Rhonda Brew holds the painting she is working on that is portraits of friends and family from Patagonia and from her past. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

Patagonia-based artist Rhonda Brew sees dead people. Living people. Possibly you. 

She is the most regional of artists. With empathy and humor, Brew’s art, made in pencil, charcoal, acrylics and oils, depicts her community of friends and relatives.

One painting in progress is made up of a crowd of faces from Patagonia and her past. There is her brother, Mike, wearing a baseball cap. There’s Butch, happy and full-faced, fresh from The Gathering Grounds. Many others, some dead, some still walking our streets, are shown shoulder to shoulder making up a town on this large canvas. 

This painting is temporarily on the back burner. For the past two years Brew has concentrated on a collaboration. Her friend, the poet Patra Kelly, suggested they compile a collection of Tarot images with Brew’s paintings and Kelly’s responding poems. 

When Kelly explained the concept of The Emperor – poof! – out of Brew came a picture of her father. It was a stylish, stylized portrait of distance and power.

Brew is suggestible. Other cards posed to her by Kelly show her son’s grave; a Rhonda-like person on a wild bicycle ride, the flatness of our grasslands sun and shadow. Another, “Wheel of Fortune,” features her friend, Lars, in the middle of the ever-random wheel. “He was depressed that day,” she said of the darkly sweet portrait of her fellow Patagonian.

This book will be self-published by both artists.

Brew deals local. You’ll see her at Charley’s gas station, a puff of cloud white hair, hunkered down by some other loquacious old critter. Brew, with her slate blue eyes and wildly mobile face, is there mixing it up in the check-out line at Patagonia Market. She can, believe me, make your day.

Brew started out locally in Sonoita, 1987 and moved to Patagonia in 1990. She is now, recently, “Sexty-sex years old!” said Brew. There is a grin to her voice.

But business is business.

“I don’t paint to sell it. I do sign painting and houses for that,” she said. Brew paints signs and murals part-time locally and was formerly a journeyman industrial painter.

“I was in the Union. I did the first Allied Van Lines trailers,” she said.

Brew sold paintings locally at a former taco house and, of course, to friends. She’s thought of putting up a little stand at a local vegetable and crafts market. But she wavers. Although other artists, such as Paula Wittner, enjoy and encourage her work (“She’s a brilliant up and coming painter,” said Wittner) Brew is insecure about tackling the commercial market. 

Brew’s paintings are often representational and are of people, people people. Brew’s craft background shows in her use of color to define perspective. Her subjects have limbs that flow rather than depict actual measurement. Often it works to show the flow of impulse and emotion. The color is bold.

“The Blue Lady,” a painting by Brew a few years ago, is a universal image of a moment of despair. A woman – blue from her hair to her shoes – is arched over her broken pearls and high heels shattered on the ground she faces. “She fell off her shoes,” said Brew. A green curtain pops the image. How does she decide on this contrast? “You’ve got to be careful,” she said. 

Self-taught, beginning at age 12 with a charcoal portrait of mother and child, Brew was raised, with privilege and art-supportive parents, in Michigan.

“We grew up on a lake, with a boat and I went water-skiing,’ she said. Brew took one watercolor class, while in a short stint, somewhat recently, in prison. This place, she nows calls her “college.” Although savvy, Brew is self-taught. She has great control, which is hard, with watercolor. Beginners usually make mud. Her watercolors are contained. Let’s put it this way, she doesn’t color outside the lines unless that is the effect she wants. Brew has also made a few abstract paintings. One, she painted for a friend on demand. It’s vibrant and practically skates off the wall.

Although Brew has completed more than 32 paintings over the last two years (she’s just finishing work on the 22 major Tarot images), Brew says, “I don’t do that much. I’ve slowed down.” Some works she signs as “The Brew,” a local nickname, she explains.

Muscle armed and coyote thin, Brew’s face shows she’s traveled a hard road of experience. She views and paints both herself and others with compassion, love and a wicked sense of humor. Brew is an artist you watch with interest document your community.

How can you see her work? How about just saying ‘Hi” and ask. I think you’ll know Rhonda Brew.