More than 40 years have passed since Joe Brown quit boxing. He limps these days with a troublesome hip, and a detached retina causes his right eye to stare vacantly. Yet muscles and memories remain, and when he talks of boxing, frequently in the four-letter idiom of the ring, the limp vanishes and he dances gracefully about, throwing left and right lists that still look awesome. At moments like this the clay on his hands and clothes no longer seems a byproduct of his occupation, but rather suggests a subtle metamorphosis, as if Brown were another sculptured athlete posturing grandly like the quiescent gray-green figures that surround him.
His studio, appropriately enough, is a converted gymnasium; its inhabitants—gymnasts and boxers, football players and swimmers—are his creations. Long ago he made the transition from flesh and blood to clay as a medium for his powerful hands. Today, at 64, Joe Brown is perhaps the country's best-known sculptor of athletes.
Now a full professor at Princeton, Brown is at work on his most ambitious project, four 15½-foot sculptures of baseball and football players for Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. "These things are damned big, you know," he says gleefully. "I mean the feet are 36 inches long. They haven't got feet; they've got yards." The Brobdingnagian athletes are the result of a Philadelphia ordinance demanding that approximately 1% of the cost of any public building must go toward esthetic adornment. Thus, for Veterans Stadium, a project whose cost ballooned from $25 million to $45 million during construction, the city set aside $290,000 for beautification, $200,000 of which was earmarked for sculpture.
The stadium's executive building committee hired Brown in August 1970. For nearly two years after that the Philadelphia Art Commission, which favored abstract art, stalled final approval of Brown's sketches. Perhaps the Ivy League professor would become discouraged. He did not. "They didn't count on two things," says Brown. "In the first place, I'm too cheap to let a job like this get away, and in the second place, I never walk away from a fight."
November 5, 1973
Brown's language is not as figurative as one might imagine. If at times he seems purely the sculptor ("Boxing is a branch of the humanities in which you deal very fundamentally with your fellowman"), the boxer is never far beneath the surface. "Sculpture should do something for people," Brown says. "Art isn't done by a few people for a few people. It shouldn't die in museums. A minority with nebulous credentials tries to tell us what is significant. They are what I call the High Priests of Significance. Bull. No one's going to tell me where I itch."
Joe Brown was born in 1909 in South Philadelphia not far from where Veterans Stadium now stands, and at the age of four moved with his family to the Devil's Pocket, a rough slum where he quickly learned the so-called manly arts. In his first week Brown found himself hounded by two older boys. His mother came to the rescue. "Jew," screamed one of his assailants in fleeing. "That's right, and I'm proud of it," Brown yelled back. His mother, an illiterate Russian, saw nothing noble in his stand. "You're a Jew all right," she said, "but you had nothing to do with it. Don't be proud or ashamed of it. When you do something good, be proud of it. When you do something bad, be ashamed."
Eventually, a brother, nine years older, turned professional boxer. Harry (Kid) Brown was a smart fighter who defeated some titleholders in an 18-year career. Joe remembers him bringing home "a couple of thousand dollars" from a fight, more than his father, a tailor, could earn in years, and he remembers walking through town with Harry on a warm Sunday afternoon with everyone from the well-to-do to paperboys acknowledging his brother. "Hey, Harry." "How's it going, Harry?" "Great fight, Harry." To the impressionable youngster it became a dream: "a million dollars and a million friends." By the time he graduated from grammar school Joe Brown had decided to be a world champion.
He grew to be a strong athlete and went to Temple on a football scholarship. He stayed with football only two years. As a sophomore he became captain of the boxing team. One day while working out in a local gym, he sparred with a lefthander who, not long before, had won the AAU heavyweight championship. Brown had never fought a southpaw and, partially out of fear, put everything he had into a hard right that floored the champion. A promoter, Phil Glassman, took notice. Brown agreed to turn professional the following summer when the prospect of easy money turned his head.
