Greg Brown, a Palo Alto muralist whose elaborate, realistic and often whimsical depictions of crooks, aliens, cunning animals and everyday people have been shocking and amusing local pedestrians for nearly four decades, died Friday after a brief battle with cancer. He was 62.
A Barron Park resident, Brown had been a prominent fixture of the city's public-art scene since 1975, when he was hired by the City of Palo Alto as an "artist in residence," a job that paid $4.75 an hour. The following year, he launched his "Pedestrian Series" -- nine trompe l'oeil vignettes that adorned the walls of downtown buildings. He pitched the idea to the city's first Art Commission and received the commission's approval.
These include the images of Spiro Agnew pushing a cat in a baby stroller on the side of the Restoration Hardware building (the cat was later transformed into an alien); a boy casting a fishing line on the side of the historic U.S. Post Office building; and the mural of a leashed pelican poking its beak into the purse of an unsuspecting woman on the side of a building that has since been demolished.
At times, the context helped to supply the humor for Brown's art. Visitors to the now-defunct Wiedeman's men's clothing store were greeted for 20 years by two "burglars" who looked like they're ready to pounce from the second story (in 1995, when the building was due to be remodeled and windows were slated to replace the mural, city officials gleefully boasted that the burglars have finally been "caught"). Someone glancing up toward the roof of a bank at 300 Hamilton Ave. might be amused to see a masked man climbing on a rope from the roof and might be temporarily shocked to see a second masked man, dressed in a jump suit and holding a suitcase presumably full of cash, forever falling near the third floor, frozen in mid-air with his mouth agape. Someone waiting for an elevator at 261 Hamilton Ave. might be less amused to see a mustachioed man flashing a mischievous grin as he cuts through the elevator cable with a hand saw.
His wife, Julie Brown, said the subjects in the murals were often modeled after friends and family members. The burglars on Restoration Hardware, for instance, were she and Greg. The boy fishing at the post office was the postmaster's son. And the man with the mustache cutting the elevator cable was modeled on the artist's brother, though it was later modified to disguise the similarity, she said.
Other murals feature humor of a lighter sort: an alien peeking out from a hauled trash can; a nun preparing to fly a toy airplane; a polar bear with a crutch consulting a doctor; and a pelican with money in its mouth (titled, "Bill with Bills in his Bill"). Regular people -- gardeners, trash haulers, doctors -- also make regular appearances, though often in bizarre situations (like the lady holding a pelican on a leash or the trash man hauling an alien). Julie Brown said her husband was always inspired by Palo Alto and the people he encountered while he worked.
"He loved talking to people and really enjoyed their input and what they had to say," Brown said.
Though best known for his public murals, Brown's work also includes drawings and paintings, including a series of 12 works that he devoted to his friends and family members as part of an "Unlikely Saints" exhibition that the Palo Alto Art Center exhibited in 2003. Subjects of the series included his housekeeper, Maria Villalobos; local pharmacist Benjamin Kwong; and owner of Accent Arts, Gil McMillon.
"He loved people," Julie Brown said. "He just thought people, with all their foibles and perfections and imperfections, should be glorified."
Greg Brown drew his first mural in 1956, as part of a second-grade school assignment on Christopher Columbus. The mural, which is featured on the artist's personal website, depicts a smiling pilgrim next to a ship that presumably has just arrived in the New World. The passion persisted all throughout his childhood. He took a few classes at the Palo Alto Art League but later opted into a less formal type of education, an apprenticeship to the Italian artist Roberto Lupetti, who had recently moved into his neighborhood, Julie Brown said.
Lupetti agreed to let Greg watch him work and clean his brushes, Julie Brown said. Little by little, Greg Brown began to grow as an artist, selling paintings to galleries on Geary Street in San Francisco as a teenager and making enough money off his sales to buy his first car, she said. He was also spending time at Smith Andersen, a gallery that used to be located in downtown Palo Alto. Paula Kirkeby, owner of Smith Andersen, recalls seeing 16-year-old Brown come in to the gallery to meet other artists and show off his work. At first, this consisted of small surreal images, often of still objects. Later, he transitioned to murals and public spaces.
"He had a fire in his belly and that's what he wanted to do ... to work on big spaces and make them bigger," recalled Kirkeby, who served on the art commission in the mid-1970s, when Brown proposed his mural projects.
Greg Brown graduated from Paly early and continued to work with Lupetti until he was about 21. He was always well-read, taking "every opportunity to learn about other artists and art," his wife said.
"He didn't feel like he'd fit in with the Postmodern Expressionism that was going on in the early 1970s and didn't see himself going to art school to fit in and do that," she said.
