Joe Brotherton, A Life In Art
Joe Brotherton was born in the rough community of Bozeman, Montana in 1918. A contemporary photograph ca. 1930 captures young Brotherton astride his pinto horse herding horses into the Ox Yoke Ranch corral at Emigrant, Montana, which not only stands in contrast to his later artistic career but presents a continuing reminder of the Northwest life that continues alongside the enormous array of Asian, urban, and psychic landscapes that inform his brush strokes to this day.
Brotherton left Montana for Seattle, attending the University of Washington to major in journalism. After service in World War II, he returned to live in Seattle, then in La Conner, Washington, where he began to paint as well as write. At La Conner he met other painters such as Guy Anderson and Mark Tobey, who would, along with Morris Graves and Kenneth Callahan become known as the Northwest Mystics due to the influence of Asian spiritual traditions on their work. Though Brotherton did have a serious interest in Asian art and antiquities at the time, it wasn’t until after he moved to San Francisco in 1948, that an epiphany in the form of a Japanese ink brush, would change his painting forever. He tells the story in his oral history interview with Paul Karlstrom for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art:
“Anyhow, when I came to San Francisco I kept on working at painting. But what really transformed my work happened this way: One evening I was walking home from some place -- and here was a plaque on the side of a building on Bush Street, “American Academy of Asian Studies.” So, I walked upstairs and met this sort of slender gent who was very affable and forthcoming. His name was Alan Watts and at that time he was sort of headmaster or curator of this organization, The American Academy of Asian Studies. I got quite well acquainted with Alan Watts and gave some very sparsely attended lectures on Asian art at his Academy. One night he called up and said, “Joe, I’m terribly sorry to do this to you but I have this Zen Abbott in my office here in full canonical fig and he insists that he wants to teach calligraphy at the Academy here. Starting here. Tonight. So what am I going to do? Could you come over?” So I bustled over to the Academy and here was this rather brusque, bald-headed, bullet-headed Japanese man in the robes of a Buddhist abbot. His name was Hodo Tobase, apparently in Japan a famous calligrapher because the seal that he used proclaimed him to be Kobo Daishi number 54 or 56. Daishi was the ninth century father of Japanese calligraphy and any calligrapher entitled to use this name on the seal that he puts on his paintings has to be a very formidable calligrapher indeed. So we started. Alan had dragooned several other people to attend, including interestingly enough Gordon Onslow-Ford to come to class every Monday night at the Academy and study Japanese calligraphy with Reverend Tobase. And he was fantastic. He was a superb teacher. He would work very hard composing these sort of Zen homilies, that would be the week’s study. He would write a profound statement in four or five Japanese characters which would translate into something like “Daily Life is Important”, or another one that I remember affectionately was, “Toss Out the Short, Keep the Long”. Then we would write these statements with a big broad brush. He would give us each a sheet of good “rice” paper for our practice writing. Then and he would come around and if you weren’t holding the brush right he’d jerk it out of your hand. Take the thing away from you entirely. He’d use a fat red brush to correct everything you’d written and I loved it. To me, it was so liberating because I wasn’t using a pencil between my thumb and forefinger anymore, I was using the lively brush, held six or eight inches above the paper, held in sort of like the way you’d grip a chopstick, and using full-arm, the complete apparatus of the body to make the stroke. In other words, the stroke started in the shoulder and not in the wrist -- there wasn’t any question of a supported wrist. The only reason I mention this, in the two years I studied with Tobase I think my work as a painter was transformed. This not only gave you a feeling of freedom in drawing but the calligraphy itself had an organizing effect, because the school of calligraphy that he taught – I’m not sure this is typical of all schools of calligraphy – composed every character in a nine section square. No matter how many strokes there were in the character you were writing, it had to lie comfortably within that nine cube format . . .”
Thus by the 1960’s, the title line of an Alfred Frankenstein review of Joe’s work in the San Francisco Chronicle was, “A Western Oriental Artist.” The grounding in calligraphy and the Japanese manner of brush painting, along with a serious study of Asian Art, were a source of thematic development and experimentation with form and style from simple spare ink sketches of North Beach coffee house bohemia, to elaborately mounted scrolls and screens translating northwest scenes such as the Olympic Rain Forrest, as well as architecturally detailed descriptions in color of Venice, Florence, Rome, San Francisco, Kyoto and other cities. Further demonstrating his sense of freedom and receptivity to the possibilities inherent in these forms, was the example of a series of 16 paintings exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum. Noticing the patterns on a wet porch of drift planks at Hartstene Island, Washington, Joe devised a method using tempera and Chinese ink on kozo paper laid down on the wood and was thus able to achieve interesting textural effects, behind which he could paint, as in his marvelous, “Goose Resting.” Many of these were then mounted as panels and folding screens.
In the early 1980’s, Brotherton and the late Harry Packard, a renowned international collector and dealer in Asian art and antiquities, built homes in the Ohara district of rural Kyoto, and lived there with their wives, lecturing, collecting, Joe painting, until 1991, when he and his wife, Nam Kyung Hye took residence in her home town of Seoul, South Korea. Joe Brotherton returned to San Francisco in 1993, where he continues to paint, and write his memoirs.
DeYoung Memorial Museum
Seattle Art Museum
Phoenix Art Museum
Bennington College Art Museum
Cheney-Cowles Memorial Museum
Johns’ Western Gallery
California Palace of the Legion of Honor
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Oakland Art Museum
California Palace of the Legion of Honor
San Francisco Art Institute
Pacific Heritage Museum
Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts
Standard Oil Company
Bank of America
Crown Zellerbach Corporation
Wells Fargo Bank
Seattle Art Museum
Pacific National Bank
Maxine Hong Kingston
Various Private Collections
"Art in your Life" (13 programs) – Script adviser and moderator on all programs. Interviewed artists, critics, and resource persons. (KRON-4)
"Discover" (13 programs) – Script adviser and moderator on all programs. (KRON-4)
"Mask of Terror" – (Half-hour taped for NET) Wrote and narrated survey and description of archaic Chinese bronzes in Brundage Foundation. (KQED-9)
"The Homeless Treasure" – (Half-hour film) Described ad-lib on camera, 10 objects from Brundage Foundation; interviewed Mr. Brundage. (KPIX-5)
Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Oral History Interview, Online.
Smithsonian Archives of American Art Journal, Vol, 38, Numbers 3&4, 1998.
Albright, Thomas. Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945 – 1980.