Illini Media pays tribute to a longtime artist and cartoonist
Robert “Buck” Brown, a 1966 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus, noticed the blank blackboard and saw the space filled with a drawing of a truck. Watching in awe, Brown would master his craft and later go on hiatus as an artist for publications such as Playboy and Ebony magazines until his passing in April 2007.
Brown’s fifty to sixty years of experience will be honored with his induction into the Illini Media Hall of Fame class of 2022 this month.
“He was a survivor,” said Brown’s wife, Mary Ellen Brown. “He’s a survivor and he’s ambitious. And even though he never received encouragement in his childhood, he managed to come out on top.
Throughout his educational career, he was rejected by The New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post. He eventually sent a collection of sketches to Playboy, thinking they would reject him.
Playboy magazine founder and editor Hugh Hefner accepted Brown’s eighth sketch – a reference to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Brown’s ability to create satirical pieces beginning in 1961 allowed him to contribute approximately 600 cartoons to the magazine over more than 45 years.
“One of the things about Buck was that he was an accomplished comedian and observer of the American scene,” said Andrew J. Sordoni III, a longtime collector of American illustrations and comics. “He was extremely sensitive to all the issues of the time and he loved people.”
Always carrying a sketchbook, Brown focused on creative works that included “slice of life” scenes, Chiaroscuro Records album covers, and soul-genre paintings. Mary Ellen Brown was most fond of the animal comics Brown created in her home studio because those were the pieces she could introduce to a wider audience.
As a budding African-American artist in the 50s and 60s, he knew he couldn’t become an artist deep down. In his 1984 interview with Playboy editor Michelle Urry, Brown described how he came to his vision of success as an entertainer.
“Coming to the time I did, you had to be resilient,” Brown said. “You had to be able to laugh no matter what, you know? I mean you felt like crying inside but… you always managed to shed some light on the situation.
Brown only learned to design risque pieces while working with Playboy, adding his sense of humor to pieces to personalize them. In addition, her photographic memory allowed her to find the light side of life’s obstacles or what Eileen Guo of Playboy invented such as Brown’s strong points – “overturning norms and detoxifying forbidden topics”.
Brown supported himself throughout his educational career by joining the Air Force at the age of 19. In his free time, he made satirical sketches of a senior official in his unit.
“Other people knew it (it was him) and they cracked up every time,” Mary Ellen Brown said. “Buck realized how powerful he could be just by saying something.”
Brown received an early honorable discharge and attended Woodrow Wilson College while driving a bus as a Chicago Transit Authority driver. After graduating, he continued his studies at the University of Illinois for a Bachelor of Fine Arts, where he met his wife during his freshman year.
In his interview and the description of the interview with Larry Crowe of “The HistoryMakers”, Brown described his strained relationship with his parents.
Mary Ellen Brown realized how vital family was to him. They got back together after meeting in the campus art building. The two married in White Plains, New York, where she worked as a programmer.
“He had, you know, a tough life there for a while,” Mary Ellen Brown said. “But he got better after he met me and we got married. He had support. He had a person working with him. We were a team.
They had opposite personalities but complemented each other throughout their careers while raising son Robert “Bobby” Brown and daughter Tracy Hill.
“I’m definitely daddy’s little girl,” Hill said. “Always was and always will be. He was my hero. He was my original Superman. He was just my everything.
Since his passing, the family has kept Brown’s memory alive by placing his artwork in the home, telling stories about him, and treating the art studio as a memorial.
“My dad crosses me all the time,” Bobby Brown said. “Because we spent so much time together and he shared life lessons with me, that’s where we connected.”