At the 5th Biennial National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem, North Carolina, people will remember the many plays, readings and symposiums they attended. But, those are not the only shining moments of this event. The unveiling of a finished bust of Larry Leon Hamlin, will undoubtedly leave an impression. It was begun at the '95 Festival by International Sculptor, Donald Brown.
Brown was discovered three years ago by actor John Amos. Amos was invited to perform his one man show (which he also wrote), Halley's Comet in Manchester, England (where Brown lives). He saw Brown's work and brought him back to the states.
The bust of Hamlin was unveiled at the opening night gala and later displayed in the lobby of the Adam Mark East Hotel. Also on display, are several other impressive pieces of Brown's work.
Brown is such a brilliant, gifted sculptor. He captures the essence of the person and does it in such a way that the works, put words into your head. You see the strength, concern and several other emotions, felt by the subjects.
Brown was able to take out 40 minutes yesterday and talk about his life and work. He made his first piece at the tender age of 10. He recalled, "It was a wooden egg. A piece of wood that I took home and polished and polished; bought back and surprised the whole school. I got so much attention from that. For me at the time, I had very low self-esteem and no confidence. I was very sickly as a child, didn't have many friends and all of the sudden I was getting this attention for something I'd done. From that point on, I started creating all sorts of things. (Unfortunately, giving his earlier pieces away to anyone who admired them.) Now, I've been in it for 23 years."
Elaborating on a troubled childhood, he shared, "I was born with asthma and I was sent to a special school. I missed about two years of school. I started properly at the age of 9, but I was behind, in terms of education. So, as I said, I didn't have any friends, low self-esteem, low-confidence, bad grades and I felt like a loser. Everybody else was in the know, except me. Finding that I could do something which brought attention and made me feel good, began to build my confidence and self-esteem. It was like sewing a seed. Getting a response from authority figures (teachers) who had good things to say about me, at last, was great...That was part of my driving force for continuing to sculpt."
By the age of 14, Brown had made a bust of himself, which was shown on British TV, on a program called the "Children's Cadbury Exhibition." He remembered, "For me at 14, it was wonderful. To do the bust I worked with three mirrors, to get various angles of myself."
While Brown's dreams were starting to soar, his gift wasn't completely embraced by his parents. He remarked, "My mother was an auxiliary nurse and my dad worked in a foundry making bathtubs. When I began to sculptor my dad was fine with it. But, out of love and concern, my mother initial didn't support me. She said, 'what's playing with mud gonna do for you.' I think she wanted me to be a doctor, teacher, nurse, and that's fine if that's what somebody wants to do. She wasn't against it, but she was encouraging me to do other things."
"I kept a lot of what I did quiet. I couldn't answer her questions (at 14), about what's it going to do for you. At 15,16, 17 years old, when she saw I stuck with it, the questions kept coming. But, now, that I've excelled in the field, she's one of my number one fans. I don't hold anything against her. She did it out of love and concern."
Out of this experience Brown explained, "I've discovered how to turn anything negative into something positive and I share this message with children. I used to be asked to do residence in different schools and I would talk with the kids. Then John and I took it to the next level. We started a company called, World Arts Alliance. Through this company, I have gone to schools, talked with children and worked with them, helping them to produce artwork. Then all the schools get together to exhibit their work. At this point John flies over and the kids are so excited. He sees their work and gives them certificates. Basically, we try to empower them, using my experience and his experience-- to pass down energy to the little kids.
While Brown helps to build up others, he's also building up his reputation. Within the last two years he has sculpted a bust of Maya Angelou, a plaque of Nelson Mandela (for which he was invited to Zimbawee, by Rev. Sullivan of the African American Summit), he has also been commissioned by Amos to create scenes from his one man show, "Halley's Comet."
Incredibly, these creations are not Amos, but of the characters he describes in the play. Brown stated, "'Halley's Comet' is a story about a young boy amazed at seeing Halley's Comet. 76 years later, he's an old man. In between that time he takes you through a rollercoaster ride of emotions--death, courtship, marriage and war. It makes you laugh and cry. What I'm doing now is creating scenes from that play. The idea is to develop an on going line of merchandise, so the public can have a piece of John Amos...When John saw them, he was on his knees, he laughed and cried...He was overwhelmed."
Brown was able to create pieces without a physical model. He only used the images from Amos' script and he was able to capture Amos' vision.
Brown's most powerful piece is called, "A Genius with Four Masters." In Brown's word, "It features Marcus Garvey and Ghandi in the background as inspiration. Protruding further, on either side are Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., who are tearing prison bars wide apart and through that opening is Nelson Mandela, striding forward. These men are all masters in their own rights and geniuses."
Again, in all of his work the subjects are infused with a visible spirit. You see the strength and pain in Angelou. In 'A Genius with Four Masters'--each man's face has implicit details. While the arms of Malcolm and King were purposely exaggerated (bulge out) to show their strength.
With the exposure from Amos, his famous clients and the festival, Brown has to turn commissions down. What's happened to that shy 10 year old boy? "I hope I'm living proof you can realize your dreams. I hope I'm an inspiration to all cultures and age groups."
What's next for Brown? "I'd like to do a female piece. I'm researching various individuals, such as Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. But, I'm not going to rush it." The Shomburg in New York and different museums and schools around the country are hoping to exhibit Brown's work. For more information on Donald Brown, pull up his Website --WWW.IMAIL.COM/STORES/BROWNSCULPTURES
--By Linda Armstrong