Boise High artist reflects on his lost work
The mystery at Boise High School has officially been solved — by one proud and tenacious mother, Karen Koch, Class of ’63.
First, the puzzle. When construction crews began demolition work last summer while remodeling the school’s 1936 gymnasium, they tore an outsized trophy case off the 9th Street interior wall. They knew the case was built to cover a pocket door that had been closed for good.
They expected to find the door’s antique wood panels on that sunny Friday in June, but they were in for a big surprise.
Painted on the lath-and-plaster wall were two murals of unknown vintage. The artworks depicted a stylized Native American man in profile, a Boise Brave in the school’s colors of red, black and white. They were signed simply, “R. Brown.”
“I was excited to see what was behind that trophy cabinet,” Robb Thompson, Boise High’s principal, said Wednesday. “Much to my surprise, we didn’t find what I hoped we’d find, but we found something else that was intriguing. … It looked similar to a logo that we’d used way back in the ’40s and ’50s, just a little more antiquated [type] of an Indian head.”
Thompson asked for the public’s help identifying the artistic enigma in a Statesman story in mid-December that posed the question: Do you know who R. Brown is?
At the time, no one knew who created what Thompson described as 1940s art. Now we do.
“I probably got phone calls from three or four different people, all of whom thought they might have known who R. Brown was,” the principal said, “and some of them were from quite a while ago, back in the ’40s and ’50s, who phoned me thinking it was different folks.”
But none of them was as tenacious as Karen Koch. She is R. Brown’s mother.
Koch saw the Statesman story, recognized the art, knew the artist and left nearly a dozen messages at Boise High. On Tuesday night, she finally connected with Thompson to give him the news.
“I thought it was just awesome” that the artwork had been found, Koch said. “I really did. I remember when he did those. … His art then, it was all-important to him.”
The artist is a 49-year-old prescription eyeglass maker named Rawleigh Brown, Class of ’87. The mural dates to his junior year, 1986. Brown’s image of the Boise Brave began life as a logo for the football team’s helmets commissioned by then-Coach Rich Gagnon. It later morphed into the gymnasium murals.
“I was happy to do it, proud to do it,” Brown said last week, as he showed off his original drawings of both helmet logo and mural. “It was something that I figured would carry on for years. I was excited to do it. I’ve seen it ever since, on bumper stickers and shirts.”
Brown was born in Boise but moved to Chicago with his brother and father when his parents divorced. Every summer he’d come back here, to his mother, sister and grandparents, to the Boise River and the Foothills, to the landscape and life he loved.
“I grew up going through my grandmother’s photo albums,” Brown said. “Everybody in the family was hunters and fishermen, and there were all these outdoor pictures.
“That’s what I wanted,” he said. “I wanted to live in Boise and be in the mountains and hunt and fish. And that’s why I came back to Boise. This is where I belong. Idaho was my state. It’s all I ever wanted.”
So when Brown hit 14, he made a unilateral decision. He filled his suitcase to the brim and boarded the plane from Chicago to Boise for his regular summer vacation. He never wanted to move back. He did not tell his father until the plane landed in Idaho.
A shy, outdoors-loving teenager, he played football in his sophomore and junior years but not as a senior. Football “was just something I did.” His real life, he said, was “outdoors, hunting, fishing and my art.”
Long after he graduated, Brown said, he’d visit the old gym to check out his murals. Sometimes he would bring a friend to see the artwork he created back when the Pet Shop Boys and Whitney Houston were in the Top 40.
“And then, one year, they were covered up with trophy cases,” he recalled. “That was kind of a bummer.”
Today he lives in the neat tan stucco house his grandfather built for retirement in Northwest Boise. He shares it with his wife, Mirenda, and chocolate Labrador retriever, Spud.
When the gym’s cabinets came down in June, one of the murals was too damaged to save. But workmen carved the second Brave out of a plaster wall set for demolition. The mural is in storage, but at some point it will again see the light of day.
“What we’re going to do is some sort of heavy construction framing around it,” Thompson said. “And then we’ll put it in probably the locker room or somewhere in the new facility. But I’d like to get a picture of [Brown] with the mural so we can put a little plaque there to commemorate that he’s the one who originally did that.”