Big, Big, Bigger! Joanna Brown, As Seen Locally and from Space

Jo Brown’s symmetrical, botanical designs can be found dotted far and wide along Western Australian streets, distinct in their bright, block colours and strange alchemies of native flora which seem to be growing bigger and bigger with each passing spring.

While her recent murals decorate many of our everyday commutes, some Freo locals might not realise that Jo has been a part of the community’s artistic tapestry for years. Jo’s iconic clothing business Hustle stood in a brick and mortar on high street for a decade, where she would work on the mezzanine to create original designs which would fly off the shelves in the moments after the final stitch.
“My clothes went ‘viral’, in the real sense – I would come down the stairs and they would be taken out of my hands. It was a little bit exciting, and I ended up also selling in Melbourne, Japan and Broome,” Jo said.

While she was creating wearable art in small batches, Jo was also busy doing design work for festivals, with one of her longest collaborations being with Nannup Music Festival at thirteen years and counting.
“I have just always been in the arts – my mother was a high school art teacher, so I suppose that’s where the saturation came from,” Jo said.

Jo herself went on to study visual arts and education at Curtin, and worked as a high school art teacher for six months. She found herself favouring the students the other staff complained about over lunch.
“There was something magical when those kids were involved in a good art project and their hands were busy – their minds were freed up, and I just loved the quality of conversation they were having.”

Fascinated with art’s capacity to free up the mind, Jo decided to undertake a Master of Arts in art therapy, which deepened Jo’s relationship with her own work.
“When you use art in a therapeutic way, you are not looking with your critical eye – you are looking for quality of mark making and meaning.
“Through the degree, I understood my own output a lot better. I felt more confident, and my path was clearer.”

This path led Jo to a front-of-house role at the Fremantle Arts Centre, where she immerses herself in the community she is otherwise insulated from during her own artistic practice.
“Doesn’t everybody adore FAC?” Jo said. “There is always so much going on, so many different people to meet – I have met so many artists over the years, I have seen so many amazing bands, I’ve met Nick Cave. And I just love the people. I have made long-lasting friendships at FAC.

“People always ask me when I am going to leave the Arts Centre, but I don’t want to – it’s my community, and I need it. I still love walking down the hill in the morning and seeing the port in the distance.”

During her off days, Jo tends to her artistic work which is growing gargantuan in scope and scale.
“Botanical has been a big drive for me,” she said. “In about 2016, I started a body of digital artwork with no outcome in mind. They just rolled out one after the other. I would do detailed drawings on the iPad of individual elements of local plants, then I would take them into photoshop and play with them until it snapped.
“After a few of these, I thought – oh, there is something a little bit strong here.”
The public agreed, with the social media reception to Jo’s new artworks organically growing her online presence until she was eventually asked to bring her illustrations to the streets.
“My first piece of public art was at Freo Social, and it was a collaboration piece with four or five other artists. From there, someone recommended me for a job in South Perth – my work was put before a panel, all independent of me knowing. I ended up winning both sides of a road.”

Initially, Jo was worried about the logistics of how these digital drawings could be brought to life on pavement and bricks.
“I thought, can I even do something this big? Can I even do this in the real world?”
Of course, she could. And now, public art is second nature to Jo, with the story of her projects still ultimately unfolding and expanding.
“I now do other work which is still botanical, but I am using the shapes of plants more than the detailed forms. There is still a lot of symmetry there, but it has gone into a new stage where the designs almost look like tiles – I am using them in a textile way, to my mind.
“I am also quietly playing with ideas of national identity, and the aesthetics of the arts and crafts movement – that 1900s, William Moris-era of design.
“I am interested in the marrying of the arts and crafts movement and Australian plants, which didn’t feature in those works, and looking at where we are now.
“It is an unfolding story – I have always felt as though the images lead, and I trail behind.”
“I still don’t even know if I am considered an artist, a public artist, a designer, an illustrator – I feel like I exist across all these genres.”

Strict definitions don’t appear to be on the horizon, either. This amalgamation of styles works for Jo, who is happy to continue beautifying the greyer parts of WA’s urban landscape and exploring her own artistic mission, through whatever process feels right.
“I’ve never really fitted in anywhere and I’ve never been in a scene. But people do respond quite warmly to my work, so I would quite like to keep doing my own thing.
“And I would like to go bigger.”
Jo remembers a sparkly, slightly tipsy New Years Eve, where she idealised something bigger on the horizon.
“This was in the early days, and I didn’t mean literally bigger. I just meant I wanted to get more energy into it. But that year, it literally got bigger, and bigger, 200 metres at a time.
“All of a sudden, my work was becoming physically enormous.
“I am waiting for Google Earth to update their images, because when they do, you will be able to see one of my works in Melville from space.”
See Jo’s latest work in Perth City on Pier Street, near the corner of Hay Street, for a little botanical relief among all of the concrete.