Jay and Ree: Companions
An intimate look at their relationships to one another and their art.
i.e. is pleased to present this exhibit of Jay Steensma and Ree Brown. Both artists are from a small patch of my own history that has fed and enriched my acquaintance with the Northwest artists and my own art.
JAY STEENSMA, Wartime Fish, oil and latex on paper bag, 24 x 45 in, 1991
I will start with Jay, as I knew him better and he was certainly the larger personality of the two. John Jay Steensma was born December 8, 1941, in Moscow, Idaho and raised in nearby Belmont, Washington. He moved to Seattle in 1959 to attend the University of Washington School of Art, where influential teachers included Walter F. Isaacs, Spencer Moseley, Bob Jones, and Wendell Brazeau. After receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1962 he studied with Morris Graves, became friends with Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, and other artists of the original Northwest School. He briefly worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, then in 1965 returned to Seattle, where he taught for a few years at the Cornish College of the Arts.
Jay suffered from manic-depressive illness, and by the mid-70s his erratic behavior had largely alienated him from the arts community, including his dealers. He was at times institutionalized, and wasn't able to exhibit regularly until 1985.
In the late 1980's I was hired to manage MIA Gallery in Seattle. The owner, Mia McEldowney, was a large hearted collector and dealer with a great eye, and she was also an early advocate for "outsider art" or sometimes simply uncategorical art. As it was said then, "If Vincent Van Gogh was still alive, MIA would be the only gallery in town who would show him."
My main role at MIA was to review art submissions and make studio visits with our artists and select work for exhibits. Jay Steensma was considered a sometimes difficult artist due to his illness but was at that time being treated with lithium. He could stay stable for periods of time when he stayed on his medication, with the help of his friend and partner, Ree Brown.
Through many visits to Jay's home in the Greenlake area of Seattle I became friends with him and Ree. I came to know Jay's varied styles and moods and his way of plunging head first into whatever vision he was pursuing at the time. His home was filled with junk store finds to re sell and his own work. He painted in the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen. The walls were swiped with brushes in a frenzy to clean them and get on with it. He used paper bags, scraps of canvas, old cardboard - and occasionally larger stretched canvas when he could afford it.
The larger paintings were at times moody, drippy oil washes with a house or perhaps a chalice; a lake would become a palette and become part of the sky; his hatted figures appeared in his landscapes as witnesses, or something more nefarious, as did his easels. His more frenetic large oils were exuberantly painted with energetic, thick strokes, attacked with collage and words - sometimes becoming political responses to the craziness in the world around him or commentary on the fickleness of the art world. They carried the energy of his mood and more than a few were done out of his mania when he was off his medication. When he said, "The purpose of my art is to confound the enemy," I think of these paintings.
Often making a tip of the hat to Graves, Anderson, or Tobey, Jay knew how to borrow the best from the best. But his "eco" series, his "Northwest Extinction" series, and his "relics" were all his own. In 1994 he wrote:
Shabby little house:
Eco, placed on old
Earth of the Palouse,
and the Skagit,
no resting until the
Moon becomes bright.
the Salmon of the
past, seem to be gone
in an Eco dream -
The houses remain
Resting on old earth.
Jay died in 1994 at the age of 53 of heart disease. He enjoyed a prolific final 8 years in his art. He re- established himself in the local art scene with the help of Mia and had many good friends that would stop by to visit him and Ree at their Greenlake home.
JAY STEENSMA, Untitled Relic, oil on canvas,
10 x 13 in, 1992
JAY STEENSMA, Chalice, oil on canvas,
36 x 44 in, 1992
REE BROWN, Cat, watercolor on mat, 9.5 x 12 x 3 in, 2005
Ree Brown was born in Kanab, Utah in 1927. He worked in the petroleum industry traveling between San Mateo, California, and Seattle. In the late 60's Ree moved to Seattle to retire and bought a little house in the Greenlake area. He and Jay Steensma settled in and became life partners.
In the mid-1970‘s Ree began to draw, and then paint and sculpt, making mostly small portraits of birds, cats, and people – pictures of “no one in particular.” Ree painted his delicate paintings onto scraps of paper, cardboard, bits of matting, brown paper bags, and just about anything else that would hold paint. “I was always interested in art,” said Ree.
Jay and Ree were fixtures in the art scene in Seattle. I knew Ree less well than I knew Jay. I remember him being a quiet, modest, thoughtful man who looked out for Jay and was developing his own style of painting in tempera and watercolor. He, unlike Jay, was not schooled in the arts but always enjoyed being around artists. Ree was referred to as an "outsider" artist when he began to exhibit at Mia Gallery in the late 80's. His paintings were simple small paintings with silhouettes, or people with colorful clothing, a cat face close up, a sweet bouquet in tempera or watercolor. He and Jay often collaborated on a painting or a print. Ree was encouraged by Jay in his endeavors.
Ree's drawings and paintings were done on a small table in his home. But he often accompanied Jay and Wes Wehr when they would go to draw from life in the cafes and markets around Seattle. They would frequent Continental Bakery on the Ave, Lee's Restaurant, or Grand Illusion Cafe, meeting friends and sketching. It was a golden time for Seattle artists when rents were cheap and food was cheaper. And sometimes a meal could be swapped for a sketch.
In the late 1980s, Ree started to show in Seattle with MIA Gallery. He is represented in several galleries across the country. He is included in “20th Century American Folk, Self-Taught, and Outsider Art” by Betty-Carol Sellen and also featured in several documentaries about outsider art. One of my favorites is linked below.
Ree Brown died in 2014. He was 87. He continued to live in the small house he lived in with Jay and continued to paint and enjoy his friends after Jay's death 20 years earlier.
Thank you to Mark Mueller who has decided to sell some of Jay and Ree's estate, Mike Hickey who is also selling some of his collection and Alice Wheeler for information.
REE BROWN, Dog and House, watercolor on mat board,
13.5 x 15 in framed, 1992
REE BROWN, Chalice, watercolor on mat board,
10.5 x 7 in framed, n/d