Former special education teacher Wendy Elkin makes her directorial debut with Painting Bolinas, a documentary chronicling the life of the eccentric and irreverent artist, 90-year-old Peter Lee Brownlee. His child-like and colorful images contrast the grays and muted colors of the northern coastal town, 30 miles north of San Francisco along Highway 1. Brownlee’s lifestyle fits in perfectly with the quirky Bolinas whose residents have removed all road signs so that visitors are kept to a minimum. Four years in the making, the film includes an eclectic mix of the artist’s friends, family, collectors, and caregiver who surround him as he paints almost non-stop from his bed and banters with those who will listen. His work has appeared on the cover of New York Living magazine, and he has donated work to help Yoko Ono raise funds for the Strawberry Fields, John Lennon Memorial.
Elkin recently answered some questions via email.
How did you first meet Peter Lee Brownlee?
I met Peter Lee through a photography event I was responsible for in Mill Valley, CA. I was soliciting for in-kind donations to give to participants who entered a once a year photography competition, and was touched by the generosity of one local artist who donated a box of his beautiful cards, which featured bright, colorful representations of Bay Area townships and landscapes.
After the event, I decided to track down this artist who so generously donated boxes of his cards without knowing me. I knew his name was Peter Lee Brownlee and that he lived somewhere in the small coastal town of Bolinas, CA. I had no more information. Since I did not have an address, I decided to stop at a flower stand in Stinson Beach, hoping the owner could give me a lead to Peter’s whereabouts. As I bought some tall sunflowers, the florist told me that Peter lived behind the Bolinas Gas Station. I ventured out to Bolinas and found the only gas station in town, parked my car, and walked into a world like no other I have ever experienced.
I approached what appeared to be an impossibly dilapidated house. I encountered a motley cast of characters, a pack of cats, an overgrown garden and dozens of paintings thrown everywhere. I found myself unnerved yet spellbound. (My insatiable curiosity often gets the best of me.) As I entered the ramshackle home, navigating my way past the piles of debris, beloved art supplies and brilliant, insane paintings, I knew there was no turning back.
Visible beyond the end of a hallway constructed out of finished masterpieces, was an elderly man sitting on the edge of his bed, dressed in purple with a flouncy purple hat. I knocked on his halfway-opened door and was met with a pair of steel blue eyes, clear and wise. Despite his age and hunched posture, Peter Lee’s presence was formative. I remember thinking this could not possibly be the same man who painted those lively, childlike scenes on the cards that were donated. Yet the walls and stacks of finished and incomplete paintings proved his identity.
Something told me this would be the beginning of a very sweet friendship. Our conversations knew no bounds. We discussed how he began his artistic career, the artists’ he admired, details of his remarkable life story, and the journey that led him to the tiny ocean-side town of Bolinas, California. I was moved by his zest for life, his zaniness and the bizarre counter-culture he created in his home. Peter had a “butler,” a “driver,” a gardener, a contractor, and a host of “cooks,” who lived rent-free with him in exchange for work. He had no idea how many people really lived on his property; he guessed anywhere up to twenty. He did make it known that he was proud to give the Latinos in Bolinas a place to live, because he hated the way they were treated in town.
Generous to everyone, always doing favors, lending money — it was his way and his pleasure. Quickly I learned that the more cantankerous he was with you the more he really liked you. A salty dog with a never-ending list of stories, Peter could have been a character stepping out of one of his colorful paintings. For the most part, he was beloved in the community, but like all people with big personalities, he was not without critics. Indeed, in all the years he lived in town, the Bolinas Museum had never offered to show his work, despite the obviously local subjects of his paintings. This left me to wonder: why was he not treated as Bolinas’ own national treasure?
Recognizing the obvious Steinbeck quality to Peter and his environment and in appreciating his beautiful acrylic paintings I knew I wanted to make a film and share him with the world. A huge fan of Steinbeck made me wonder whether Steinbeck himself could have written this story. I hope they felt I was an advocate after they became accustomed to seeing me almost everyday.
The film has an intimacy with Brownlee and the town’s characters that seems to have been developed over a long period of time. How long did you spend with the people before you convinced them to speak on camera?
After I met Peter, I was anxious for my husband to meet him. They became fast friends and shortly after, became best friends. Slowly Peter introduced my cinematographer and myself to the people of Bolinas as they would come by and visit him. As they got to know us, they began to feel comfortable. Getting a thumbs up from Peter went a long way. In about three months time, many began to trust and let their guard down; but continued to always be cautious. We did hang in the bar and the restaurant and socialized with them. They became our friends and I keep in touch with most of them today.
Have you shown this film in Bolinas? If so, what has been the response of the people?
I showed the film to thank the community for all they had contributed to the film. The entire community came out and they all loved it. Grown men (who are also in the film) were sitting in the front row, shedding tears as the film ended and the lights went on. People were deeply touched and overall pleased with how I portrayed Bolinas. In a sense, the film brought the community together in ways words cannot fully express. I had attempted to give a voice to a population of people who are often ignored in our society.
As you note at the end of the film, Brownlee passed away quietly in his sleep on December 1,2011? You seemed keenly aware that this could happen at any time. Were they any additional questions you wanted to ask him but were not able to?
Good question. I would have liked to have asked him if he would have done anything differently in his life. I would have liked to have questioned him more in depth about his experience with Sumi-e, Japanese painting. And finally, if he could have painted with any artist, who would that be?
Will there be future exhibits of his work in either Santa Barbara or San Francisco?
As the film continues to have legs of its own, Peter has a core collection that possibly could be shown with the film in the future. At times, there is a side to me that would like to take the film and Peter’s work on the road throwing caution to the wind living life as Peter did. His motto was “enjoy yourself” and that he did.
Painting Bolinas screens on Tuesday, January 31, 8 p.m. at the Metro 4.