Wabanaki jewelry and clothing design a celebration of past and present
Little did Jason Brown realize he was telling the oldest of many stories of his Wabanaki ancestors, the story of the creator deity Klooscap, through a piece of jewelry he made. This did not occur to him until his friend Harald Prins, renowned anthropologist and Wabanaki scholar, pointed it out to him.
“In the story of creation, Klooscap shot his arrow into the brown ash, and split the tree, and Wabanaki came out of the tree, that’s why all Wabanaki basketry is brown ash”, Brown , who along with his wife Donna Decontie Brown owns Bangor-based jewelry and fashion design brand Decontie and Brown, said. “I was making this braided brown ash and copper cuff, and Harald said to me, ‘You know your ancestors mined copper from the Bay of Fundy. You have the whole creation story here. I didn’t realize the importance of it. …And then it kind of hit me in a big way. The light went out.
The bracelet – a traditional Wabanaki woven brown ash set in a wide, intricately worked silver bracelet, which he dubbed the Creation Cuff – became the catalyst for Brown’s dramatic transformation as an artist. It is still one of her best-selling jewels.
With this newfound confidence, he joined forces with his wife three years ago and made the leap from part-time to full-time artist.
Brown and Decontie Brown have expanded their brand over the past year to include clothing – ready-to-wear dresses, leggings and hoodies that are available for purchase on their website, and unique, high-fashion Wabanaki-inspired couture suits designed by Brown, beaded by Decontie Brown and sewn by Bangor master seamstress Dana Lippett.
A number of their haute couture clothing designs will be on display at a fashion show at the Abbe Museum’s summer event, taking place August 3 in Bar Harbor. Brown and Decontie Brown are also part of this year’s Maine Native Art Twisted Path exhibit at the Abbe, running through December 2017.
To hear Brown speak, the business and his art — the art he’s been doing for more than 20 years — are just beginning to come together.
“Things just started to fall into place,” Brown, 43, said. “It took me a long time to really feel like I had the skills to create what I saw in my head. … It’s been a really creative time for us.
Just five years ago, jewelry designed by Brown was less complicated and intricate than it is today. At the time, he used pre-cut or less precisely cut gemstones and minerals and simpler metal fabrication techniques.
Now he uses things like argentium, which is more durable than traditional sterling silver; hand-cut gemstones and minerals like citrine, amethyst and turquoise; and traditional materials used by the Wabanaki, such as deer antler and wampum shell, to create bracelets, necklaces and earrings that are both inspired by ancient designs and decidedly contemporary.
“We found our look and our style. It’s inspired by Wabanaki beadwork, because we’re both beadworkers and we both dance traditionally. Flowers and vines are all on our badges – but that translates beautifully into the metal work,” Brown said. “DNA is all Wabanaki. But we interpret it in our own, contemporary way.
In just a few years, Brown’s work has grown by leaps and bounds. His transformation in terms of quality and technique has not gone unnoticed. His most recent work was of a high enough standard that in 2016 it was accepted for the first time at the Santa Fe Indian Market, the world’s most prestigious Native American art exhibition.
At the Indian market, he met Jesse Monongya, a Navajo and Hopi master jeweler whom Brown has admired for decades, with whom Brown was able to spend a week training intensively last year. The couple will again participate in the Indian market this year.
“I never felt ready to apply to Santa Fe [before]. We just weren’t at that level,” Brown said. “Last year we applied for the first time, and on our first try I was admitted. It was pretty amazing.”
Donna Decontie Brown, 43, is Brown’s business partner and life partner. The couple have been married for over a decade – although they initially met at Donna Decontie Brown’s fifth birthday party. Both were involved in traditional arts from an early age.
“There was a lady on Indian Island who hired a few of us to make jewelry for her. Just simple single strand necklaces, but we’ve progressed beyond that,” Decontie Brown said. “It was my little part-time job when I was a kid. We grew up learning to make jewelry. It’s our world.”
A gifted artist in her own right, Decontie Brown applies traditional Wabanaki beadwork to many of the couture garments they create, from a long, shiny green velvet dress embroidered with thousands of tiny seed beads and black crystals to an elaborate black cape. and dramatic, combination of dress and headdress, inspired by a traditional Wabanaki hunting costume, itself inspired by the feathers and shape of an owl.
“It takes hours. It’s very methodical work,” said Decontie Brown.
Brown began stringing beads behind the counter of his family’s general store on Indian Island, while his grandparents watched him when he was not in school. By the age of 8 he had amassed a collection of jewelry and, foreshadowing his later career, he went door to door around the island.
“I don’t know if they bought it because they wanted to or because they thought it was cute, but I realized that I could make money making jewelry,” said Brown said.
During his freshman year at Brewer High School, he had already attended his first craft sale, at the Brewer Eagles Club. By the end of high school, he had enrolled in metalwork courses offered by the Maine College of Art at Hampden Academy. Soon after, he moved to New Mexico to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe; he remained in the southwest for over a decade after that.
Although the Deconties Brown and Brown first met while growing up on Indian Island, it took them nearly 20 years to get back together. They reunited when Brown was back from Arizona, visiting family in Maine. Decontie Brown moved to Arizona with Brown for a few months, but by 2004 the couple had moved back to Maine permanently, eventually settling in Bangor.
Brown said that while it might be easier to market their work if they lived in New York, they had no interest in leaving Maine.
“It’s great to visit, but by the time we’re done with a show, I can’t wait to leave,” he said. “It is the house.”
The highly competitive native art world is dominated by native artists from the west – in numbers, there are simply more artists from the more populous western tribes, such as the Navajo. But, like other acclaimed Wabanaki artists such as basket weavers Jeremy Frey, Teresa Secord and George Neptune, Jason Brown represents his small but mighty tribe on international art stages, like the Santa Fe market.
“When you meet other Aboriginal people, some of them have never heard of your tribe. It’s not their fault, they just haven’t heard of us. We are a small tribe. They say they didn’t even know there were natives in Maine,” Brown said. “It’s just a really good way to shine a light on us. It’s really good.
Decontie and Brown will next be featured at the Eitlejorg Museum’s Indian Market and Festival in Indianapolis, June 24-25, and the Maine Indian Basket Makers Show and Festival, July 8 at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Their work is available for purchase at the Abbe Museum, the Home and Away Gallery in Kennebunkport, and the Portland Museum of Art Gift Shop.