Roger Brown was born on December 10, 1941 and raised in Hamilton and Opelika, Alabama. After graduating from high school in 1960, Brown attended David Lipscomb College in Nashville, TN, a school associated with the Church of Christ, where he briefly pursued an interest in becoming a minister. In 1961, he decided to attend art school, and in the fall of 1962 he moved to Chicago where he first took classes at the American Academy of Art before enrolling at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). His first experience at SAIC was brief, and in 1963 he returned to the American Academy of Art, where he completed a commercial design program in 1964. He then returned to SAIC as a full-time student from 1965–70, where he committed to a fine art focus that he pursued with great intensity and originality for the next three decades. In 1968, Brown received his Bachelor of Fine Art, and in 1970 he was awarded his Master of Fine Art, both from SAIC. While pursuing his MFA, Brown received the Edward L. Ryerson Traveling Fellowship, which supported travels throughout Europe and Egypt. Travel throughout the United States and in Mexico, Europe, Russia, and Africa figured prominently as a source for inspiration and found expression in many paintings.
During this time, Brown was engaged in the emergence of an energetic environment of art-making in Chicago, which later became known as Chicago Imagism. Inspired by instructors Ray Yoshida and Whitney Halstead, works by Roger Brown and a number of fellow students were initially recognized and supported by curator Don Baum, who organized influential exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. In 1972 Brown was featured in the book Fantastic Images: Chicago Art Since 1945 by Franz Schultz.
Encouraged by Yoshida and Halstead, Brown and his colleagues began to look to the work of self-taught artists, visiting Joseph Yoakum, Aldo Piacenza, William Dawson, Lee Godie, Henry Darger, and others, responding to their works with a spirit of visual and intellectual curiosity and genuine respect—ushering them inside the cultural arena, not to an outsider realm.
Brown's media eventually included sculpture of found, assembled, and painted objects, theater and opera sets, and mosaic murals, in addition to painting and printmaking. In 1979, he designed sets for the Chicago Opera Theatre's production of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte.
Brown developed a mature visual vocabulary in the late 1960s, engaging silhouetted figures, nocturnal cityscapes, and theatre facades and interiors. In the early 1970s, he received acclaim for paintings of stylized landscapes and cityscapes as stark backdrops for aspects of contemporary life, the disasters series—paintings of exploding buildings (1972), and a procession of iconic, flat-patterned landscapes. As his renown grew in the 1980s and '90s, Brown addressed a range of subjects and issues including architecture; natural and urban landscapes; the dichotomy between nature and culture; disasters of all types; current and political events; social, religious, and popular cultures; sensational events and banal commonplaces; autobiographical, personal, and sexual issues; the art world in its many guises; cosmology; mortality; history; mythology; and more. He used the weather as a grand, allegorical backdrop for the larger physical and metaphysical forces that dwarf the human endeavor.
In 1991, his Italian glass mosaic murals, Arts and Sciences of the Ancient World: The Flight of Daedalus and Icarus and Arts and Sciences of the Modern World: La Salle Corridor with Holding Pattern were installed on the façade and in the lobby of the Ahmanson Commercial Development Company (a subsidiary of Home Savings of America, at 120 North LaSalle Street, Chicago. His third (untitled) mosaic mural is a tribute to the African burial ground at the Foley Square Federal Building at 290 Broadway, New York City, dedicated in 1995. In September 1997 the mosaic mural Hull House, Cook County, Howard Brown: A Tradition of Helping, designed by Brown, was dedicated at the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago.
In the 1990s, Brown created sequences of ominous clouds and a series of paintings reflecting his passion for rose trees and shrubs. In 1995 and '96, he made the Virtual Still Life series, 27 paintings with projecting shelves holding ceramic objects—meditations on the dialog between painting and object, and the nature of reality. His final sequence was a metaphorical exploration of bonsai, in which giant trees tower over miniature figures. Throughout his career Brown intended his works to have the clarity and accessibility of folk art while expressing the conceptual depth and complexity of 20th-century life. He presented temporal events with uncanny prescience, giving his work fresh relevance when viewed against the ongoing progression of current events.
In October, the Chicago Commission on Human Relations' Advisory Council on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues inducted Roger Brown (among other notable individuals and organizations) into the world's only known municipally sponsored hall of fame that honors members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.
Brown's exhibition history is extensive. He was represented by the Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago and New York, and his work was shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions around the country and abroad. Major retrospectives of his work were mounted at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in 1980, and at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 1987. His last solo exhibition of paintings was in 1997 at Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago. He is represented in many major museum collections including the Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; Museum of Modern Art; Corcoran Gallery of Art; High Museum of Art; Milwaukee Art Museum; and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.