One day early last summer, Ben Brown knocked on the door of the Institute for First Amendment Studies. A local resident, and a retired cartoonist who now creates prized oil paintings, he wanted to volunteer.
We had volunteers already photocopying, filing, and entering data on our computers, so we wanted to give Ben something different. Several years ago, Ben had drawn an original cartoon on evolution for Walk Away, a former IFAS publication for ex-fundamentalists. So, it was clear that Ben could fill a niche as Freedom Writer's resident cartoonist.
Today Ben Brown and Skipp Porteous work together creating original cartoons. Ben's Freedom Writer cartoons are picked up and reprinted by a number of other publications — a practice we encourage. (Before doing so, though, please give us a call, and send a tear sheet after publication.) Typically, Freedom Writer publisher Porteous comes up with an idea and then phones Brown, describing the concept. Then, in a day or so, Ben stops by the Institute with the completed cartoon.
"Ben's rendition of my idea is always better than what I imagined," Skipp said. "We work well together, as he immediately grasps my concept."
Actually, their first effort at collaboration was not so easy. "When I learned about the National Endowment for the Arts' new policy of censoring 'indecent' art," Porteous said, "I knew it would be perfect cartoon material. I called Ben who had recently come by to volunteer, with the idea of depicting Michelangelo's 'David' with clothes on to cover up his nudity, thus satisfying the NEA's requirements. So I asked Ben to draw a statue of David with clothes."
Ben went to the library to conduct his research. In an art book, he found a photo of a less-famous artist's rendition of David that fit Skipp's description. In a couple of days he dropped off a drawing of David dressed in light armor.
After Ben realized that Skipp wanted clothing added to Michelangelo's David, Ben headed back to his studio, but not before information systems manager Ruth Shepard offered her own thoughts. That's how David ended up in Freedom Writer with polka dot boxer shorts.
Brown, 75, has been married for over 50 years. His wife, Eleanor, is an attorney with a practice in New York, to which she commutes weekly from the Berkshires. Recently, Eleanor has been involved in women's rights projects with the United Nations. Last year she participated in the Bejiing conference on women. This year she is going to the follow-up conference in Hong Kong.
Ben Brown was a member of the first graduating class of New York's High School of Music and Art. After a year at the University of Iowa, he enlisted and joined the U.S. Army's 88th Division of the 351st Infantry which fought in Italy. After the war he attended the New School in New York, under the G.I. Bill.
He joined up with another fellow and drew comics for Ziff-Davis. After that partnership broke up, Ben produced educational film strips for Popular Science and for organizations. For the National Council of Churches, he did "How our Bible came to us," and "Apostle to the Indians," which won a blue ribbon from the American Film Festival. Other creative work included the art for ABC TV's "Wonderful World of Golf."
Next, Brown joined a team that wrote and drew the Richie Rich comics for Harvey Comics. In 1970, Ben and Eleanor moved to Massachusetts. A home-office pioneer, Ben wrote and drew Felix the Cat comic books from his Great Barrington home for six years.
Today, Ben Brown produces cartoons for The Berkshire Record, The Holyoke Sun, and Freedom Writer. He spends much of the rest of his time painting Hopper-like Berkshire village landscapes, though Brown's work is much bolder and brighter than that of Edward Hopper.
Never before involved in any kind of activism, we asked Ben why he came to volunteer at the Institute for First Amendment Studies. "The Institute for First Amendment Studies," he said plainly, "is a good cause."