those times are filled with the hard work of pure survival (we did have to walk 5 miles when we missed the bus and the snow banks were 10 feet deep in places!). I miss the laughter and humor that keeps northern people more genuine and open than any I’ve met in my travels. Don’t miss the mosquitoes or black flies but I can smell a baby willow in the spring when I close my eyes.
Elements of style
by Sonja Donnelly, Lake Oswego, OR, USA
Reading all the letters on repetition I was amazed that no one touched on the natural style that is you the artist. Art is like handwriting—everyone’s is individual. We start out as a child learning to write our name. We experiment and try to follow others’ leads and only with time and practice does our signature become uniquely ours. Some are similar but an expert can tell which is which by the flourishes that one uses instinctively. I think after years of painting, drawing, sculpting or whatever, your style becomes you, you are your style. Inseparable, one and the same, no matter what you choose to create.
A series is not necessarily a group of copycat works but a group of work that is cohesive and appears to belong together. As a well dressed person might assemble an outfit, one grouping (series) for formal wear, and a different one for casual. But in the end they both are a reflection of your style.
Repetition is important
by Sherry J. Purvis, Kennesaw, GA, USA
I’ve just finished reading the letters on repetition and for the most part I think they missed the point. Repetition is an extremely useful tool in the creative process. I have found that when I do a series of work, and grant you, I am not doing this work to sell or not, that each painting in the series moves a little further into my thought processes. No two are the same and sometimes I have to be careful to keep continuity alive and well. Yes, I have seen some artists who paint the same every time and whether they are doing a series of work, or just painting, it can get a little boring, not to see changes in their work. By repeating and repeating, even a subject as simple as apples, if your mind is open to change and exploration, your painting style will shift and become something a little more vivid and certainly more exciting. It is truly art when you repeat and let the changes flow that naturally happen. For me it is not about selling to the public as much as growing and allowing things to shift and become something that looks like me, but slightly different. The development of style is important, but that doesn’t mean you cannot change within it. So, yes, repeating is important.
Motivation to share experience
by John Stuart Pryce, Sunderland, ON, Canada
I too have wondered for years what it is that motivates us to paint. I am sure that we all have our reasons, but I cannot let go of the idea that we all need to “share” that experience or scene that touches us emotionally. The form that we are best able to communicate that experience is visually, in the form of a painting. We can share a joke or even a bit of gossip in a few words, but try and convey verbally how you feel when viewing that shaft of warm evening light hitting the tops of the trees and the cools of the shadows in the foreground. Poets and musicians have their own special way of sharing and I feel privileged to be able to share my experiences with others in the form that I enjoy most.
Art thing gets weird sometimes
by Beth Mahy, Dallas, TX, USA
The story of Bern Will Brown is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. Your letter and its message is going to help me through today. Sometimes the art thing gets just too weird for me. This is one of those days. Then there comes a voice like yours which leaves me to think, well, maybe I can take that shower after all and get back in the studio and even go through with the show tomorrow.
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
I like the idea of just creating a thing and putting it out there. Not for a specific show, or to sell to a particular group, more like an exploration. If I can start to create art in that spirit, I feel I really have something. If I’m really excited about something I just want to paint it for itself, not to sell particularly, or win in a show. That can happen, and when it does, that’s great, but it’s not the point. It’s that pure “art for arts sake” excitement that I love. Money can’t buy that feeling, but you won’t have any trouble selling a painting done with that feeling.
Younger artists have that kind of infectious enthusiasm when they talk about their art and I think collectors pick up on that and want to buy their art. I was at a group show a few months ago with three very successful “famous” older (male) artists and two younger (male) artists. One of the young artists was so excited about painting and being in this show with the famous guys, I just had to like him (was prepared not to!). When I talked to the older artists they seemed so laid back and acted like it wasn’t such a big deal. The young one was so enthusiastic that you just got this “anything is possible” feeling from him. Needless to say, this young man outsold the rest of the artists — heck, I almost felt like buying a painting from him myself! I went home thinking that I want what this guy has. Not that his work was excellent, which it was, but so were all the paintings in this gallery. It was his attitude towards his art and towards all the people he talked to. And I walked in that gallery with a bad attitude because it was an all-male show and yadda yadda yadda. I learned a big lesson.
Public relations skills needed
by Jean Schultz, Okemos, MI, USA
Today I went to our town’s annual juried art fair. Artists from all over the country participate. Since I have recently started painting (oils), I seem naturally drawn to artists that paint with oils. The first artist I visited was very gifted and his choices of colors appealed to me. He was a very kind man and very encouraging in terms of my painting. We talked for quite awhile and, if I didn’t have a son in college, I would have been inclined to purchase one of his works. The second artist’s work was completely different in style but equally appealing to me. Again, if the finances were available, I would have considered his work except that he was not interested in engaging in any type of conversation with me. When I told him how much I enjoyed his work, his only comment to me was, “Why don’t you take your sunglasses off so you can really see it.” I guess my comment to artists is that even if you have all the talent in the world, if you’re doing the art fair circuit, it would seem that you need to have some public relations skills. You have no idea who has money to spend and who doesn’t and it would be wise to treat everyone as though they were potential buyers.
Gift of twice-weekly letters
by Carol Westcott, Toronto, ON, Canada
An artist friend sent my name to you this spring and I have been receiving your twice-weekly letter since the end of March. Of course, I didn’t know what to expect when I first learned of the letter. But what a joy! I have come to appreciate the insights and enjoy, think about, smile (even shed a tear) upon reading the inspirational letters you send. I feel as if, each time I receive a letter, I am about to open a little present. This is such a wonderful gift I’ve been given!
oil painting on linen
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Rose Dix of South Africa who wrote, “There are not enough people like Bern Will Brown.”
And also Ian Henley of Bowen Island, BC, Canada who wrote, “Bern is a man of many talents — a curmudgeon who does it all his own way.”
And also John D. Vedilago of Göteborg, Sweden who wrote, “I am following all of your wonderful letters. It’s a relief and a pleasure to see your name pop up amongst all the Viagra ads.”