He fought in Atlantic City under an assumed name to hide the truth from his parents, won $75 with a knockout and the following week won twice more. In his fourth bout—for $300—he walked into a pucker punch that burst a blood vessel, swelling both eyes and giving his secret away to his family. They were disappointed, particularly Harry, whose winnings had given the family financial stability ("I had to do it; you don't"), but they didn't interfere.
That fight taught Brown something about the sport. He read in newspapers about how much courage he had shown in hanging on to win. He knew he had been hurt and frightened after the sucker punch but had gone on because of the feeling that he could not let the crowd down. And who were those people anyway? They weren't his friends, yet in a sense he had sold them his courage for $300. He began to wonder. If he ever needed courage in the future, would he be able to buy it for $300?
His fifth win seemed to the public an easy decision, but his opponent had thrown stinging uppercuts during clinches, and Brown, who had a wisdom tooth coming in sideways, now found himself with a terribly cut and swollen mouth reading in the newspapers how he had never had a glove laid on him.
He fought four more times, then, near the end of his junior year, quit, 9-0 with four knockouts. A smart fighter, he had grown too smart to fight. He says, "Boxing, to call it by its most flattering name, never has been and never will be a game in the real sense until the rules are changed so that a knockout ceases to be the goal. Look at ourselves. We are willing and anxious to watch two young men, bred in poverty and imbued with little hope but a lot of spirit, try to batter each other senseless. In boxing a brain concussion—the aim of the 'game'—triggers an explosion of applause for the man who triggered the concussion. Where else does that happen in sport? Are we entitled not only to a pound of flesh but to a pint of blood as a chaser?"
Brown learned about those "million friends." Years later he ended a short story (he has published several in national magazines) with this broken-down ex-fighter's rationale for hanging around the ring: "I guess it's like a lotta guys who go to the whorehouse. It's nice to have someone call ya honey once in a while—even if it ain't for real."
Brown discovered his muscles could earn him money in a less violent way—posing for art students. He sat for classes at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and began to wonder why the students' clay versions of Joe Brown resembled no one he knew. He took a lump of clay home one night, completed a suitable version of himself, then "scrunched it up," unbitten by the art. Later he criticized a boxing piece done by the class instructor, Walker Hancock, and when Hancock gave him a lump of clay. Brown went to work. It took him seven months to finish the sculpture, then he ruined it in the casting and had to redo it. He did a sculpture of his brother and a third of a dancer and managed to place all three in the Pennsylvania Academy Annual Exhibition, a remarkable breakthrough that piqued the less fortunate students.
Shortly afterward, R. Tait McKenzie, a noted physician and sculptor who had been the University of Pennsylvania's first Director of Physical Education, saw Brown's work. "You did this without teaching?" he inquired. Brown nodded in expectation of the master's praise. "What a shame," said McKenzie.
"A shame?" said Brown, crushed. "Why?"
"Because these things are so good, it's a shame they're not better."
For the next seven years Brown served a trying apprenticeship under McKenzie, who never paid him more than $15 a week. Near the end of that period, needing extra money so that he could marry Gwyneth King, an artist in her own right, he convinced Princeton University not to shelve its boxing program but instead to hire him as a boxing instructor. He had some unique ideas about teaching the sport ("Boxing is a dance during which two people hit each other"), but more importantly he presented a paper that expressed the sport's shortcomings as he saw them. It convinced Princeton that he was the man for its version of the job. When McKenzie died in 1938, Brown devoted full time to Princeton.
The university soon discovered his artistic talent (he had not mentioned it to the athletic department for fear of scaring it off), and when a creative arts program was initiated in the late '30s, he sold the school on a course in sculpture by describing a college art program as a kind of "sandlot league," a place for developing rough talent. Open to all students, regardless of skill, and with attendance guaranteed by the use of nude female models, the course was enormously popular. It is now fully accredited and has become an institution. But no more so than Brown himself. Through the years his frankness has stirred controversy at Princeton and that, combined with his interesting past and accessibility to students., has made him a campus character. "Please. Call him a personality, not a character," university ex-president Harold W. Dodds used to say without cracking a smile.
