The Rumpus Interview with Able Brown


Meet Able Brown: artist, New York City park ranger, body-surfing enthusiast and stand-up comedian. His drawings and paintings have been included in group shows at several galleries, including a show at the Fleisher/Ollman gallery curated by Will Oldham, aka Bonny Prince Billy. His illustrations also illuminate the disk jacket for Billy’s album “Summer in the Southeast.” But who cares about all that. The Rumpus loves him.

The Rumpus: What’s your background? First, tell me your imaginary background.

Able Brown: I am currently living in a hut in Puna. I have a garden full of jackfruit and avocados. I have a woman by my side who trains horses and can free dive 100 meters and talk about the Incas or the Maori all through the night. We snorkel four or five times a week, kayak, hike up volcanoes, and ride horses. My friends from Denmark, Florida, New Hampshire, and San Clemente come to visit four or five times a month. They snorkel, eat Kalua pig, hike and drink Kona beer. And go home joyous, feeling at one with both Pele the Volcano Goddess and Spinner Dolphins. I love it when they come and I love it when they leave.

Rumpus: And your real story?

Able Brown: I was born in Bisbee, Arizona, moved to San Clemente, California, when I was 4, then to New Jersey when I was 14. I am smitten by the OCEAN. I like to draw and paint and picture-make. I write sometimes, like now. I currently work as park ranger in Brooklyn and live in the back of a Chevy on Kent and South 4th. I am currently available for assignment.

Rumpus: How often do you mosey down the Delaware River in a canoe?

Able Brown: I have moseyed on down the Delaware three times in my life. This recent time, we spent time with more fireflies than I have ever spent time with in my life.  In the canoe, we saw two baldy gulls, and I proudly saved the life of a daddy long legs. It was necessary, this rescue, for I stepped on one earlier when I was in the canoe shop.

Rumpus: Do you also surf?

Able Brown: I mainly bodysurf, but once in a while I get on a long stick. It brings me great thunderous joy to be on a board, but right now I like bodysurfing more. I like being fully immersed in the water, feeling all the waves roll by, kicking with my finned feet, and being thrown into the sand, for some reason. And you don’t have to plan as much with bodysurfing, something I am less-than-average at doing. Just grab some fruit, some fins and some lotion and head to a beach. Most likely there will be something to ride. So yes, I like river and oceans. And hotsprings and swimming holes. I take water anyway I can get it, I suppose.

Rumpus: You’ve done some drawings exclusively for the Rumpus, and we are honored to have them. The first, “Horses I Should Have Bet On” makes me think there should be a poetic category for horse names. Why these horses, Able? And was it for more than just money?

Able Brown: These horse names all came from spending hot day in July at Belmont with my lady. She really likes horses. But the names are names I wished existed while I was looking through the racing forum and picking losing horse after losing horse (but they had so much heart). I have yet to make any money at the track or with that drawing Julie, so I can say with ease that it wasn’t for just monetarius that the drawing was done. But wait. Are you offering me money? You can donate that money to the ABLE BROWN PANAMA HOT SPRINGS TRIP if you want to. I am going to set up an 800 number for it soon.

Rumpus: Able Brown is a sturdy, frontier sort of name. How did you come to have such a fine optimistic name?

Able Brown: My Pop is big into sailing and Able is kind of a nautical term. As in Able-bodied sailor. So I have been forced to live with it, even though I have badly wanted to change it to Airplane.

Rumpus: Able, why does the great grey owl mock me?

Able Brown: I think that Great Grey mocks humanity. It’s a bit anthropomorphic, but I can’t help but to think that the Great Grey Owl thinks, “People. Get it together. You can send people to that Bright White Light in the sky, but you can’t feed each other.”

Rumpus: Your work is a strange zoo of characters from culture and nature. Discuss.

Able Brown: I am constantly immersed in something about nature. Either reading or being active in it.  I have always felt comfort in defending its innocence. It is a pretty easy thing to defend.  I also work as a Park Ranger, so my job and my interests get to meet, somewhat. The culture just comes from living. Talking to people. Walking around Brooklyn and reading the walls, the windows, and the headlines from the New York Post. All of my drawings and paintings are usually born in a little notebook I carry around. So, most of them are just kind of notes that I like to keep and share with people.

