Nothing in 39-year-old Butler Brown’s placid upbringing in the small Georgia town of Hawkinsville (pop. 4,077) prepared him for what he’s gone through since Christmas when Rosa-lynn Carter gave her husband a painting by Jimmy’s favorite artist, none other than Butler Brown.
The oil, done in brown, blue and gold and entitled The Brown Farm, depicts an old house with two barns in the background and sold for about $1,000. It will hang in the White House along with a small Butler Brown watercolor Rosa-lynn also purchased for around $150.
Overnight Brown has become one of the most-talked-about artists in the country. The phone and doorbell ring incessantly in the ranch-style home Brown shares with Laverne, his wife of 17 years, and their children Tony, 15, and Julie, 13. Visitors barge in and try to buy Brown’s paintings right off the living room wall. A long-distance call brings an offer of a one-man show in Atlanta in mid-January, followed by others in Manhattan, Dallas, Los Angeles and Miami. (Brown got so busy he forgot to make a monthly loan payment, and the bank had to remind him.)
Butler Brown is a native of central Georgia whose earliest memories are of his father weighing cotton and of a tornado that toppled a pecan tree onto his mother’s outdoor washtub. He graduated from high school in 1956, started a summer job as an IBM machine operator at Warner Robins Air Force Base south of Macon and stayed 15 years. Although his only contact with art was a half-hour class once a week in the eighth grade, Brown had a gift for drawing, and when he got bored on the job he would sketch rural scenes on the backs of IBM punch cards. To encourage him, Laverne bought him a set of paints. “She always had the most faith in me,” Brown says. He enrolled in the Famous Artists correspondence course and spent two years and $650 on 24 lessons. Insists Butler: “I’ve gotten my money’s worth, many times over.”
Retiring from the Air Force base four years ago because of an inner-ear problem, Brown began to sell more of his artwork. Phil Walden, president of Capricorn Records, was among the first to collect Brown’s paintings (he now has 26), and others in the music world followed. Among them: rock star Gregg Allman.
In 1972, while Carter was governor, he came by after hours to see Brown’s one-man show in a Macon art gallery, attracted, Brown suspects, by nostalgia for the rustic scenes. “He told me he could relate to my work,” Brown recalls.
Shortly after that the Macon gallery owner, Anne Tutt, hung a Butler Brown farm scene in the governor’s Atlanta office. When Henry Kissinger paid a visit two years later he looked at the painting and said, “I see you have a Wyeth.” “No,” smiled Carter, “a Butler Brown.” “That was a thrill,” Brown says, but adds sharply, “I was doing this before I ever heard of Andrew Wyeth.”
A month ago someone on Rosalynn Carter’s staff asked for Polaroids of Brown’s paintings. “I couldn’t believe it,” says the artist. “I prayed that she would select one, and now that she has, I pray even harder—that I will be able to stand up to the strain.”