CONWAY — Esteemed local artist Ernest O. “Ernie” Brown of Conway died at his Conway home last Saturday. He was 75.
Brown — known for such works as the mural at Heritage New Hampshire in Glen, a replica of which now hangs at Settlers Crossing, as well as innumerable designs for White Mountain Puzzles of Jackson — had battled Stage Four bone cancer.
Brown’s death was confirmed by his and the late Katherine Delaney Brown’s children, Sienna Brown, 41, of Tulsa, Okla., and Thomas Brown, 38, of Pittsburgh.
Both of his children work in arts-related professions. Sienna is an independent curator, while Thomas, trained as an architect, is a fine art handler and art show lighting designer. Their mother was also an accomplished artist.
Ernest O. Brown was born in Dexter, Maine, in 1944.
He attended Plymouth Teachers College (now Plymouth State), where he majored in education with an interest in history.
He served in the Army from 1966-68. While stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas in 1968, he painted a mural of the 9th Calvary Regiment, one of the few African-American regiments, which was renowned for its valor during the Indian and Spanish-American wars.
In 1969, with the American moon landing, Brown was inspired to become a professional painter, according to Sienna.
“The day that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, my father watched it on TV, in Conway where he was working as a house painter at the time," she said.
"He said to himself, ‘If we can put a man on the moon, then I can become a professional artist!’ He called his boss and said he was going to become a painter, and quit. He still painted houses from time to time, but (the moon landing) was a life-changing experience for him. He had been making art for a long time, but that’s when he decided to make it his profession.”
He and wife Kate were married in May 1973 after meeting two years earlier at David Baker’s weekly life drawing group in Jackson. She was a graphic designer whose medium was cut paper and printmaking. Together, they were key members of the local artistic community.
With Sienna and Thomas in college and graduate school, Kate and Ernie moved to Burlington, Vt., so Kate could work at her dream job as photography director for Gardeners Supply. Ten years later, they decided to “return to the tribe,” the family of friends they’d made during their many years in Conway, returning in 2011. She died of cancer in 2017 at the age of 63.
One longtime friend (and former employer) of Ernie's was Jonathan Goodwin of Gemini Sign and Design of Conway.
“Ernie was just a great, regular kind of guy. If he said he was going to do something, he did it,” said Goodwin, who said Brown had stopped by the shop June 3 to “say goodbye.”
“It was emotional for us," Goodwin said, but then Brown took his leave, "saying he had paintings to finish."
A similar story was told by friend Nancy Cassidy of the Cassidy Gallery in North Conway, which displayed a painting by Brown of the Madison Boulder, among others.
“I visited Ernie at his home that Monday afternoon. He was working on his ‘Cat! Cats!’ piece,” said Cassidy, also an artist. She described Brown as "very affable and generous. I never saw him in a bad mood.
"His work ethic was amazing," she said. "He was a very disciplined painter, and he taught me many things.”
Former Conway children’s librarian Olga Morrill of Madison said she chose Brown, a longtime friend of her and her husband, Steve Morrill, to do the cover for her recently published historical novel, “Vagabond Quakers: Northern Colonies.”
“I thought of Ernie to paint the cover even before I wrote the book,” said Morrill. “He was a genius. He was such a great artist, I knew he could do it like nobody else, and he did.”
The cover shows the Piscataqua River, with a 17th century farmhouse in the background and a shallop, a flat-bottomed boat used to transport cargo. “The original design didn’t have the boat, but I asked him to add it and of course, he did, very conscientiously. The fee he charged me was ridiculously low," Olga recalled.
Now at work on her second novel in a planned trilogy, she said, “I am very sad that Ernie won’t be around to do the cover for my second book.”
Photographer John Mitchell shared her sense of loss as well as Brown's passion for art.
“Ernie and I both worked for the Hurleys at the Scottish Lion (Inn in North Conway). He was commissioned by Jack Hurley to do murals of the Scottish battle scenes for the Blackwatch Pub. He was a great artist and a terrific guy,” said Mitchell, who first met Brown in 1977.
He recalled when he and Brown drove down to a now-defunct museum in Concord that hadn't paid Brown for three murals. He said Brown asked ahead of time if he could recondition the work and got approval.
Then he alerted the media.
“With the press there, he brought the mural out to the parking lot, took out a knife and scratched it up and painted it black and then brought it back inside for them to hang up,” said Mitchell.
Brown's love for local history is evident in much of his work. His series of four paintings on local covered bridges done in 1971 once hung at White Mountain National Bank in North Conway, now Citizens Bank.
In time, they were sold to an antiques collector in Portsmouth, who contacted Brown to see if he could refresh the paintings and also to see if he could find a buyer for them. Three were acquired by Margaret and Sut Marshall of Conway and were part of a display at the Conway Historical Society’s Salyards Center for the town's bicentennial in 2015.
The Kennett High School Class of ’65 purchased the fourth, of the Saco Covered Bridge, and donated it to Kennett High as their 50th anniversary gift.
Brown gave an acrylic on canvas painting, “Postern Gate No. 4,” last year to the Conway Public Library. The subject of the painting is on the West Side Road in front of the Hale House (looking east). If a viewer looks closely, it shows Brown in the distance, walking away from the pillars.
And to show his appreciation for the care he received in his cancer treatment, last year he also gave a painting, “Rhubarb’s Up” to the oncology department at Memorial Hospital in North Conway.
Explained Brown at the time of the donation, “This is a painting of a common, very old rhubarb plant in my Conway yard. In the late summer of 2016 it bloomed for the first time. It made me think of my health and it became a metaphor to me — a rather ugly plant, with glorious blooms and hundreds of bees. The flowers looking like moments of happiness and joy when ‘good’ news comes about your medical progress. The spring of 2017 found the plant gone … much like the health and cancer issues we want to have gone. Part of the trip is the view.”
Brown won many awards and showed his work in New York City, Washington, D.C., many locations along coastal Maine and locally.
He painted 64 designs for White Mountain Puzzles in Jackson over a 16-year period.
White Mountain Puzzles co-founders Ted Wroblewski and Cronan Minton praised Brown for his skill and professionalism. “Ernie was White Mountain Puzzles star artist for many years,” they said in a joint statement. “He always gave his all and put a tremendous amount of work into all his projects for the company. ... Always knowledgeable about his subject at hand, he was informed, earnest (his name suited his serious-minded personality) and was an advocate for all the right causes.
“We were immensely saddened to hear of his recent passing,” they added.
Some of his designs included “Lighthouses,” “State of New Hampshire,” Butterflies,” “Birds of the Back Yard,” “Hummingbirds,” “World of Dogs,” “World of Cats,” “Tropical Birds,” “Covered Bridges” and “Automobiles.”
In addition to his children, Brown is survived by his grandchildren, Gregory, 4, son of Sienna and Dante Blando, and Hudson, 4, son of Thomas and Jessica Brown.
Sienna Brown said her father wished to have a memorial service/art show later this summer, with friends invited to bring their paintings by Brown to the event and to share stories.
“Dad wanted it to be a celebration. It was his idea, and Thomas and I are implementing it,” said Sienna.
"We have plans for the Absent Artist Exhibition," she continued. "It will be Aug. 16-18 with a celebration on Saturday, Aug. 17, at Settlers Green. If people want to bring their own Ernie Browns or assist, they can contact me at email@example.com.
“We are very touched that everywhere we have gone these past few days around town that people have shared a story about our dad,” Sienna added.
She said Brown painted “right up until this past Wednesday prior to his death Saturday."