Picture of the Week: Snow Fall by Betty Brownlee

March 5, 2023

Snow Fall, Betty Brownlee, 2021, oil on primed paper, 50 x 41 in.

Betty Brownlee is a painter, educator, and integral figure in the Detroit art community. She received her BFA and her MFA with a concentration in Painting from Wayne State University. Brownlee decided to transition from landscape to figurative painting in the 1990s. Her portraits, including self-portraits, focus on women and the female body. Brownlee’s paintings have been featured in over 30 local exhibitions and displayed in institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum, the Kresge Art Museum in East Lansing, the Willis Gallery in Detroit, and the Annex Gallery in Highland Park. 

Brownlee’s 2021 self-portrait Snow Fall was one of the paintings featured in her solo exhibition Into the Woods at the Annex Gallery in 2022. This image features Brownlee wearing a mask in the foreground, and a winter scene with trees, snow, white architectural structures, and a red truck in the background. The formal aspects of the work are consistent with the style of her other paintings in the exhibition. For example, Brownlee utilizes a pencil grid throughout the composition, which, as Ron Scott points out, she does not try to hide. Perhaps her pencil grids serve as an invitation into her process, specifically into how she formats her compositions. By offering this invitation, Brownlee establishes a strong connection between the viewer and her work.

Another formal element present in Snow Fall and consistent in all of Brownlee’s paintings from Into the Woods is the dripping of paint. This technique may serve different purposes in each painting, depending on the subject matter. In the case of Snow Fall, the paint dripping may mimic the literal falling of snow in the winter. For some, winter can bring with it a degree of sadness; the shorter days and lack of sunlight can contribute to seasonal depression, which at times can move one to the point of tears. The subject matter of the work suggests that the dripping paint could also evoke sadness for another reason. Brownlee’s mask in her portrait indicates that this is an image from the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has taken the lives of people all over the world, and has caused physical, emotional, and economic turmoil. Her mask covers her nose and mouth, leaving us to wonder if she is wearing a smile or a frown underneath. In contrast, Brownlee’s eyes lock with the viewer, with some of the paint appearing to drip from her eyes and down her mask; the paint drips in this portion of the portrait may function as tears streaming down Brownlee’s face. She may be crying for her own struggles during the pandemic, along with the struggles of people all over the world. 

Written by Angela Athnasios

Sources: https://www.linkedin.com/in/betty-brownlee-955b275

Scott, Ron. "Betty Brownlee @ The Annex Gallery at 333 Midland." Detroit Art Review. 24 March 2022.

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