Muralist and sign painter James "Brick" Brigance sits with his head down, gripping the arms of his wheelchair in a small but comfortable room at the Willowbend convalescent center in Marion, Arkansas. "I miss them walls, man," he laments. "I miss painting on them. I think about painting those walls every time before I go to sleep. I'm just like a football player, I tell you. I'm like a football player who's been knocked down, but I'm gonna get back up. I am going to get back up."
Brigance is 55 years old. That's a good age for an artist, he says, because by the time a man's 55, he's done about everything there is to do. The wildness has worked its way out, and he can approach his work with skill and confidence.
"Maybe if I can get me some legs I can get back to painting before I'm too old," he says, listing the indignities that have become a part of his daily routine.
"Fell off the commode two or three times," he says, shaking his head in an un-self-conscious gesture of amusement and shame. "Busted my ass too."
Two years ago, while riding his bicycle along Lamar Avenue, Brigance, whose ubiquitous signs and murals are woven into the fabric of life in Memphis, was struck by a car. Shortly thereafter his legs became infected and gangrenous, and they had to be removed.
"I ache a lot," he says. "I've been through a lot of operations, but I'm going to be okay. I've been on a lot of pain medicine, but I'm going to get back up, you watch."
Brick, one of seven children born and raised in a small house on Douglass Avenue near Airways in the Orange Mound community, earned his nickname on the job. "A lot of people can't paint on brick walls, you see, because it's really a challenge. But it just came natural to me, and I like doing it," says Brigance, whose first artworks consisted of drawings he made in the dirt with a stick.
"I was drawing in the dirt before I went to paper, then I went from paper to watercolor painting, then oil paint, then chalks and pastels," Brigance says. "My brother Charles taught me a lot too. He was good and went off to California and got work painting backgrounds for Disney.
"It was rough growing up on Douglass. But it was good too," Brigance says, remembering the days when he and his friends would play football in the streets. "A lot of the guys in my neighborhood were smart, but they was into a lot of junk too — junk that got them in trouble. But all of us was like family on my street."
As a teenager, Brigance joined a harmony-singing group called the Tennessee Playboys, which he compares to the Temptations. "We sang every week on WDIA, played at Bill's Twilight Lounge and at the Rosewood over on Lauderdale," he says. "Bubba, one of the guys who used to sing with us was 17 when he died in jail after an asthma attack. We broke up at about the time everybody started chasing girls. Like I said, it could be rough sometimes. And sometimes we didn't get along, but the family stuck together when times got hard. We'd build our own bikes and go-carts. And we'd run. All the boys in my family was fast and could outrun anybody in the neighborhood. Sometimes we'd run around the block five times just for the hell of it. We'd wake up in the morning and run. Just run."
Brigance studied art at Melrose High School. "I couldn't read or write too good, but I could draw," he says. "The teacher, Mr. Purvis, gave me a circle and a square to draw, but instead I drew him."
His first professional work as an artist was to paint the exterior of Raiford's Hollywood Disco, as well as a portrait of Robert Raiford who owned the storied dance club. "I used to paint Raiford's name on the side of his cars too," he says.
Although his hand-stenciled signs on businesses can be found all over Memphis, most of Brigance's surviving murals are located in Orange Mound. "I didn't have a car," he explains. "And everywhere I went I was walking or riding my bike, so I'd just walk along until I saw a wall that didn't have anything on it.
"I had my hangouts," he says. "I used to stay on the street. I'd kick it with the winos, I didn't care. I was having a good time."
Eventually, Brigance made Pressure World, the Lamar Avenue club, garage, and car wash, his base of operations.
"I stayed busy because people knew where to find me. They said, 'We'll catch him at the car wash.' And I was good at detailing cars. People liked me because I could get on them cars and shine them up like nobody else. I had cars lined up waiting for me, because for $20, I'd paint your initials in the back window. I was making good money and reaching my peak, then all of a sudden — BOOM. I got messed up. But I'm going to come back. And when I come back, I'm going to come back strong because I've got a lot of stuff in me.
"I need to take a nap now," Brigance eventually says, looking up at the large painting of an armed Japanese nobleman that he painted for his sister Doris 31 years ago. He shuffles through recent paper images of orange cats and yellow flowers, the first drawings he's made in more than 15 years.
"I want to make a lot more drawings," he says, getting ready for bed. "I just ain't ready yet. I've been going through a process of healing and a lot of times I hurt. I hurt a lot. That kind of takes me away from wanting to draw. And I'm not about to do anything if I'm not good at it.
"I need to get some glasses so I can get all the details right," Brigance says. "I need to get some legs. I need to get back on the walls before I get too old."