What inspires a person to twist a balloon into the shape of a moose? Or take photos of someone vacuuming a glacier? Or run for mayor in a gorilla suit?
Those questions come to mind when you’re talking about Jeff Brown. The Juneau artist, musician, author and entertainer was recently recognized for his lifetime achievements as part of the Governor’s Awards for the Arts.
Jeff Brown is a longtime Alaskan, who entertains kids, produces radio shows, writes how-to books, puts out parody post cards and publications, volunteers with community groups … the list goes on.
“Where does he come up with those ideas? He’s constantly filled with funny ideas and constantly filled with just amazing connections,” says Juneau Arts and Humanities Council Executive Director Nancy DeCherney.
She’s known Brown for years, as have hundreds, even thousands, of others around the state.
“I don’t think there’s everybody in this town who can summarize everything that Jeff did. Because you know him from a different perspective and I know him from a different perspective,” she says.
But let’s try. (Link to Brown’s website)
Brown says it all started in high school when he heard the experimental comedy group Firesign Theatre.
“They made it possible for me to think it would be possible to go to a radio station and start volunteering,” he says.
He moved to Juneau as a Coast Guard medic in 1975. Soon, he came across fledgling public radio station KTOO.
“They were having a fund-raising marathon and I asked if I could help out and they said, ‘Sure.’ And they asked for volunteers to be on the radio and I said ‘Sure.’ And I’ve been saying ‘Yes’ ever since,” he says.
Brown went on to work for the station and its TV affiliate. He also became a key member of an improvisational theater group, a historical play for tourists and a news parody show.
As time passed, he also became a recognized artist, working with stained glass, manipulated photographs and assembling found objects. He’s even created museum exhibits of Alaska mazes and board games.(Read about the exhibit Vinyl Resting Place., which Brown created.)
“He’s one of those rare individuals who seem to have no boundaries in regard to medium. It’s Jeff. You can see it. His signature’s there,” says Bob Banghart, chief curator of the Alaska State Museums.
He’s also a musician and founder of the Alaska Folk Festival, another place Brown has been active.
“In any various year he was engaged in putting together programming or doing the newsletter or organizing the workshops or organizing M.C.s or being the M.C. or being on stage playing. He’s done everything there is to do, probably with the exception of selling of hot dogs, but we’ve never sold hot dogs,” he says.
Then there’s the kid-focused efforts. Brown’s produced a nationally-distributed children’s radio program, toured an Alaska magic show, and was half of the kids’ music duo The Wigglers.
He also became king of balloon animals, organizing a worldwide celebration. It brought him to the attention of then-Governor Wally Hickel.
“He would come down on a monthly basis to do his call-in show. And being a fresh balloonist, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a title called balloonist laureate. And they agreed with me and gave me a certificate to prove that,” he says.
Following governors named him minister of merriment, commissioner of mirth, professor of play, and now, master of cheerful smiles.
One of Brown’s most recent efforts has been Real Alaskan Magazine. The 64-page, full color, glossy humor publication parodies images and stories from the north.
He says people have been more than willing to help.
“I can call up somebody up in Sitka and say, ‘Can you find a couple ballet students and put them up in tutus and rubber boots and have them posing at Swan Lake?’ and they say, ‘No Problem.’ I talk to people like Martin Buser, will you pose with a can of dog mush? ‘Sure, no problem,’” he says.
A third edition is due out on April Fools’ Day.
In fact, he took a side trip from his recent awards ceremony to create a new visual pun.
“When I was in Anchorage I convinced the head of the Alaska Zoo to have my friend Karl Ohls pose inside a cage as ‘The Wild Alaskan Bureaucrat.’ And I photo-shopped some kids looking at him as well as the executive director of the zoo,” he says.
Brown continues as program director of KTOO and its sister station KRNN. And his next project? A series of radio programs of Alaska poets and authors reading their own works.
Brown’s lifetime achievement award comes at a time when he’s having to slow down. He has Parkinson’s disease, a brain disorder that causes shaking, stuttering and makes movement difficult. But he’s still being creative.
“I can do the same things I’ve done before but it takes a lot longer. It’s kind of discouraging that way but you just have to muscle through,” he says.
He’s a little self-conscious about the lifetime achievement arts award, and says lots of other people have done as much or more. And it hasn’t changed his goal.
“I guess it all centers around making people happy. And that’s kind of what I’ve given myself as a job in life, is to make people’s lives a little bit better. And making them laugh, making them smile and making their lives just a little bit easier to live,” he says.
Friends and colleagues are planning a community celebration of his award and works. It’s from at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center, from 5 to 7 p.m., on Monday, Oct. 31.