John Brosio | A Terrible Beauty

EDGE OF TOWN, OIL, 36 x 48
EDGE OF TOWN, OIL, 36 x 48.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

When John Brosiowants to relax, he sometimes heads to a historic ocean liner called the Queen Mary and climbs aboard. These days the giant vessel is docked in Long Beach, CA, and has been transformed into a hotel with art deco appointments and remnants from the grand ship’s glory days. Yet it’s not the elaborate style that attracts Brosio rather, it’s the vessel’s sheer size. It’s 1,000 feet long and once carried more than 3,000 passengers and crew across the Atlantic Ocean. The Southern California painter enjoys the feeling of being dwarfed by something larger and more forceful than himself, he says. And that, in fact, is a central theme in his paintings.

At 34, Brosio has become known for his dramatic scenes depicting tornadoes, those tumultuous acts of God that wreak havoc and destruction. And if the fury of nature appears real in Brosio’s canvases, that’s because he’s not merely a painter of storms but a reallife storm chaser. He has witnessed firsthand everything from the faint wail of the storm’s approach to the powerful force with which it arrives looking, he says, like a giant cinnamon roll tossing in the sky.
The obvious question for viewers is, why tornadoes? On this particular day Brosio is ruminating on the question from a bench on Balboa Island and sipping a cup of steaming coffee. It’s dusk, and across a narrow waterway an oldfashioned Ferris wheel spins on nearby Balboa Peninsula. The carnival ride looms large on thelandscape and looks very much like the one depicted in Brosio’s painting Rides except that today there is no ominous black plume lurking in the background.

For Brosio the experience of being dwarfed by a tornado is an exhilarating one, he says in an effort to explain his attraction to storms. “Witnessing a tornado’s birth, behavior, and death leaves me feeling privy to the life of an animal greater than us—it’s the footfall of a giant,” he says.


The tornado is both a thing of terrible beauty and a metaphor for modern life, as far as Brosio is concerned. “My tornado paintings seem to move back and forth between two pursuits—an inquiry into the phenomenon itself and its use as an element of allusion in allegory,” he says. In many ways his paintings are scenes from movies that don’t exist. More often than not they are composites of tornadoes he has witnessed and various elements from his everyday life and imagination.

In Rides, for example, he set out to explore a tornado at dusk because of the evocative colors present during this “twilight zone” time of day. A carnival at dusk also seemed like immediately seductive imagery to Brosio. “For me the scene was nothing more than ‘this is going to be really cool,’” he says. “It was me enjoying the visual candy of things competing for the eye at twilight.”

But that isn’t all. As with many of Brosio’s works, there is more going on than meets the eye at first glance. In Rides, people appear oblivious to the tornado hovering overhead. They mill about—life goes on in spite of the danger. The work is also a comment on how people view violence, Brosio says, and the tornado is a symbol of that violence. “People are numb to violence in this country, and they don’t want to see it,” he says. “Violence has become so accepted that they say, ‘Oh, it’s just happening there. Let’s just walk around it.’”

Obliviousness to the impending doom of a tornado is also a theme in Brosio’s series called On the Edge of Town. People stroll casually past storefronts as if giant storms aren’t raging in the sky. The buildings have a Disneylike appearance, as if they are part of a movie set. It’s no accident. Again, it’s Brosio’s comment on how things can look perfect on the outside while danger lurks in the distance. Indeed, things are not always what they seem in the David Lynchlike world Brosio is so fond of creating.

RIDES, OIL, 60 x 48.
RIDES, OIL, 60 x 48.

Brosio says his fascination with spectacle began early in life. Like many friends his age growing up in the shadow of the film industry, he was drawn to filmmaking. “We all grew up on Pinocchio, Godzilla, and The Wizard of Oz. We saw Star Wars at the perfect age of 8 or so. And our heads were spinning with color, sensation, orchestration, and the desire to participate,” he says. “By the fourth grade we all wanted to make multi-million dollar space epics.”
In high school the young Brosio decided he wanted a career in movie special effects. He wrote a rough draft of a science fiction novel for which he designed all the creatures. His plan was to attend the University of California at Davis and study art, and his dream was to eventually get a job with Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas’ special effects company near San Francisco.

As he began taking art classes, Brosio slowly came to the realization that painting was an end in itself. Gradually what he created in his paintings became more important to him than any display of special effects virtuosity.

By this time, however, he had followed his dream path and landed a job with Lucas as an intern in the Creature Department, where he sculpted various monsters for the movies. He created models in clay, plaster, and eventually in latex for Ghostbusters 2 and Back to the Future III. After the San Francisco earthquake he was asked to repair some of the Star Wars monsters. He should have been thrilled. But he wasn’t. “I was where my dreams up until that point had wanted me to be. I was literally surrounded every day by the very costumes, space ships, and ray guns I had seen on the silver screen as a kid,” he recalls.

But amid the “Lucas daze,” as he calls it, he was continuing to improve his ability as a painter until fine art finally took center stage in his creative life. “With painting I was master of my universe. At Lucas, no matter how valuable I might become, I would always be working on someone else’s ideas,” he explains. Brosio graduated from college in 1991, quit his job with Lucas, and returned to Southern California where he continued his art studies with Richard Bunkall, Ray Turner, and David Limrite at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. In an effort to support himself, he painted portraits of people and their endless array of dogs.

It was a time when he was struggling mightily to find his artistic voice. One day a friend told him about a talk recently given by sciencefiction writer Ray Bradbury. What the friend told Brosio changed the course of his life. Bradbury had told the audience that to distill his own thoughts, he often liked to write down everything that was important to him.

Soon after Brosio heard this advice, he took pen and paper in hand and made his own list of important things: movies, tornadoes, earthquakes, black holes, war planes, sharks, snakes, and scorpions. “That’s when I decided to paint these things or not paint at all,” he recalls. No more poodles.


What do all those seemingly disparate elements have in common? For Brosio, they reflect a fascinating dichotomy and a reoccurring theme in his work—they are all both beautiful and dangerous.

The list eventually led him to storm chasing and witnessing a tornado in action. In 1994 Brosio contacted a storm chaser and began to make regular visits with him to Tornado Alley approximately the middle third of the country from the Canadian border to the Texas Gulf Coast. Apart from experiencing the beauty and terror of a storm up close, he came home with tons of information to quite literally draw from photos, video, and memory. He began to work with an enthusiasm he had not known in some time.

Today he continues to paint twisters in his Los Angeles area studio, but he is also percolating ideas related to mythology, another of his passions. He says these future works will be inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid, which he read in high school and can’t forget. “But I don’t see tornadoes stopping. Although I may take a break,” he says. “I have been into rattlesnakes lately they’re so gorgeous and dangerous.”

Brosio is represented by Tirage Gallery, Pasadena, CA; Arcadia Gallery, New York, NY; and Diane Nelson Fine Art, Laguna Beach, CA.

Featured in January 2003

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