Painter Ian Brownlee is creating a bit of a stir in the Asheville arts scene. But you’d never know it when talking to this soft-spoken 30-year-old. He just isn’t the type to talk about himself or toot his own horn. Instead, he’d rather let his paintings and obvious passion for his work speak for itself.
Brownlee’s style is hard to nail down. He admits that he doesn’t really think of influences on his art, but instead paints what he feels. He will look at an image and paint it several times over using different shades, colors and techniques.
The result is artwork that evokes different attitudes and styles. Several studies of rocking chairs on a porch have a distinct folk or primitive feel that makes one think of the famous works of Grandma Moses, while other paintings of a forest setting have an impressionist feel for color and light.
“I like to take a scene or image and paint it several different ways,” Brownlee says. “By taking different perspectives, it really allows me to explore what I think and feel about the painting.”
Brownlee has an exclusive arrangement with Gallery Minerva in downtown Asheville to show his paintings, and the interest in his work is very strong, according to gallery owner Anna Parker-Barnett.
Parker-Barnett “discovered” Brownlee when she spotted his paintings at Greenlife in Asheville. She knew the second she spotted the paintings that she wanted Bronwlee’s work in her gallery. Brownlee had hung the paintings in the cafeteria, just hoping to get noticed.
“They let area artists put their work up, and I thought it was a good way to show some of my paintings,” Brownlee says.
The ironic part of the story is that Brownlee had submitted photos in hopes that the gallery would display his work. He says, with a bit of a grin, that his art obviously makes more of an impression when you see it live.
Still, the chance to have his art on display at the gallery is really the beginning of a “dream come true,” Brownlee says.
“My ultimate goal has always been to earn my living from my art. When the gallery invited me to show my work, that was a very important step toward that goal,” he says.
Another step, Brownlee says, was making the move to Asheville. He grew up in Augusta, Georgia, and studied painting at the Atlanta College of Art. But even though he is a native of Georgia, early on he knew in his heart that he belonged in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
“I’ve been coming to the Asheville area ever since I was a kid, and my family always loved this area,” he says. “My mother moved here several years ago, so it has always felt like home to me.”
Brownlee did spend several years in the Pacific Northwest working on environmental restoration projects for Americorps. Although, he did love the beauty of the Cascade Mountains and the Columbia River Gorge, he found that he missed the Southeast.
He says that moving back to Asheville was the best choice he could ever make for himself and for his art. “The atmosphere and creative energy of Asheville is really amazing,” he says. “Everyone in Asheville is just so supportive of what I am trying to do. I really can’t imagine a better atmosphere for me to work in.”
He has found that he feeds more off the creative energy of musicians whom he has befriended than from other painters and artists in the area. But he says the creative energy suits him well, and that he has never felt more excited about the possibilities of his painting.
While Asheville offers Brownlee the creative culture that he needs, the surrounding mountains offer the beauty and landscapes that make his work sparkle on canvas.
“The natural beauty of the area is just something that I really thrive on, and when I go out and hike through the mountains I love looking at the light, the colors, the scenery — it really sparks my imagination,” he says.
His latest works explore the autumnal beauty of the mountains some, with the bright colors you can see on sun-dappled days that make the Blue Ridge nearly jump out and grab you. Some of his other paintings feature more muted colors and evoke feelings of hurrying from the forest as the afternoon sunlight fades.
Brownlee is obviously pleased when you mention these ideas and images to him.
“It’s exactly what I was feeling when I painted these,” he says. “I always have a goal when I begin a painting, so I follow it and let it surprise me.”
And if the viewers go right along with him, then Brownlee must have chosen the right path.