Betty Brownlee, On Fire #4, 1995. Oil on canvas.


Flames crackle at the fingertips of Betty Brownlee’s single left hand as it presses into oily black canvas. Warmed by oranges and yellows, the hand shows no sign of the cool shadows that should be cast across its curves. Instead, it appears lit from within, giving off a halo of soft pink light. Horizontal flecks of yellow burn through the dark background like heat escaping from behind uneven slats. The hand, showing resistance with flexed tendons and rosy knuckles, pulls these scraps through, feeding its own flames.

The hand is the most frequently symbolized body part. Throughout history it has stood for many attributes of humanity, including strength, power, or even generosity. According to Aristotle, the hand was the “tool of tools,” our primary means of accomplishing anything. Brownlee’s On Fire #4 seems to emphasize this importance of self-dominion, placing value on one’s own capabilities and how little one needs to provide metaphorical “light” for oneself. 

Brownlee is a longtime resident of Detroit. She received her BFA (77’) and MFA in painting (’95) from Wayne State University. Her work, primarily oil paintings, spans from the figural and portraiture, to landscapes and still life. Often, she chooses to incorporate a strong use of texture which heightens her already tactile imagery. Throughout all of her paintings, her dream-like treatment of her subjects using evocative colors and unusual perspective is a constant. 

Written by Samantha Hohmann