Artists in the Garden: Maizelle
I was honored to meet with the artist and local icon Maizelle Brown in Baker Hall Visitor Center back in January of 2021. Here are a few snippets from our conversation that day.
Maizelle is wearing a colorful head wrap, beautiful earrings, stylish oversized sunglasses, and an elegant black coat with gold trim. Gold metallic nails and sleek black boots complete the outfit. She is glowing, elegant, and kind. There is a richness to her voice and presence. I feel honored to be in conversation with a woman whose art I have admired a great deal since moving to the Virginia Beach/Norfolk Area.
We meet as strangers, but after sitting on a bench in a mostly empty Baker Hall, surrounded by the bright and loving work of Daniel Kathalynas’ Accelerated Apotheosis, the ice of small talk melts easily into a shared conversation based on a mutual love of art and history.
Maizelle shares with me that she is shy. I admit that I too can be shy. “I can tell,” She says smiling. Or I assume she is smiling underneath her black face mask. We no longer get to see each other’s smiles in public, but the eyes can give much away. She is fully present in the space, armed with a bright yellow folder with her trademark signature emblazoned on the front.
Her voice is like medicine. Melodious. Measured. Listening to her talk about the choo choo train transports me to another time. I can almost hear and see the images she speaks about. Congruous, then, that I learn Maizelle is a Visual Storyteller.
I get the feeling Maizelle has chosen to graciously spend her time with many a young person, and I am thankful that she chose to spend her time with me at the garden to talk a bit about her work and life.
How did you get started as an artist?
I’ve been an artist ever since Elementary School . . . no matter what job I have I always say I’m an artist. My Daddy was a great artist. There wasn’t art in school at that time. He taught me so much. My favorite teachers in schools are always the art teacher and the librarian.
Mine too. What inspires you the most?
For Over 50 years now, my personal passion is recovering the things and memories I don’t want to be lost – the flat iron for example. Well, there are some things worth preserving – some aren’t. We used to be around the radio …. Some young people I talk to think we had a TV growing up, but we used to be around the radio. I think we got a TV when we were 8 or 9.
What challenges you the most as a working artist today?
Trying to show your work as an African American artist.
How has the garden and/or Norfolk/VA Beach area influenced your work?
I’m a part of preserving history. Most of my work is for research, talking to local people like Martha Williams and Ann Stewarts. They saw the work, and I was hoping one day even if it took over 50 years what I was painting. . . would be shown. I was in shows I just wasn’t showing my personal work. I curated work. I don’t feel in competition with other artists I celebrate their work. I always get inspired by lifting other artists it makes me want to do my own work again.
If you could tell young artists anything what would it be?
You can always do your art. It can be more than a hobby. Continue even if you are doing something else for a profession. Always call yourself an artist because that is what you are.
You had a gallery, right?
Yes, I had two galleries and worked in mental health as well.
Are there any artists that inspire you?
Many many. Show them off! No one in particular … Well, one in particular as I got older – Jacob Lawrence. I knew the paintings had a narrative with the story and that’s what I was doing. A.B. Jackson – I think he died in 81.
Where can we find your work?
Barry Art Museum, ODU, The Chrysler Museum of Art. . .
Yes! I saw your piece Ancestry Rug at The Chrysler’s Come Together Right Now exhibit!
That rug took so long! My fingertips still hurt just thinking about it. I worked on it for 3 years straight.
What inspired you to paint the WPA workers?
Research and recording our history.
Where I was born just looking out grandma’s window. . .or the old-timers talking.
When I came here I didn’t see anything that connected African Americans to the Botanical Garden so it was hidden – now, even school children can see at a glance how something got started.[My work is] . . .Recording things missing to me.
A “Coloreds only” sign, Painting so you can see. See how we dressed – leggings and muff –
Do you know what a muff is? They’re kinda coming back these days, but anyway it wasn’t gloves then. You see the steam locomotion. . . I used to love the train, the choo choo train.
I have a favorite flower. The sunflower. The Sunflower is a part of my story. I was born by Chruch street directly behind the Attucks Theatre. Behind there, my grandma’s door faced the stage door and we didn’t have AC you know and we could see the characters from the stage.
And there was a Sunflower. . .I don’t know who planted it, but I would imagine all kinds of things looking at it. So tall, so bright. The fascination of it- how tall it is! The world is so different now.
As we finish our perfectly imperfect conversation, I feel almost as if I’ve made a new friend. We departed with hopes of seeing one another again and Maizelle agrees to pose for a picture with her historic work on display here at Norfolk Botanical Garden.
Upon first seeing the work, I let out a huge sigh of relief. A recognition. A beautiful artwork that has such a presence to it. No matter what event is going on or what day it is the energy of the work shines out to me.
It is now a permanent part of the NBG collection and is on view in Baker Hall Visitor Center. Many thanks to Maizelle for taking the time to share with us!