Transforming pain through paint, ‘Tech Picasso’ leaves traumatic memories behind
iAsia Brown spent 16 years as a gay woman in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” military. Now, she’s producing Xbox games, chasing her master’s degree at USC Marshall and painting images that stop viewers in their tracks.
iAsia Brown’s Oceanside home seems in artful disarray. The downstairs space, cleared of furniture, is her latest canvas. Brown is ripping up her floor, pushing a loud machine the size of a lawnmower around the room, scraping up the old deck. It’s an impromptu project.
“I just had a vision of what I wanted it to be,” said Brown, surveying the broken pieces that will soon be transformed into a gleaming horizontal tableau.
Around the room, upstairs and in the garage are numerous art supplies and paintings. Most pieces are recognizable images of well-known figures. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Queen Nefertiti of Egypt. Muhammad Ali. LeBron James.
And then there is Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman. Boseman stares intensely at his gloved hands, seeming to contemplate his power before making a critical decision.
“It’s a film that didn’t depict Black people in a stereotypical light,” Brown said. “It was tech, it was science, it was art. It was all the creative things that are typically left out.”
A need to disappear in a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ world
As a senior producer for Xbox, Brown creates a suspenseful but safe world of fantasy. It’s earned her the sobriquet “Tech Picasso.” Her latest project, not yet released, is Contraband, which she describes as a smuggler’s fantasy.
“When you create a game people feel a passion for, they build a community around it,” Brown said. “The gaming community is one of the best. Being gay in the military, it was the gaming community that kept me safe.”
Brown served four years in the Air Force and 12 in the Marine Corps. Her sexuality made her a refugee, fleeing her family home in Queens, N.Y., at 17.
“I was gay, and I wanted to live my life my way with the means to take care of myself,” she said.
“That’s what the military gave me.”
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During basic training, Brown thought she was going to be a cook. Her assignment, though, turned out to be a type of service few imagine:
“They told me, ‘Brown, you’re going to the mortuary.’ I didn’t even know what that meant. They said, ‘You’ll figure it out when you get there.’”
She pauses before adding, “I figured it out.”
USC student veteran reflects on war
Brown was 18 years old when she walked into the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, arriving just in time to process the remains of service members killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We were working 18 hours a day on those bodies,” she said. “At that age, it’s a lot to be surrounded by that much death, and that dramatic caliber of death. It was, and is, traumatic, especially because I’m a New Yorker.”
After Dover, Brown deployed to Iraq. She is both stoic and straightforward about her experiences with war and the aftermath of mass death.
“There was no opportunity to resist or embrace it. It just was. And it was terrible,” she said. “I lost my mind.”
Discovering an unknown talent later in life
iAsia Brown didn’t pick up a brush until she was in her mid-30s.
“It was a form of therapy for me, struggling with my PTSD,” she said. “I would just recall a picture and paint. I didn’t know I could paint the way I do.”
Kneeling by a full-size painting of Ruth Bader Ginsburg that appears complete, the artist describes her vision: a Supreme Court justice with emerald or jade earrings, lace for the collar and robe material.
“I’m going to put that on the painting so it’s truly mixed media,” Brown said. “It’s in constant revision.”
In choosing her subjects, Brown finds meaning in figures who used their power to uplift others.
“When it comes to women’s rights, she led the way,” Brown said of Ginsburg. “If it wasn’t for her, women wouldn’t have bank accounts. We lost her at a time when women’s rights really needed her, needed her voice.”
Across the room is a smaller painting of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. It’s a work in progress, but it’s progressing fast. Brown dips her brush into deep greens and golds, tracing the royal outline with a broad stroke of rich, thick color that commands reverence.
“The sovereignty of women has been forgotten,” she said. “But whenever you see Queen Nefertiti, you are instantly reminded that this is a queen. Even if you don’t know her name, you know she’s a queen.”
USC student veteran: ready to take a fall
Brown’s home is a stone’s throw from Camp Pendleton. At 40, she enjoys life with her wife and daughter. They take roller-skating breaks at a nearby park, zigging and zagging across the pavement.
“I like to skate because it’s freeing,” she said. “You move your body, you take in the weather. You don’t really worry about anything when you’re skating. You don’t even worry about falling. If my biggest concern is me falling, I’m OK with that.”
After skating, Brown returns to the intense work of producing an Xbox game headed for worldwide release. There’s also her coursework at the USC Marshall School of Business in the Master of Business for Veterans program, which requires her to be on campus two weekends a month.
When asked why she took on the intensive course to her substantial workload, her answer is at the ready:
“USC has its own community. From the outside looking in, I would see how they found each other collectively at events — how they networked. I wanted that.”
In between studying, parenting, skating and working, there is always one more endeavor: creating.
“Everything is art to me. Everything is creation,” Brown said. “I’ve got a vision of what I want the world to look like, and I’m just going to create it.”