By Deborah Salomon
The nude woman reclining against classic drapery folds has a contemporary face, hair, proportions. She could be Angelina Jolie preparing for a friends lingerie ad. Yet the rendering suggests a mode developed by Renaissance masters newly versed in anatomy, who stretched canvas on wood and hand-mixed natural pigments.
She is gorgeous, lush, cool yet hot. She belongs in Florence, framed in gilt.
What’s going on here? A priceless 16th century drawing? An outtake from a time traveler’s trove?
The painting is signed P(aul) Brown, not Paolo di Bruni. Paul, a quietly intense, boyish 45-year-old, wears a John Deere cap, Luella’s Barbecue (of Asheville) T-shirt, rumpled shorts and no shoes — not cape, doublet and the signature Medici headgear. Paul is a classical realist painter, imbued by Southern Pines classicist Jeffrey Mims, educated at the North Carolina School of the Arts, honed in Italy, practiced in London and recently returned to a pond-side ranch house in Whispering Pines where he paints wine, cheese, pheasants and tobacco fields.
“My education was based on the 19th century French academies,” Paul says, citing William-Adolphe Bouguereau, best known for an ever-so-much-more-sensual — than-Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
Abstract — or “modern” — art is a non-starter. “No interest. I don’t need it. I had it in my blood to draw things as they were,” Paul states.
“Paul has a talent that’s all his own,” comments Judy Broadhurst, of Broadhurst Art Gallery in Pinehurst, where the artist sold his first painting. “I’ve admired him from the beginning for his materials and his seriousness.” This talent produces portraits with the quality of an enhanced photo, a term Paul accepts. His still lifes approach trompe l’oeil. Whatever the label, viewers cannot tear their eyes away or refrain from touching.
“Paul is an incredible draftsman whether figures, still life or landscapes . . . but he’s not just a copyist,” says Kamille Corry, of Salt Lake City, Utah, an artist who studied with Paul under Mims and in Florence. “Classical training teaches you how to draw from nature but also to understand what you’re looking at.”
During the golden age of European art, painters like Michelangelo, Titian and daVinci worked under the patronage system. Gifted young men apprenticed to and subsequently collaborated with the masters — not likely in Moore County, in the 1970s.
Yet it happened.
Paul, a minister’s son, grew up in the Farm Life area of Carthage. His family encouraged an education enriched by the arts. “When I was 11 I quit the violin and kept the agreement with my mother with something else.”
Drawing came naturally.
“We knew Paul had a special talent as soon as he held a pencil,” his mother, Carol Brown, recalls. She dabbled in painting: “He would watch me.” But, his mother continues, Paul was an ordinary little boy who occasionally got into trouble at school — for drawing during class.
Paul’s first art teacher was a Mrs. Hutchins on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Browns knew the Mims family from church. Jeffrey Mims taught in a carriage house at Weymouth. Instruction was arranged.
“I walked into a strange world, the rarified air of an artist’s studio with cloudy apple juice and digestive biscuits,” Paul recalls. Mims began lessons by breaking down a cartoon of Mickey Mouse into circles and sausages. He transferred these geometric forms to the drawings of Michelangelo.
Mims’ methods of reproducing classical statues on canvas were uncommon at that time. “Schools put their antique casts away,” Paul says. “Twentieth century teachers had to study secretly, go against the tide.”
At 16 Paul was accepted at the N.C. School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where he studied drawing and sculpture. Then, boarding school in Tennessee and Methodist University in Fayetteville.
“I ran into Jeffrey (Mims) again. He said come by the studio.” Mims was working on four 6-by-8 foot murals depicting healing scenes from the Bible. Paul did the borders and stayed on as an apprentice.
“I got itchy feet,” he recalls. “It was too soon to settle down. My education wasn’t done.”
Paul was drawn to Italy the way country singers are drawn to Nashville. In the mother country, beginning in 1988, he studied (and cleaned studios to earn tuition) for four years at the Florence Academy of Art, operated by Americans Charles Cecil and Daniel Graves. Afterward Paul returned to Southern Pines, where he established a Broad Street studio and hooked up with a portrait agency. In spare moments he painted downtown skateboarders “with their grunge and goatees.” When the itch returned, Paul considered arts-oriented cities in the U.S., like Boston and Sante Fe. “I wasn’t ready for New York.” Europe appreciated classical realism and England, which he calls a stopping ground for people leaving the Italian school, offered a lucrative portraiture market.
“Portraits are a novelty here. In England, people have portraits of ancestors all over the walls.”
Paul moved to London in 1994. Skillful, successful, often exhibited and in great demand, he still considered commissioned portrait work “a little bit of a compromise to get the time and money for other things.”
Things like still life paintings resembling Dutch/Flemish school realism more than dreamy Cezanne fruit bowls. “This reflects the part of society I like. I am transfixed by being just back from a day out hunting with a brace of pheasants or partridges. Onions are awesome, their translucency, their opaqueness, their paper-thin skin. You think about supper, open the wine and take the cheese out to soften — a wonderful kind of peace and enjoyment of what’s to come.”
Paul buys only French brie, which softens to near-melting as no American counterpart, then pairs the gooey cheese with powdery grapes for textural contrast. In his food portraits Paul achieves more dimension and tactility than a camera lens.
After more than a decade in England, critical acclaim and shows in a dozen countries where his paintings sold for up to $80,000, in 2011 Paul shut down the London studio and brought his British wife, Serena, back to North Carolina.
This is home, he says. “I can forget about wearing fleece, see my parents more. I hadn’t had Silver Queen corn in years, or fished for bass in the pond. I missed Pik N Pig and the airplanes. When I see peaches at the farmers market I want to paint them, not eat them.”
The past year signaled transition. Paul has produced a number of paintings for a one-man show opening in London with a champagne vernissage. Some paintings will be non-classical and quasi-realistic: landscapes done en plein air around Moore County farms, forests, streams and Pinehurst No.2. This group looks daringly impressionist, as in tobacco fields and a fast-approaching thunderstorm over the Pik N Pig. The artist obviously felt a sense of urgency to complete the image before the rain blew in. Tobacco, he postulates, must be immortalized before North Carolina’s signature crop is gone forever. His florals speak with a dreamy Monet accent.
“I remember Paul always talking about how your eyes see color,” as used by the impressionist school, Kamille Corry says.
“Paul has done a fantastic job with the genre of classical realism,” Judy Broadhurst says. “Now I’d like to see more examples of his moving into landscapes.”
Paul Brown has created a singular niche: iconoclast in baseball cap; non-starving artist who paints to sell; lauded classicist who doesn’t romanticize his profession or bestow elaborate titles on his paintings (but dates them with Roman numerals); a hometown boy with a British edge to his drawl.
He calls himself first a craftsman. “I’ll leave the ‘artist’ to others,’” Paul says. “Yes, I have an ego but I keep it in check.
“This is my job; I work 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. I found what I needed in Europe to make my living and, thank God, I do.” PS