As Palo Alto's artist in residence in 1975, Greg Brown started with paintings but quickly changed to murals. He increasingly began to think of his early paintings for the city as a "waste of time" and feeling like "people should be able to see and appreciate" the art being created. He began to create murals, many of them featuring a biting edge that begs for a double-take. Julie Brown called her husband funny and described his attitude as "nothing was sacred."
"He was not afraid to go to the dark side a little and poke fun at things," said Brown, an art teacher at JLS.
Paula Kirkeby said she always appreciated Brown's sense of humor.
"He saw the world as sort of an upside-down place, which is basically the way the world is," Kirkeby said. "We both saw the dark side of the world and thought it was very funny."
City Councilwoman Karen Holman, the council's liaison to the Public Arts Commission, called Brown a "community treasure" and said he will be "greatly missed." She said she was gratified by a recent decision by the commission to restore some of Brown's work.
"His work has for decades been a part of our community. It's integrated in our downtown buildings and admired by many," Holman said. "He himself has been respected and highly regarded for decades, and deservedly so."
Mark Weiss, a concert producer who has long been involved in the local art scene, was one of many residents who were saddened to hear about Brown's passing over the weekend. Weiss said he briefly teamed up with Brown last year to urge the city to preserve the large bagel display at Izzy's Bagels on California Avenue. The display, which violated the zoning code, was ultimately taken down by the bagel shop's owner, putting a halt to Brown and Weiss' "short-lived battle to save the bagel."
Upon hearing about Brown's death, Weiss bought some flowers and helped create a memorial for the artist near the Restoration Hardware building. He recalled Brown's "off-the-cuff" sense of humor, as well as his ability to appeal to artists and laymen alike. While he was at the memorial site, Weiss said he saw a boy walking across the street and, seeing the Spiro Agnew painting, pointing at it and exclaiming, "Parece a un hombre!" ("Looks like a man!").
"This was probably the first time he's seen a trompe l'oeil," Weiss said. "His art really does appeal to a wide range of people."
Brown never stopped working, toggling between public and private realms. He created art for Palo Alto's centennial celebration in 1994 and traveled to Linkoping, Sweden, (one of Palo Alto's "sister cities") to do a mural on a concert hall. The mural depicted a violinist intently playing a piece while seemingly falling down from the balcony.
"He doesn't look like he will meet some horrible end," Julie Brown said. "He looks like is actually enjoying falling out and meeting a peaceful end."
Though he made his final mural for the city about 15 years ago, Greg Brown continued to work for private clients, including homeowners in Pasadena and Beverly Hills, Julie Brown said. His most recent mural, which he didn't have a chance to complete, was for Georgie Gleim and George Schumann, owners of Gleim the Jeweler. The piece was called "The Georges" and features a Last Supper-style arrangement in which every guest is a famous George -- Costanza, Orwell, Carlin, Harrison, Eliot and George Herman "Babe" Ruth. The guests are flanked by Gleim at the left end of the table and by Schumann on the right. Carlin stares bug-eyed from the center of the painting, Babe Ruth's right arm slung snugly over his shoulder in a gesture of camaraderie. (View a photo of this mural in the photo gallery accompanying this story.)
Several elements remained to be finished, including the image of George Washington looking down from above and a partially eaten eclair on the table near George Costanza, a reference to a famous "Seinfeld" episode, Julie Brown said.
Even after he was diagnosed with cancer on Aug. 1, he continued to think about his art. Julie Brown recalled seeing her husband the night before he died: in hospice care, heavily medicated by morphine, articulating brush strokes in the air with his fingertips.
"I could see the kinds of brush strokes he was making," Julie Brown said. "Either he was thinking about his project, or he just had the energy."
Elise DeMarzo, Palo Alto's public art manager, said she was saddened to hear about Brown's passing but heartened to see the notes and flowers people have left behind at his mural sites.
"His works are a significant part of our downtown public art collection and are treasured by the City, Public Art Commission, and the community ... Greg could always put a smile on my face -- and he will be missed," she said.
Brown's family plans to hold a private funeral service, with a public memorial to follow at the Art Center at a later date. Donations in his honor can be made to support children's art programs.
Brown is survived by his wife, Julie, of Palo Alto, and his son, Justin Brown of Redwood City and his daughter, Whitney Brown of Palo Alto.
Greg Brown mural in downtown Palo Alto restored (August 2010)
Muralist Greg Brown named Artist of the Year (August 2007)
An abiding sense of whimsy (September 2007)
Off the wall (July 2003)
Humor, whimsy and humanity (May 2003)