Throughout her career, Joan Brown’s philosophical and spiritual interests in world cultures and religions grew. Brown’s fascination with ancient civilizations, such as Egypt and Greece, began early in life, when as a child she spent time in the local library reading about Egyptian hieroglyphs, the pyramids, and obelisks. Fueled by her intense studies of spiritual texts and her travels abroad beginning in 1977, Brown began filling her canvases with icons, symbols, mystical emblems, and hieroglyphs. Critics received these newer works, produced in the 1980s, with lukewarm enthusiasm, which only enhanced the artist’s disdain for the art market and what she believed to be the commercialization of the art world.
Brown frequently noted that ancient civilizations like Egypt, Mexico, and India revered their artists as important figures in society who were charged with visually communicating and recording beliefs, rituals, and histories, often for the entire populous. When confounded critics wrote disparaging reviews about the strange symbology of her paintings, Brown felt they were missing the point entirely. In the mid 1980s, she began focusing on public art commissions as a way to disengage with the art market while still engaging with a broad audience.
For Brown, the unity of art and life was visible in monumental symbols like the obelisk, an Egyptian construction that represented the power of both gods and pharaohs. Between 1984 and 1990, Brown finished eleven public art commissions, including the Rincon Center obelisk in San Francisco, California.
Combining the sleek form of the Egyptian obelisk with intricate and colorful mosaic patterns of dolphins and eagles, the Rincon Center obelisk resides in the courtyard of the art deco United States Post Office Rincon Annex building. Brown often patterned her public sculptures after their environments, and, similarly, the dolphins of the Rincon Center obelisk mirror the stone relief dolphin friezes adorning the original art deco building. The Rincon Center Post Office building, which was designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood and completed in 1940, also contains a large interior mural in 27 parts completed under the Work Projects Administration (WPA).
The dolphins are a direct reference to those painted in a fresco at the Palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. Brown had a large framed photograph of the dolphin mural in her studio at the time of her death. Whether she knew that the dolphin fresco was actually part of a rather imaginative restoration conducted by archaeologist Arthur Evans in the early 1900s, and not original to the structure or Minoan culture, is unknown. In fact, the palace was likely destroyed several times from natural disasters, including from an earthquake and a tsunami resulting from a volcanic eruption. Evans had a team reconstruct much of the palace down to painted murals and frescoes in an attempt to provide visitors with a fuller experience of the once grand labyrinth structure. The dolphin fresco on the wall of the Queen’s Megaron has been noted by historians as clearly not matching the style of the Minoan time period. Regardless of, or perhaps because of, the beautiful but out of place dolphin fresco of Knossos, Brown was interested in the vivid imagery of the swimming blue dolphins with yellow stripes running the length of their bodies and black turned up snouts. Translated in mosaic on the square obelisk, they swim skyward, gracefully and playfully folding their bodies around the edges of the monument.