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Aaron Brown Where I’m From

“Aaron Brown creates accurate drawings of buildings from memory, in pencil, oil pastel, and marker. He does not use reference materials. It is as if his eyes have taken a photograph and his mind stores it and relays the information to his hand as he draws. When Aaron draws, he is reminiscing. His drawings are postcards from his memory.” ~Teaching Artist Todd Lesmeister

Where I’m From: Aaron Brown’s Hometown Anthem By Ahmad Jordan

Rap music was my introduction to Aaron. Yes, rap music. Sure, I had seen Aaron around at Autism Services before, walking through the hallways with his headphones on, and I had even seen him perform with the band No Words Spoken. But true to the band’s name, Aaron is a no-words-spoken kind of guy. I’d say hi, he’d say hi back and he’d keep on steppin’. It never felt rude, mostly because Aaron always moves around in a good mood. You get the sense that there’s a conversation going on in his head and, if anything, I’m the one who is being rude for interrupting. So my association with Aaron was always in passing. But there was one exception.

I was recording a podcast with Neil Sanders, a mutual friend of Aaron’s and mine. Neil is autistic and, like Aaron, there’s a screen in his head that he’s always tuned into. But Neil doesn’t mind so much unplugging to entertain me—and Neil is nothing if not entertaining. He has his own radio-style brand of gossip and, like calling in on a radio show, we are all welcome to interrupt. In fact, Neil’s podcast is pretty much a radio show. I was a sort of de facto producer and occasionally, the caterer. So one day, after wrapping up our recording, I grabbed my keys to take Neil to Burger King.

On the way to the car, I looked behind me and there was Aaron, semi-smiling.

“Hey, Aaron.”

“Hiiii.”

Aaron stretches his vowels, and because of his deep baritone, his words make a slow-motion moan. Right away I could see what was going on here. He wanted in on the Burger King action. Cool. Hop aboard, my man. He took the back seat and Neil rode shotgun.

I closed the door and the acoustics of the car allowed me to hear what was playing through Aaron’s headphones. It was faint but familiar.

“What are you listening to, Aaron?”

“Busta Rhyyymes,” he answered, stretching out that Y.

I’m not sure why I was surprised. Maybe I was just excited to learn that Aaron and I shared the same taste in music and music artists. As I learned from Aaron’s brother Jon, “Aaron listens to mostly rap. Some R&B. Back when cassette tapes were in, he’d make his own mix tapes from WBLK. He would also listen to some of the music I had recorded while I was in New York City. Back then it would take a while for music from New York City to make it to Buffalo, so people in Buffalo never knew who these acts were yet. So I’d make dubs of music being released by New York City artists: Wu-Tang, Fat Joe, Lords of the Underground.” All of this means that Aaron probably knew about Busta Rhymes before I or the rest of Buffalo did.

I waited and listened closely to the music pulsating in Aaron’s earphones. I knew the keyboard melody. I knew the song. “Been Through The Storm” featuring Stevie Wonder. It’s a hometown anthem about growing up in Brooklyn. I’ve never seen Brooklyn, but if you’ve been through the storm, any storm, then in a way, you have. America’s ghettos are a template, they are spread throughout the country and the people who live in them are connected by shared experiences, enough so, that a Buffalonian like myself can press play on “Been Through the Storm” and within five minutes I feel connected to Brooklyn. I can relate. But here in the back seat of my car was Aaron, going through the storm with Busta Rhymes. Aaron is African-American. Aaron is autistic. Aaron is part of this shared experience.

Aaron doesn’t talk about his place in the African-American experience. Remember, no words spoken. But that doesn’t mean that he’s not expressing it. With his band No Words Spoken, music functions as his universal language—but not his only language. Visual arts have given Aaron a bi-lingual advantage, allowing him to show, if not tell, what catches his eye and what’s important to him. This is true of all artists. We go to a gallery and chances are, the artists are not present to speak for themselves, so the art stands in their stead as emissaries. The same is true for the autistic, for Aaron. There’s a theme that ties Aaron’s art together, one that is reminiscent of the signature hometown anthem that so often appears in rap music.

A phone call to Aaron’s mom had her digging through Aaron’s archive of artwork. The first drawing Mrs. Brown pulled out was of School 31, otherwise known as Harriet Ross Tubman School. Aaron chose to illustrate a school named after America’s most famous Freedom Fighter. If anyone has been through the storm, it’s Harriet Tubman. Makes me wonder if Aaron’s listening to Kodak Black’s epic song “Harriet Tubman.” Who knows, but after speaking with Mrs. Brown, it is clear that this is no one-off. Aaron has been documenting his environment since the age of five.

