Jason Brown didn’t realize he was telling the oldest of the many stories of his Wabanaki ancestors, the story of creator deity Klooscap, through a piece of jewelry he was making. It didn’t dawn on him until his friend Harald Prins, a renowned anthropologist and Wabanaki scholar, pointed it out.
“In the creation story, Klooscap shot his arrow into the brown ash tree, and split the tree, and Wabanaki came out of the tree, which is why all Wabanaki basketry is brown ash,” Brown, who with his wife Donna Decontie Brown own Bangor-based jewelry and fashion design label Decontie and Brown, said. “I was making this cuff,out of woven brown ash and copper, and Harald said to me, ‘You know your ancestors mined copper out of the Bay of Fundy. You have the whole creation story right here.’ I didn’t realize the significance of it. … And then it just kind of hit me in a big way. The light went off.”
The bracelet — traditional Wabanaki woven brown ash set in a finely crafted wide silver bracelet, which he dubbed the Creation Cuff — became the catalyst for Brown’s dramatic transformation as an artist. It’s still one of his best-selling pieces of jewelry.
Buoyed by that newfound confidence, three years ago he partnered up with his wife and took the leap from part-time artist to full time.
Brown and Decontie Brown have in the past year expanded their brand to include clothing — ready-to-wear dresses, leggings and hoodies that are available to purchase on their website, and high-fashion, one-of-a-kind, Wabanaki-inspired couture costumes designed by Brown, beaded by Decontie Brown and sewn by Bangor master seamstress Dana Lippett.
A number of their couture clothing designs will be on display at a fashion show at the Abbe Museum’s Midsummer Event, set for Aug. 3 in Bar Harbor. Brown and Decontie Brown are also part of this year’s Twisted Path exhibit of Maine Native art at the Abbe, on display through December 2017.
To hear Brown talk, the business and his art — art he’s been making for more than 20 years — is just now starting to all come together.
“Things have just kind of started to fall into place,” Brown, 43, said. “It took me a long time to really feel like I had the skill to create what I saw in my head. … It’s been a really creative time for us.”
Even just five years ago, the jewelry Brown designed was less intricate and complex than it is today. Back then, he utilized pre-cut or less precisely cut gems and minerals and simpler metal-crafting techniques.
Now he uses things like argentium silver, more durable than traditional sterling silver; hand-cut gems 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 that are at once inspired by ancient designs and decidedly contemporary.
“We found our look and style. It’s inspired by Wabanaki beadwork, because we’re both beadwork artists and we both dance traditionally. The floral and the vines are all on our regalia — but it translates beautifully into the metal work,” Brown said. “The DNA is all Wabanaki. But we interpret it in our own, contemporary way.”
Over just a few years, Brown’s work has grown by leap and bounds. His transformation in terms of quality and technique has not gone unnoticed. His more recent work was of a high enough standard that in 2016 for the first time he was accepted into the Santa Fe Indian Market, the most prestigious Native American art show in the world.
At the Indian Market he met Jesse Monongya, a master Navajo and Hopi jeweler Brown has admired for decades, with whom Brown was able to spend a week intensively training last year. The couple will attend the Indian Market again this year.
“I never felt I was ready to even 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 got in. It was pretty amazing.”
Donna Decontie Brown, 43, is Brown’s business partner and life partner. The couple has been married for more than a decade — though they initially they met at Donna Decontie Brown’s fifth birthday party. Both were involved in traditional arts from a very early age.
“There was a lady on Indian Island who hired a few of us students to make jewelry for her. Just simple, single strand necklaces, but we progressed beyond that,” Decontie Brown said. “That was my little part-time job as a kid. We grew up learning how 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 clothing items they create, from a long, brilliant green velvet dress embroidered with thousands of tiny black seed beads and crystals to an elaborate, dramatic black cape, dress and headdress combination, inspired by a traditional Wabanaki hunting costume, which itself was inspired by the feathers and shape of an owl.
“It takes hours. It’s very methodical work,” Decontie Brown said.
Brown got his start stringing beads behind the counter at his family’s general store on Indian Island, while his grandparents kept an eye on him when he wasn’t in school. By the time he was 8 years old, he’d amassed a collection of jewelry and, in a foreshadowing of his later career, he took his wares 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 figured out that I could make money by making jewelry,” Brown said.
During his freshman year at Brewer High School, he had already participated in his first craft sale, at the Brewer Eagles Club. By the end of high school, he’d enrolled in metalsmithing classes offered by Maine College of Art at Hampden Academy. Not long after that, he moved to New Mexico to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe; he stayed in the Southwest for more than a decade after that.
Though the Decontie Brown and Brown first met when they were children growing up on Indian Island, it took nearly 20 years for them to get back together. They re-met when Brown was back from Arizona, visiting family in Maine. Decontie Brown moved out 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 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. “This is home.”
The highly competitive Native art world is dominated by Western Native artists — by sheer numbers, there are simply more artists from the higher population tribes out west, like the Navajo. But, like other acclaimed Wabanaki artists such as basketmakers 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 Native people, some of them have never heard of your tribe. It’s not their fault, they just haven’t heard of us. We’re a small tribe. They say they didn’t even know there were Native people in Maine,” Brown said. “It’s just a really great way to shine a light on us. It feels really right.”
Decontie and Brown will next show at the Eitlejorg Museum Indian Market and Festival in Indianapolis, June 24-25, and at the Maine Indian Basket Makers Show and Festival, July 8 at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Their work is available to purchase at the Abbe Museum, Home and Away Gallery in Kennebunkport, and at the Portland Museum of Art gift shop.