Wabanaki jewelry and clothing design celebrates the past and present
Jason Brown didn’t realize he was telling the oldest of the many stories of his Wabanaki ancestors, the story of the creative deity Klooscap, through a piece of jewelry he made. This only occurred to him when his friend Harald Prins, a renowned anthropologist and Wabanaki scholar, pointed it out to him.
“In the creation story, 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 cuff out of braided brown ash and copper, and Harald said to me, ‘You know your ancestors mined copper from the Bay of Fundy. You have the whole creation story here. I did not realize the importance of it. … And then it kind of hit me in a big way. The light went out.
The bracelet – the traditional Wabanaki woven brown ash set in a large, finely crafted silver bangle, 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 jewelry.
With this newfound confidence, he joined forces with his wife three years ago and went from part-time artist to full-time artist.
Over the past year, Brown and Decontie Brown have expanded their brand to include clothing – ready-to-wear dresses, leggings and hoodies available for purchase on their website, as well as clothing from One of a kind haute couture, Wabanaki- inspired tailoring suits designed by Brown, beaded by Decontie Brown and sewn by master Bangor seamstress Dana Lippett.
A number of their couture clothing designs will be on display during a fashion show at the Abbe Museum’s midsummer event, slated for August 3 in Bar Harbor. Brown and Decontie Brown are also part of this year’s Twisted Path exhibit on Indigenous art from Maine to the Abbe, through December 2017.
To hear Brown speak, the company and his art – the art he has been creating for over 20 years – are just starting to come together.
“Things have just started to fall into place,” said Brown, 43. “It took me a long time to really feel like I had the skills to create what I was seeing in my head. … It was a very creative time for us.
Just five years ago, jewelry designed by Brown was less intricate and intricate than it is today. At the time, he used pre-cut or less precisely cut gems and minerals and simpler metalworking techniques.
Now he uses things like argentium, which is more durable than traditional sterling silver; hand-cut gemstones and minerals such as citrine, amethyst and turquoise; and traditional materials used by the Wabanaki, such as deer antler and wampum shell, to create bracelets, necklaces and earrings both inspired by ancient designs and decidedly contemporary.
“We have found our look and our style. It’s inspired by Wabanaki beadwork, as we are both bead artists and we both dance the traditional way. Floral and vines are all on our badges – but that translates beautifully into the metalwork, ”said Brown. “DNA is everything Wabanaki. But we interpret it in our own, contemporary way.
In just a few short years, Brown’s work has grown by leaps and bounds. Its transformation in terms of quality and technique has not gone unnoticed. His most recent work was of a sufficiently high standard that in 2016, for the first time, he was accepted at the Santa Fe Indian Market, the most prestigious exhibition of Native American art in the world.
At the Indian market, he met Jesse Monongya, a Navajo and Hopi master jeweler Brown has admired for decades, with whom Brown was able to spend a week of intensive training last year. The couple will be present at the Indian market again this year.
“I never felt I was ready to apply even in 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 walked in. It was pretty amazing.”
Donna Decontie Brown, 43, is Brown’s business and life partner. The couple have been married for over a decade – although they first met at Donna Decontie Brown’s fifth birthday party. Both have been involved in the traditional arts from an early age.
“There was a lady on the Indian island who hired a few of us to make jewelry for her. Just simple, straightforward necklaces, but we’ve progressed beyond that, ”said Decontie Brown. “It was my little part-time job when I was a kid. We grew up learning how to make jewelry. This is our world.
A talented artist in her own right, Decontie Brown applies traditional Wabanaki beading to many tailoring garments she creates, from a long, shiny green velvet dress embroidered with thousands of tiny seed beads and black crystals to an elaborate black cape. and dramatic, dress and headdress combination, inspired by a traditional Wabanaki hunting costume, itself inspired by feathers and the shape of an owl.
“It takes hours. It’s very methodical work, ”said Decontie Brown.
Brown began stringing beads behind the counter at his family’s general store on Indian Island, while his grandparents watched him when he was not at school. By the age of 8, he had amassed a jewelry collection and, foreshadowing his future career, he went door-to-door around the island.
“I don’t know if they bought it because they wanted it or because they thought it was cute, but I understood that I could make money making jewelry,” said Brown said.
In his freshman year at Brewer High School, he had already participated in his first craft sale, at the Brewer Eagles Club. By the time he finished high school, he had enrolled in goldsmithing courses offered by the Maine College of Art at Hampden Academy. Soon after, he moved to New Mexico to study at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe; he stayed in the southwest for over a decade after that.
Although Decontie Brown and Brown first met when they were kids on Indian Island, it took them almost 20 years to get back together. They met again when Brown was back from Arizona, visiting his family in Maine. Decontie Brown moved to Arizona with Brown for a few months, but in 2004 the couple returned to Maine for good, eventually settling in Bangor.
Brown said that while it might be easier in some ways to market their work if they lived in New York City, they have 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 Indigenous art world is dominated by Indigenous artists from the West – in numbers, there are simply more artists from the more populous tribes of the West, such as the Navajo. But, like other acclaimed Wabanaki artists such as basket makers Jeremy Frey, Teresa Secord, and George Neptune, Jason Brown represents his small but powerful tribe on international art stages, like the Santa Fe Market.
“When you meet other Native people, some of them have never heard of your tribe. It’s not their fault, they just haven’t heard from us. We are a small tribe. They say they didn’t even know there were native people in Maine, ”Brown said. “It’s just a really good way to put ourselves in the spotlight. We feel really good.
Decontie and Brown will then be shown at the Indian Market and Festival at the Eitlejorg Museum in Indianapolis on June 24-25, and at the Maine Indian Basket Makers Show and Festival on 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.