Joan Brown, Drought, and a Pool Swim (Day 336)

Today marked my thirteenth swim in a pool this year. So in 336 days of swimming, I’ve only swum in a pool thirteen times. I was surprised when I checked my blog and saw this number. In some senses, it made me happy; I’m glad I’ve enjoyed so many open-water swims. While I knew I’d swim in some pools, wild swimming and being out in nature; that was the spirit of this challenge. So I celebrate the fact that I’ve gotten to do that the vast majority of the time.

But these comparatively few pool swims also tell a worse story; a story of mega-drought and climate change. Of my thirteen pool swims, only four (including today’s) were because the rain kept me out of the bay. And for one of them, I ultimately regretted staying away because we didn’t end up getting much rain. So really, there have only been three days in this entire year of swimming that we got enough rain to create enough runoff to make swimming in the bay potentially hazardous to my health. Sometimes I think about the future of water in my beloved home state of California and I’m paralyzed by fear and grief. 

Girls in the Surf with Moon Casting a Shadow, Joan Brown, 1962

In happier news, yesterday I went to see the Joan Brown exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Joan Brown was a renowned local painter but also an avid open-water swimmer. She, along with five other women, filed a class action sexual discrimination lawsuit against the then male-only South-End Rowing Club, Dolphin Club, and Ariel Club (a third open-water swimming club that no longer exists). They won their lawsuit in 1976, forcing the clubs to start admitting women as members.  

Girl Bathing at Night, Joan Brown, 1962

In 1975 she took part in an all-women swim from Alcatraz that turned treacherous when a freighter passed and left monster waves in its wake. Brown got disoriented, hypothermic, and nearly drowned. The harrowing swim left a deep imprint on Brown, which she grappled with in several paintings. 

The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim, Joan Brown, 1975

As a side note–you can see how dramatically her style changed from those earlier paintings to these ones. One of many fascinating things I learned about her was how, just when she was starting to get a foothold in the art world, she went underground for a couple of years and emerged with a radically different style. Another way in which she lived life exactly on her own terms.

After the Alcatraz Swim #1, Joan Brown, 1975

In this first in a series of paintings Brown created delving into her traumatic experience on that first Alcatraz swim (she would go on to swim it again), a painting within the painting depicts the dramatic swim, but the woman (Brown) stands confidently in safety near a cozy fireplace. 

After the Alcatraz Swim #3, Joan Brown, 1976

In this painting, the dangerous swim is again kept safely away from where Brown sits, wearing a dress decorated with the freighter that nearly drowned her. 

It was a beautiful exhibit and I enjoyed it all—not just the swimming scenes.

And today’s swim in the pool at the Y felt good. Sometimes I forget how good a pool swim can feel. My only complaint was how warm the water was—I had to compensate with a cold shower afterward!

One thought on “Joan Brown, Drought, and a Pool Swim (Day 336)

  1. Beautiful post today. Love Joan brown and thanks for sharing this story of her life, journey and creative work.

    And yes we are in serious planetary troubles. And no sick pay (or movement for universal health care), DACA vote, to name only a few despairing things from this week 😦 but we do have love.


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