“He started with Lego buildings,” Mrs. Brown said. “He had paint buckets full of Legos. We set up a picnic table in the kitchen and he would spend hours constructing entire buildings and sometimes cities. He started doing this at five.” And he never stopped. Eventually he put away the Legos, picked up a pencil, and started drawing, mostly buildings and cities. “He wasn’t using crayon or marker,” Mrs. Brown continued. “Just pencil. He started drawing everything. He would only need to see it once and then he’d come home and draw it.” Jon adds to this: “I always just thought he has a photographic memory. His drawings are always exact: the number of windows, the general shape of the house or building and where the doors and windows are supposed to be; he’d remember these things and they’d show up in the right place in his drawings. And he’d remember who lived there too! I couldn’t even tell you who lived where, but Aaron always remembers. He’d point at a drawing and say, for instance, ‘Joe’s old house.’” Who is Joe, I wondered, certain that it would be someone close to Aaron, like a family member, but no. “Joe was just my brother’s friend,” Jon said.

Mrs. Brown has saved most of Aaron’s work. Even on the phone she was paging through reams of it, and if there’s one word that sums up Aaron’s fixation, it’s this: environment. He has something to say about the environment he grew up in and the environments he’s experienced.

Aaron comes from a broad-minded family. Though they have lived in the same house for thirty-five years, they aren’t afraid to spread their wings and fly beyond their immediate environment, taking Aaron and his two older brothers with them. Aaron has been to New York City. He has seen the Empire State Building. Most people will not miss an opportunity to photograph the Empire State Building, just so that they can say that they’ve been there, but that is not the case for Aaron. When he got home he eschewed the famous 100+-story Art Deco monument in favor of New York’s once infamous sprawling subway system. That’s what Aaron drew.

There’s another Busta Rhymes song called “New York.” It has a seesawing horn sample that takes you straight to 1970s Broadway. Busta Rhymes, being the gifted lyricist that he is, goes into a rhyming roll call of all things distinctly New York; one of them, of course, is the subway system.

Subways are moving snapshots of the environments they pass through. In Buffalo, our subway pragmatically runs in a straight line, passing through and threading the city’s wanton segregation. At any given moment, for better and for worse, every demographic is in the same enclosed environment. As a kid I remember the tension this created as it underscored America’s racial division. I also remember how it unified a divided demographic, even if unwittingly. I’d meet people on the subway, people who didn’t live in my neck of the woods, and I didn’t live in theirs. For ten minutes or so, maybe longer, I’d share space and time with a person I wasn’t likely to meet in any other environment. This is true of every subway system. So what does it mean that Aaron seized the subway and not the Empire State Building as his subject?

At the very least it means that Aaron is selective. He’s making editorial choices, and this is not the only time that Aaron has made such a decision.  “He did a drawing of the Central Terminal,” Mrs. Brown told me. My eyebrows must have risen. Everybody knows the Central Terminal. It’s Buffalo’s shared experience. It’s an icon of the city. I will even venture to say it is a symbol of the city. At one time it was just like New York City’s subway system. It teemed with people of every walk of life; it bustled, until it didn’t anymore. It died and fell silent, but it is still there and you can feel a latent resurrection baked into its bricks. It wants to thrive again. Just like Buffalo.

Environments aren’t neutral; they’re alive with people; they age with us and, like people, they decay and die. Knowing this relationship between people and environments, Aaron writes the names of the people who are attached in one way or another to the places he illustrates. Remember Joe, the friend of Aaron’s oldest brother? His name is scrawled across one of Aaron’s drawings. There’s also Venice, Nancy, Anthony, another Joe, and Liz, who is one of Aaron’s friends at Autism Services. Then it gets real personal: Aunt Carol, Aunt Birtha and Aunt Onell. One name in particular jumps out at me: Neil.

Many of the homes and buildings that Aaron drew of his neighborhood are no longer there. As Aaron’s mom explained, “When we first moved in the area, Aaron was eight years old. The neighborhood was filled with mostly homeowners. But then it changed. People moved out. The houses were abandoned. The city claimed the property and eventually it was all demolished. It’s all just plain fields now. Many of the houses that Aaron drew since he was a kid aren’t there anymore.” She was talking about 21, 38, 41, and 48 St. Louis Street—all homes that Aaron drew and every one of them now gone. Empty fields are all that remains.