Brown ran an annual boxing tournament at Princeton until the early '50s and continued to coach the sport for another decade before it died at the school. It was then that he became a full professor after a long struggle of intermittent, begrudged victories. "They always argued that I wasn't a scholar in the traditional sense," he says. "Hell, I'm not a scholar in any sense. I'm not proud of that or ashamed of it."
Most of his work can be seen in his studio-classroom, including Boxers, winner of the National Academy's 1944 Barnett Prize and the first piece he did after a serious infection caused him to lose the sight in his right eye. Gymnasts, a 19-foot sculpture, stands outside Temple University's McGonigle Hall. Although the majority of Brown's work deals with sports ("I'm not a determined jock or a case of arrested development, but I got a lot from athletics"), he has done busts of men such as John Steinbeck. William Carlos Williams, Archibald MacLeish ("Did you know he was on the Yale football and water polo teams?") and Robert Frost. He does not like his portrait studies to sit still while being sculpted, and a tour through his studio includes reenactments of conversations he has held there. One of his favorite exchanges involved Frost and a student of Brown's. Student: "How do you go about writing a poem?" Frost: "Well, first something has to happen to you." (Brown is talking very slowly in a raspy voice and mussing his hair forward to create the same tousled look in which he sculpted the poet.) Noting that the message didn't sink in. Frost continued. "Then you put some words on a piece of paper and ride them like a horse until you have a poem." Student: "I think I should set myself a program and write two, four, even six hours a day, whether I feel like it or not. Do you think that's a good program?" Frost: "It sounds like a good program. I'm sure it'll improve your handwriting." Student (angered): "I'm serious." Frost: "I'm serious, too. You want me to give you the truth wrapped in a bundle so that you can put it under your arm and take it home and open it when you need it. Well, I can't do that. The truth wouldn't be there anymore."
Brown also is suspicious of definitions. He refers to the "thinking-doing-feeling fact" in art and, to explain his philosophy, uses a lump of clay shaped like the head of a man. "Nothing that would interest you has ever happened to this man," he tells a class. He talks of Harry (Kid) Brown learning to fight in the streets and of how he, being a more scholarly type, bought a book on boxing. "I read that a left hook is a punch delivered with the left arm bent at the elbow. But that's only a definition." He talks on about his brother, about how he thought of him as the "socio-economic savior of the family," and of how he learned by watching Harry that a left hook could put a dent in the right side of the nose and swell the right eye. He pushes the nose in with his thumb and begins adding clay around the eye. "As I became more intimately involved," he says smiling, "I learned that an eye swells at both the top and the bottom. It helps to have been there. The book offers a definition but that's not the last word." Noting that the boxer has probably been hit on the other side before, he makes slight additions around the eye there. "That's character, or what the doctors call scar tissue. Now a man with a dent in his nose like this one is likely to develop sinus trouble [he wrinkles the brow] and have to breathe through his mouth." Using his comb, he opens the mouth and pouts the lower lip out in a way that resembles his own when he gets heated. "Very possibly his boxing injuries have caused him to have infected teeth." Brown removes a section of teeth. He holds the portrait of the boxer up. "This is what we get from 'a left arm bent at the elbow.' Now I've brought you a message, something you didn't know as well as I do."
Among Brown's works is a head something like this, which he calls Winner. When Columnist Red Smith first saw it, he was reminded of Tony Zale the night that he successfully defended his middleweight title against Rocky Graziano. It moved Smith to describe Brown as a "great sports reporter."
Brown hopes to have his first football giant cast and in place by the summer of 1974. It is a goal many would term "optimistic," but Brown is no stranger to optimism. "Our world, surely, is not one of sweetness and light, but just as surely it is not one of darkness and doom," he says. "I think we come closer to the truth if we say, 'It's so good it's a shame it isn't better,' but it won't be better if we stop trying."