It's Saturday evening, and Chestnut Street in downtown Lexington is like an extension of Denise Brown's studio.
A Transylvania University graduate who paints and writes fiction and poetry, Brown is painting on her front porch. The porch isn't big and doesn't sit far from the street. In fact, it's plenty close enough to hear every song played by cars driving by. Its furnishings are simple: an easel, a lawn chair and paints.
Chestnut hosts a lot of auto traffic and is constantly abuzz with pedestrians on the sidewalk, because the street is like a thoroughfare for East End Lexington.
A man on a skateboard whizzes up and stops to watch the artist. Katinna and Bobby Davis, a couple who live across the street, stop and chat about painting. It turns out that Bobby Davis also paints, and Katinna Davis wants to read Brown's new novel.
Children pause and stare as if asking, who is this lady with the paintbrush, and what is she doing? A car pulls up, and the driver asks about prices for pencil drawings and paintings.
Brown, 42, is working on a painting to be titled Incarcer-nation. At the moment it is chunky red stripes on canvas, but Brown describes what it will look like upon completion. The red bars will signify jail bars. Two black hands will appear to reach out to grasp the bars, signifying the 40 percent of inmates nationwide who are black.
"I try to do things that relate to social issues," Brown said.
Sometimes her art simply tells a story. Her painting titled End Short Supply is of a restaurant in Louisville where she went to eat with her son Solomon's father. In What the Corn Heard, a mythical barnyard rooster seems to jump from the canvas with color and movement. You can almost hear it crowing.
Another painting, more stark and featuring a bull's-eye, proclaims Living While Black.
"Being targeted is an everyday thing for black people," Brown said. "It's just living and existing while black that is hard for black people in America."
In one painting, an American Indian — Brown has American Indian roots as well as black — demands, presumably to a settler, Show Me Your Papers.
"People stop, they look and they comment," she said of showing her work to the street.
For Brown, the porch is like an open-air studio. She thrives on the idea of taking her art to the public, she says, and the porch is the easiest, most visible way to do that.
Originally from Evarts, Brown started at Transylvania University but became pregnant, and she left school. She had four daughters, now 23, 21, 18 and 13. In 2007, she decided to finish at Transylvania in the studio art program. While there, she gave birth to her son, Solomon, who is now 4. She graduated from Transylvania in 2010.
She would like to write and paint full-time, but she doesn't. Brown works as a substitute teacher and most recently as a phone customer service representative for Xerox.
Brown describes herself by saying she is not a joiner. She doesn't belong to a writing group, nor does she identify herself as an Affrilachian poet, although she admires the group's members, notably Kentucky poet laureate Frank X Walker and National Book Award winner Nikky Finney.
She just released a self-published novel, The Golden Angle, about a young girl, Belize, growing up in a rural community called Virtue. Although the community in The Golden Angle has some apparently magical elements, it also has scenes of brutality.
"You have to take yourself out of it so you can write about it," Brown said of the difficulty of writing sensitive scenes. "You have to step back — not that you lose your humanity, but you have to let your scene unfold in all its ugliness."
In the book, she also notes the transforming power of books to introduce children to a life beyond the confines of tiny, insular communities.
"You become a good writer by being a good reader," Brown said. "Rather than sitting in a classroom for hours on end, you need to be sitting with good books for hours on end. Because you recognize good writing, you will recognize when you're writing well."
Sometimes she'll stay on the porch, painting, even after her daughters call her to come in and go to sleep.
She'll keep the porch light on, Brown said, and keep right on working.Excerpt
From The Golden Angle, by Denise Brown ($19.80 self-published, available on Amazon.com):
"Everyone knew who had killed Mrs. Darby's pet monkey and how. Jonas Futrell had slipped into the front door of Mrs. Darby's house as she had worked out back in her garden. There, in a cage on a table near a window, was Mrs. Darby's paramour of five years or so. It wore brown and gray fur and a mask of white. The small monkey gripped the metal bars of its cage and shook them with seeming disgust at the intruder. It screeched and bared the tiny sharp teeth that had bitten not a few visitors (including Jonas) to the Darby abode. But Jonas had a secret weapon of which an old gypsy woman had made him aware. So before the monkey — which Mrs. Darby called "Captain" — could perform his trademark assault of flinging fists full of feces at whomever was near, Jonas stepped before his adversary's cage, dropped his trousers to the floor and quickly reached for his toes, underwear in tow. He bent over so far that he could have licked the tile floor with his tongue had he wanted, Then, true to the gypsy's prediction, Captain fell over dead. And that was how it became general knowledge in those parts that 'mooning' a monkey could be fatal — to the monkey, that is."