The compelling sense of idealism and spiritualism that motivated [Joan] Brown’s art in the last ten years of her life prompted her to propose, in early 1990, the design and construction of [the] obelisk….The [Eternal Heritage] museum was planned to emphasize the role of spiritualism in the evolution of humankind, and Brown’s obelisk was one of many components envisioned for the new three-story complex.
—curator Karen Tsujimoto 1
Joan Brown’s eleventh and last obelisk sculpture, adorned with mosaics tiles, was built in honor of the 65th birthday celebration, on November 23, 1990, of her guru, Sri Sathya Sai Baba. In October of 1990, Brown traveled to India to install the sculpture at the new Eternal Heritage Museum near Sai Baba’s ashram. Significantly, the obelisk would also be her final work of art.
Brown first met spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba, one of the world’s most famous gurus, in 1980. While traveling all over India on her honeymoon with Michael Hebel, the couple decided to detour to the guru’s ashram, just outside of Bangalore.
Brown had been reading the book Sai Baba, The Holy Man…and the Psychiatrist, written by the psychiatrist Samuel Sandweiss. 2 Greatly taken with the author’s account of his personal transformation from skeptical observer to dedicated devotee, Brown and Hebel diverted their travel plans to the ashram to attend darshan, a Hindu blessing ceremony wherein followers behold the presence of a holy person or sacred deity. The artist was deeply moved by the experience, and she joined millions of other people around the world as a follower of the yogic guru.
Joan Brown connected with Sai Baba’s teachings, which focused less on the creation of a new religion with a fixed dogma and more on commonalities across all world religions, including truth, peace, love, right action, nonviolence, and service to others. By the time Brown met Sathya Sai Baba, she was already on a spiritual quest that had taken her to countless sacred sites around the world.
After meeting the guru, Brown hung photos of him in her studio and dedicated several paintings to him, including The Fan/Homage to Sai Baba, 1980, and A New Age #1, 1983. In A New Age #1 red curtains adorned with fish are parted, revealing a distant figure floating in a boat on a glittering sea, gazing off into a promising, hopeful future: the Age of Aquarius. The tiny figure wears an orange robe and has a black afro, which by no coincidence were the distinguishing characteristics of Sai Baba, her beloved guru.
As curator Karen Tsujimoto notes in the opening passage, Joan Brown’s joy in designing and constructing public art for the last ten years of her life collided with her devotion for her guru in the obelisk created to celebrate Sai Baba’s birthday. Her interest in public sculpture, specifically obelisks, was directly tied to her fascination with world cultures, religions, and ancient civilizations, as well as her idealistic belief that art could enrich the lives of all people. In a 1983 letter published in the art magazine Images & Issues, Brown wrote:
In past civilizations and at various times in history, there was a coming together or unity of art, science, and religion. This is especially evident to me in ancient Egypt, China, India, South America, and Mexico…..The ancient civilizations believe that the reason for their art was to put into form the beliefs, discoveries, and customs of their particular cultures. The artists were considered useful and respected members of their societies, and the role of an art historian or critic was unnecessary. 3
The final sentence hints at Brown’s growing disdain for the art market. Many critics were confounded by the spiritual turn Brown’s painting had taken, and they gave her new work disparaging reviews, interpreting it as kitsch, superficial, naive, and lacking in complexity. The distance between critical response and the artist’s intention was vast, further fueling her pull away from the stylistic choices of her earlier career. Though she continued to be on good terms with her dealers, her dissatisfaction with art world dealings dovetailed with her spiritual searching. For Brown the role of the artist and the path to spirituality were entwined. She saw public art as a way to enrich all lives, integrated into daily life for all people to experience.
In June 1990, only four months before her tragic death in India while installing the obelisk, Brown wrote the following in a letter to her guru:
To my dearest mother and father, Sri Sathya Sai Baba:
Words cannot properly express the great joy and gratitude that I feel within my heart, the heart that you began to open in 1980…We had the grace to receive three days of Darshan from You and on one of those days You stopped in front of me and smiled. I had never seen or felt such love and beauty. My life was changed from that moment on as my heart…began to open. Because my heart opened up my consciousness started changing and over the ensuing years some destructive habits began to drop away and were gradually replaced by good ones such as service and compassion. I became aware that I was no longer a separate entity asking ‘what could I get from society,’ but instead started asking ‘what could I give?’ 4
When during installation a stone turret from the building collapsed, simultaneously the obelisk was completely lost and the artist passed from this life. As her final work of art, the obelisk, in a sense, represents the culmination of Joan Brown’s twinned spiritual and artistic journeys.
This year would have been Joan Brown’s 80th birthday. It is difficult to speculate what further contributions the artist would have made to the art world; however, her fervent and energetic output, her dedication to public service, and her devotion to teaching suggest that she would have had a substantial and lasting contribution over the years. Brown’s husband Michael Hebel noted she had an intuition that her life might be short. 5 Because of this she propelled herself and her work forward, hurrying to accomplish as much as possible in whatever time she was allotted. What her letter to Sai Baba suggests is that though she passed through life with great speed, she also found peace.
Karen Tsujimoto, “Painting as a Visual Diary,” in The Art of Joan Brown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 170.
Ibid., p. 157.
Joan Brown, “The Artist Versus the Art Historian and the Art Critic,” in “Equal Time,” Images & Issues 3 (January—February 1983): 6.
Letter from the artist to Sai Baba, June 1990, written on the occasion of his sexity-fifth birthday (Joan Brown Estate, collection of Michael Hebel and Noel Neri).
Interview between Michael Hebel and Karen Tsujimoto, San Francisco, 25 July 1996, quoted in Tsujimoto, “Painting as a Visual Diary,” p. 174.