Jon’s additions to this observation are especially poignant. He left home to live in Columbus, Ohio, and stayed away for a good fourteen years. He’d come back intermittently; with each return he saw how Buffalo was changing. “Each time I returned home, houses would be boarded up or just gone. Some parts of Buffalo started to look like war zones. Half the houses are now gone; there’s just empty lots now.”

Houses once stood there and people once lived in them. Surely, the memory of these homes survives as photographs, probably old 4 x 4 Polaroids. But they survive in Aaron’s drawings too.

Which brings me to the obvious observation about Aaron’s style. His illustrations today are as sincerely rendered as when he was a five-year-old boy. Buildings and homes are reduced to simple shapes and flat colors, nothing more. Anyone who thinks that Aaron’s work is “child-like” is to be forgiven, but they should also understand how his youthful flair frames the poignant passing of time; Aaron gives us one half of the before-and-after dualism, showing us through contrast just how much environments age. For buildings and homes that have visibly exceeded their life expectancy, Aaron’s renderings function as their baby photos. His bold and bright colors remind us of what these lived-in spaces had once been when they were born.

As my conversation with Aaron’s mom concluded, I couldn’t help but to see so many parallels between our families and our environments. We did not grow up on the same street, but my childhood neighborhood was only a two-minute drive away from Aaron’s. Every picture Aaron has painted of the Genesee-Walden area is like a photograph of my own memory growing up on Leslie Street, just off Genesee. I know the homes. They are two-story and spacious. The people who lived in those homes owned them. But those people drifted away; death took them or they simply moved on. It’s the one thing that environments don’t have in common with people. Environments stay put. Their mutations happen over time but in the same space. The people who move in and out become an animated palette, allowing us to see the canvas as it slowly shapes and shifts. I know the colors of my community. I know the music. I know the people. I am the people. So is Aaron. This is our shared experience.

Before I started the car engine, I pressed my ears against the air to hear Stevie Wonder providing the chorus for “Been Through the Storm.” The song ends so cinematically that you can easily forget it’s a rap song. By the time it did end, I forgot that we were supposed to be on our way to Burger King. Neil reminded me.

“Um…” Neil always begins an interjection with um or with actually. “We WILL be on our way to Burger King in… I’m going to say…” He paused to look at his wristwatch. “By 1:03pm.” The time on my dashboard was 1:02. That was Neil’s way of saying what are we waiting for?

This all happened years ago. Everything I just wrote down is all from memory, which tells you how memorable the autistic experience can be.

“Okay, Neil,” I said, taking the hint. I started the car and pulled off. I looked in the rear-view mirror at Aaron and he was back in his own world. I told Mrs. Brown about this episode and she laughed. But she made a salient point. “Just because he’s listening to his headphones doesn’t mean he isn’t listening to you. That’s how the autistic brain works. It can do more than one or two things at once.”

She’s right. I fished into my CD stash, found Busta Rhymes’ album (I’m a fan too, y’know) and popped it into the player. I was determined to reconnect with Aaron. We were both fans of Busta and I didn’t want to let that go. I pressed play and waited. Aaron never removed his headphones. I was disappointed. But then something happened: Busta said a cuss word—a nasty one. Neil immediately pounced on it, practically pointing an incriminating finger at the speaker. Busta Rhymes was busted! Whatever Neil said about Busta’s bad mouth, unfortunately, my neuro-typical brain can’t recall, but I can tell you that it was hilarious. And I wasn’t alone in my outburst. I looked again in the rear-view mirror and Aaron’s semi-smile had broken into an all-out laughter. For that brief moment three African-American men, one neurotypical and two autistics, had a shared experience. Three brothas. Not brothers—brothas.

For the record, the Busta Rhymes scandal was my fault. I know the lyrics and should have known better. I hit eject and the rest of the ride was pretty much a quiet one. Neil tuned me out and tuned into his headphones. As for Aaron, he had already returned to his own neighborhood, the one in his head. Subways. Central Terminals. Old neighborhoods and old homes. The trick here, of course, is to avoid putting words in Aaron’s mouth. However, by its very definition, art is subjective; it’s open to interpretation, so it’s fair game for me to wonder if Aaron is doing the same thing Busta Rhymes did with “New York” and “Been Through The Storm.”  Aaron is making a shout-out to Buffalo, his hood and, more saliently, his world. Aaron’s architecture, I believe, is a hometown anthem. He’s celebrating where he’s been and where he’s from.

Aaron Brown’s Buffalo Schools: Postcards from Memory is on view at WNED/PBS Horizon’s Gallery wned.org/horizons

For more information on Aaron Brown and his work please contact arts@autism-services-inc.org

Aaron Bro