Rumpus: What’s the relationship of Jesus to the surf? God to the walrus?

Able Brown: Leonard Cohen said Jesus was a sailor. I say he was a surfer. It makes it much more humorous thinking of God as a Walrus or a Manatee. Would you like some coconut ice cream? I am eating some now and hot damn is it good.

Rumpus: Snake hands, and snake hoofs. Why?

Able Brown: Whoa. I have not thought about “Snake hand and snake hoofs. Why?” before. I can say that I was reading Weston La Barre’s book about snake handling cults at the time. They just kind of grew from the hoofs like a turkeytail mushroom on a dying Beech tree.

Rumpus: What does Kenny Shopsin know about seasoning that I don’t?

Able Brown: Julie, Kenny Shopsin has got some strange touch that nobody will ever embody again. I wish I didn’t like his damn food so much, but the way he does it is the way we like it.

Rumpus: Tell me about your career as a park ranger. Have you ever encountered a barely hiding bear? Or a bear of any kind?

Able Brown: My career as a Park Ranger began after I found out they had such a thing in New York City, and though there are only 15 of them, they do have them. We get to teach kids about bugs and birds and bats and the such. It’s a pretty good job, as far as jobs go. I have encountered a Barely Hiding Bear once, in the eastern Sierra’s as my lady and I were cooking pork chops in the foothills of Mt. Whitney. We were drinking beer and cooking meat and talking, and like an apparition the bear appeared (and not the ones Reagan warned us about) but a black one. Maybe eight feet from us. I jumped up, full of earthly joy, yelled “Bear” and off it went. Not to be anthropomorphical, but the last I saw of that bear was a disappointed face. As if it wanted to say, relax, man, we live here.

Rumpus: What inspires you? How do you determine what creatures, human or animal, will be your next painting?

Able Brown: Inspiration comes from conversations with other humans mostly. Not much (aside from the ocean, sex and hotsprings) beats a good human conversation. The creatures just come, in dreams, in the ocean, and looking at field guides all the time. I usually give myself a little project and follow through until it dies.

Rumpus: How do you balance the urban with the natural? Especially in Brooklyn?

Able Brown: For me, the only way to live in a city is to leave a city, so I take as many camping trips as I can. Just got back from a little trip to the Santa Cruz islands, and planning a trip to Panama in March. I keep thinking I will move from here, but I keep being pulled back. I have some tight friends here so that helps. That said, this smelly, shitty city is full of wondrous things!

Rumpus: You are an artist and ranger (or were, depending on when we publish). How does stand-up comedy fit in?

Able Brown: The stand-up comedy began as a way to show the drawings to more people. Jason Fulford is also to blame. He invited me to do something for his J&L books variety show a couple of years ago and I came up with the idea of playing a delusional Park Ranger who was there to recruit people. I used some drawings to garner some laughs. It was great to show a drawing of the Steven Pinker called “Steven Pinker On A Bad Hair Day” and get an immediate response. Now, it has kind of evolved into a Dog and Pony show. I had a great opportunity to do it with my close friend Casey Farnum on keyboards and Will Oldham holding my drawings at a recent show at the Fleisher/Ollman gallery. I will keep at it, here and there.

Rumpus: Tell me about your future: first the imaginary one, then the real one. It’s okay if they’re the same.

Able Brown: Whoa. My future. Julie, if I knew that, I may not be livin’ today. The other thing I can say about that is I hope I am increasingly in the ocean and always with a handful of love.

Julie Greicius was Art Editor for The Rumpus when it launched in January 2009. One year later, she became Senior Literary Editor, and later, Senior Features Editor. Julie also co-edited the first book published by The Rumpus, Rumpus Women, Vol. 1, featuring personal essays and illustration from twenty kick-ass contributors. Her writing been featured on The Rumpus, Midnight Breakfast, Stanford Medicine Magazine, and BuzzFeed, as well as in the anthology The 27th Mile. She lives in California and is a member of The Rumpus Advisory Board. More from this author →