Published: October 28, 2020
By Laura Beach
AUBURN, MAINE – In 2009, Antiques and The Arts Weekly published a short profile of Joan R. Brownstein. From a distance, Brownstein, who died at 72 on October 22, appeared to live many lives as an artist, dealer, scholar and teacher. Those who knew Joan understood how thoroughly she inhabited but one existence, each chapter of her life prefacing the next, every contour contributing to a coherent whole. As Joan herself expressed it, she enjoyed one career with multiple outlets.
Underlying all was a fierce will to create. Life was Joan’s canvas. Whether constructing a painting, composing a booth or completing a manuscript, Joan approached each with uncompromising intellect and exceptional taste. One without the other bored her. Peter Eaton, her husband of 17 years, points to a definitive interview she gave New England Antiques Journal in 2007. In it, Joan analyzes American folk art from the inside out, finding in her experience as a working artist visceral clues to the mind of the untutored painter. Her appreciation of American folk art likewise guided her studio explorations, albeit in subtle ways.
Born August 27, 1948, to Isadore Brownstein, a successful merchant, and his wife, Harriet, a refugee from Eastern Europe whose compassion for the downtrodden set a philanthropic example for her daughter, Joan spent her earliest years in Greenfield, Mass., before moving with her family to Keene, N.H. She attended the Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Mass. After her father forbade her to attend college more than 300 miles from home, she selected Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., 293 miles away.
Ithaca was intermittently Joan’s home for much of the next three decades. She took an undergraduate degree in fine art and architecture, studying with faculty member Friedel Dzubas (1915-1994), who shared a studio in New York City with Helen Frankenthaler in the early 1950s. At Cornell Joan developed a distinctive approach to painting that was rooted in her love of historic American landscape art.
Whether working on the large format abstractions of her early years or the tiny, precise constructions she created in recent times, after Parkinson’s disease diminished her mechanical dexterity, Joan used shape, color and line topographically, suggesting movement through a distant terrain viewed with cool detachment. Her earliest work, grounded in a physical love of paint consistent with her fascination with material culture, involved pouring layer upon layer of thin fluid across canvas.
In 1972, Joan earned her MFA at Hunter College in Manhattan, foreshadowing her interest in folk art with a thesis on the development of atmospheric space in landscape painting. She subsequently settled in the Boston area with photographer Daniel Hightower, to whom she was briefly married. In Massachusetts she combined further studies at Harvard University with work as a painter, teacher and arts administrator.
Another chapter opened in 1980 when Joan began setting up at antiques shows, where she soon met Peter Eaton; they married in 2003. “It was one of those ‘whoops’ moments. We knew immediately we would be together if our personal circumstances allowed it,” Peter says. Early on Joan’s talent for spotting the best American folk art made her an important source in upstate New York for the more established dealers who bought from her. “She loved miniatures and other small pictures mostly because she was tremendously affected by the quality of the work and was moved by its connection to family. She bought the stuff because she loved it, because it expressed some depth of feeling,” Peter observes.
With an invitation from the formidable show manager Frances Phipps to exhibit at the Connecticut Antiques Show, Joan began her ascent in the field of American folk paintings. Exhibiting at top shows in New York, Philadelphia, Delaware, New Hampshire and Deerfield, Joan especially enjoyed educating buyers on the fine points of early New England folk portraits, schoolgirl watercolors, family records and memorials. Her research, exhaustive and original, was the basis for articles in publications such as The Magazine Antiques, for which she wrote on painter Ammi Phillips’ women in white with her client and friend Bobbi Terkowitz.
Joan joined Peter on the New England coast in 2000. Their harmonious partnership was reflected in ways large and small, from the compatible arrangement of early New England furniture and folk art in their shared booths at major fairs to the Modernist house, an homage to Cornell graduate Richard Meier, they designed and built on several acres of land in Newbury. Craving more community, the couple moved to Wiscasset, Maine, in 2018. The 1783 house and barn in the center of town provided ample space for their antiques shop, as well as for Joan’s studio and paintings gallery.
Joan was possessed with a restless impulse to explore new visual phenomena, something she did in the early 2000s when she began buying art pottery by the New Hampshire Modernists Edwin and Mary Scheier, a journey in part retold by Rick Russack in a 2015 cover story for this publication. After a sell-out show of Scheier pottery at Antiques Week in New Hampshire, Joan introduced the ceramics to New York’s Winter Show with equal success. She subsequently developed an interest in the Canadian-born potter Brother Thomas Bezanson
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and slowed by successive surgeries, Joan confronted her illness with frankness and determination. She returned to her studio with a renewed dedication to making art. In 2016, the Cooley Gallery in Old Lyme, Conn., displayed her new work in a solo show titled “Painting with Paper.” As gallerist Jeffrey Cooley explained at the time, “It represents a departure for her from what she had mostly been doing earlier in her career. It is paper collage and colored pencil on a small scale, of exquisite quality.” In an emotionally charged piece the following year for The Magazine Antiques, Joan wrote about art and illness in the context of the Cooley display, saying, “It was probably a uniquely difficult technical choice for someone with Parkinson’s disease. The response to the show was a revelation.”
On the show circuit, Joan was warm, personable and eager to share her knowledge, often the consequence of rigorous investigation. But she was knowable only by examining her art, a fluid, beautiful amalgam of old and new, and by looking at her life, a sharp study in the intersecting values of a working artist and a practicing antiques dealer. As Joan explained, “Folk art has influenced my own art, but, more accurately, my art influenced my understanding of folk art.”
There will be no services or calling hours. Donations in Joan’s name may be sent to the American Parkinson’s Foundation or to the Michael J Fox Foundation.
There is so much we don’t know about each other. This is especially true in the art and antiques trade. Easily put into our “box” of being “that folk art dealer” or “the painting guy,” we see each other (or at least did until this year) at shows, chat and kvetch, and go on our way. I feel especially lucky to have discovered another Joan Brownstein that was not just the brilliant folk art dealer who could do more push-ups than I. She was a most determined, driven and talented artist. Dealing with her plight she persevered and created her meticulous and evocative collages. We were lucky to have the visits with her and Peter that we did and have the great fun of exhibiting and selling her work.
-Jeffrey W. Cooley
The Joan Brownstein I knew was a scholar and an artist. She researched the works of the unschooled artists she loved and is best known for helping collectors understand, and put in context, the works that interested them. She was as generous with her knowledge regardless of who owned a piece. In recent years, Joan was designing and hand-crafting jewelry, and had been creating artwork of paper cut-outs. She often worked well into the night on these creations.
I remember meeting Joan many, many years ago. The first thing that hit me was her BIG smile. She was just starting her career as a dealer and brought an Eighteenth Century purse to our booth. She had never had one before and was interested in learning about them. And that was one of the things that made Joan a good dealer – she always wanted to learn more. Joan ventured into all sorts of new venues and – be it art, pottery, jewelry, whatever – she was good at it, worked hard at whatever the subject, and had a great eye. She was also a good friend to many and showed us how to handle great physical adversity with grace and lack of complaint. During the last few difficult years Joan never lost her smile, managed to appear at many shows and kept up good spirits. She was an inspiration to us all.
Joan literally saved my life one year at the ADA-Historic Deerfield Antiques Show. I was directing the wall guys building John Keith Russell’s booth. As the crew took apart the fascia and post, it fell. I was under it. Joan and I were both studying karate at the time and she instinctively put up her wrist in a skillful move that deflected just enough of the energy to keep me from sustaining a concussion. Tiny, little Joan was among the mighty! I have never forgotten that. She proved more than mighty every year in dealing with her situation.
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