Over sixty swimmers from the South End Rowing Club (SERC) and the neighboring Dolphin Club leapt into the San Francisco Bay on January 21 in memory of Joan Brown, a dedicated open-water swimmer. SFMOMA’s Joan Brown Jump and Swim commemorated the iconic Bay Area artist who created numerous paintings inspired by her enthusiasm for the sport, from The Weight Room at the Dolphin Club (1975) to After the Alcatraz Swim #1 (1975). These bold, idiosyncratic works are on view at SFMOMA through March 12, 2023, in the major retrospective Joan Brown organized by Janet Bishop, Thomas Weisel Family Chief Curator and Curator of Painting and Sculpture, and Nancy Lim, Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture.
At the Jump and Swim, the bay brimmed with activity, with dozens of spectators cheering on the swimmers as they braved formidable currents and frigid waters at 8 a.m. Twenty kayaks, eight Zodiac boats, and several rowboats accompanied the swimmers on their journey: from their leap off the end of Fort Mason’s Herbst Pavilion to their arrival at Aquatic Park. Participants wore yellow swim caps with bikinis on them — a reference to Brown’s bright purple and red two-piece swimsuits — and a few onlookers donned faux fur hats inspired by Brown’s Self-Portrait in Fur Hat (1972).
“Swimming in the San Francisco Bay gave us all an opportunity to experience how an artist like Joan found inspiration in the water’s life force,” says Fran Hegler, SERC’s president and one of the participating swimmers. “The initial jump from Fort Mason pier had a healthy dose of both fear and joy, trepidation and liberation.”
“People were laughing, applauding, and taking photos,” adds Conny Bleul, a member of SERC who was on the rescue team. “The swim was not a competition for who would be first or get a gold medal, it was about feeling happy. And I think Joan Brown would have loved that.”
Born in San Francisco’s Marina District, Brown grew up swimming in Aquatic Park and was a lifelong swimming enthusiast. Brown’s third husband, Gordon Cook, was a president of the Dolphin Club and encouraged her to pursue open-water swimming in the Bay more seriously. She entered competitions and was disappointed with her performance, so she trained with Olympic swim coach Charlie Sava to improve her technique and her time.
For Brown, swimming was more than an enjoyable physical exercise; it was a meditative and at times metaphysical experience that inspired many of her works. After almost drowning during a 1975 race from Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park, Brown created an introspective series of self-portraits as a way to process the traumatic event. The paintings portray struggling swimmers, menacing waves, and the freighter that unexpectedly passed the group. Brown recorded more lighthearted moments in her swimming-related works, too — the print Golden Gate (1987) shows the artist peacefully passing under the bridge in her signature red bathing suit. Living in the Bay Area for most of her life, Brown loved being near the water, incorporating fish, divers, swimmers, boats, and bridges into her paintings.
“Swimming was expansively significant in Joan Brown’s artistic practice, influencing the subjects of her artworks and how she made them,” explains Lim. “For instance, the sheet metal sculpture Divers (1974) on view in the swimming gallery in Joan Brown was inspired by Charlie Sava’s lessons on how to swim more economically, with more efficient strokes.” Both Brown’s brushstrokes and her swim strokes improved under Sava’s instruction.
She swam without a wetsuit or goggles, often at sunset, immersed in the elements. Jeff Gunderson, the San Francisco Art Institute’s (SFAI) librarian and archivist for over four decades, crossed paths with her during her frequent dips in the Bay. “Sunset was her preferred time,” he says. “She enjoyed the beautiful light of the sun going down, the wind, the choppy waves, and the views of the city.”
“With the Joan Brown Jump and Swim, we returned to the very same waters that she swam in almost every day,” notes Bishop, who is a burgeoning bay swimmer herself.
After jumping, swimming, and spectating in Joan Brown’s honor, event participants gathered for breakfast at the SERC clubhouse. There, a group of Joan Brown’s contemporaries reminisced on the artist’s indelible mark on the Bay Area swimming community. Brown, along with five other women, successfully sued SERC, the Dolphin Club, and the Ariel Club to admit women. The lawsuit, which Brown spearheaded, paved the way for future generations of female athletes to join San Francisco’s historically male swim clubs. Lee Bender and Diane Major, the two surviving plaintiffs, received a standing ovation at the SERC breakfast. Both athletes remember Joan Brown as brave, strong, and fiercely independent — attributes that served her well in the lawsuit.
“I enjoy the club tremendously, have enjoyed it for many years, and we’re getting ready to celebrate our 150th anniversary,” says Bender. “And as far as I’m concerned, that has everything to do with Joan Brown. She was the fireball who started this off. Her energy, courage, and determination kept this whole operation together: the lawsuit in the beginning, and the continuing effort to maintain women’s position in the club.”
Today, women comprise one third of SERC’s 1,300+ members.
“We are all trying to emulate Joan Brown to some extent, and maybe aspire to be her,” explains Maureen Keefe, a SERC member and the event’s swim director. “We look at her swimming paintings and feel like we connect, like she was the leader of our community. And we jump together in honor of her.”
Brown was one of the first women to join SERC in 1977, after winning the lawsuit, and she later joined the club’s board and served as vice president. Today, SERC members speak fondly about Joan Brown running on the beach, dancing on tables, swimming in a red-and-white bubble cap, and generously sharing her love of art. This was an artist who was exuberantly full of life, as daring in person as she was on canvas. Her paintings capture the trepidation of the night before a big swim, the freedom and euphoria of being out on the open water, and the camaraderie of swim clubs like the South End Rowing Club and the Dolphin Club.
“Joan Brown is a very successful show to these people at SERC and the Dolphin Club who have a pretty good eye as to what Joan was doing,” explains Gunderson, who has been swimming with SERC for over forty-one years. “Those are her real critics in the gallery of swimming-related works, and sure enough, Joan got it right.”
Joan Brown will be on view through March 12, 2023 on Floor 7.