A Midwesterner, John Sylvan Brown was a successful businessman, first in Omaha, Nebraska, then in La Grange, Illinois, near Chicago. A modest man, he claimed he was an amateur artist, yet he was involved in the local art scene. His obituary states: “Mr. Brown’s principal hobby and interest was painting.” Late in his life he settled in Tryon, North Carolina, where he painted mountain landscapes and woodland scenes.

Brown was born in Nebraska City, about forty miles south of Omaha. By 1910 he was living in La Grange and working in an iron foundry, and afterward in nearby Lyons, another Chicago suburb, where he owned the Arrow Tool Company. In 1919 his daughter Catherine married a commercial artist, Alfred Colby Hockings, who was first a student and then an instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago. Around that time or shortly thereafter, Brown enrolled in classes there, possibly studying with his son-in-law. 

In 1933 Brown was one of the founders of La Grange Art League, whose membership included both professional and amateur artists. Years later when it was incorporated as a non-profit its “aim [was] to provide its members the means for the study and improvement of their art endeavors and to promote art awareness and appreciation in the community.”

It is unknown exactly when Brown discovered the art colony in Tryon where Lawrence Mazzanovich and Homer Ellerston were leading figures. At some point it is known that he made the acquaintance of Charleston, South Carolina, artist Elizabeth O’Neill Verner who summered in nearby Brevard, North Carolina. It is likely that Brown made his first visits to Tryon in the late 1920s, possibly at the prompting of Carter Pennell Brown, a fellow Midwesterner and perhaps a distant relative. The latter Brown owned a hotel on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, in Castle Park, where John Sylvan Brown and his wife also owned a summer place. Carter Brown moved to Tryon in 1917, bought a sanitarium and remodeled it into a hotel, and helped transform the locale into a destination for equestrian enthusiasts. In 1945 John Sylvan Brown purchased his own place in Tryon, where he had already spent several winters.

On the occasion of Brown’s eightieth birthday, the La Grange newspaper commented: “Mr. Brown’s paintings which include the use of all the softest pastels and exquisite workmanship possible are remembered by LaGrangers, several of whom have his pictures as valued possessions.”  The article further reports on an exhibition in Tuxedo, near Tryon. He painted both oils and watercolors of the local scenery, sometimes mountain ranges seen from a distance, but also forests. He seems to have rarely painted blue skies and his many wintry scenes are characterized by tall, thin, leafless trees that frame vistas into the distance. He died in Tryon and his death certificate lists him as a “tool manufacturer.”