By Virginia M. Wright Photographs Courtesy of Decontie & Brown
Jason K. Brown spent the first weeks of the year innovating a form of inlaid jewelry. Descended from a long line of Penobscot beadworkers and basketmakers, Brown wove thin strips of argentium silver and brown ash into tiny cubes — “like upside-down square baskets” — then set them into silver cuffs, much the way Navajo metalworkers inlay turquoise stones.
“I learned lapidary techniques from an incredible Hopi-Navajo jewelry maker, Jesse Monongya,” Brown says, “but my goal isn’t to copy the masters of Southwest jewelry. I want to pay respect to Wabanaki traditions and our region.”
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Silver and ash cuffs marry traditional basketry with metalwork. The Maine State Museum recently added the Creation Cuff, top, to its permanent collection; The Star People necklace showcases Maine stones.
In fact, all of the jewelry and fashions designed by Jason and his wife, Donna Decontie-Brown, are contemporary riffs on Wabanaki crafts and iconography — a star-people necklace with abstract mothership, extraterrestrials, and planets created from Maine red jasper, rhyolite, and granite, for instance, and sleek, ankle-skimming dresses with bold patterns striated like feathers. “Some people don’t feel they can carry off clothing with more traditional designs,” Donna explains. “We like to create things that can be worn by everybody.”
Jason does the metalwork and lapidary, and Donna, who works full-time as an educator with the Wabanaki Women’s Coalition, does the beading and fringing on the made-to-order clothes. Their pieces are carried by several Maine museum shops and have twice gained them entry into the prestigious Santa Fe Indian Market (where Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg bought one of their necklaces). American Idol and The Voice alum Frenchie Davis has performed wearing their custom collars and earrings.
Jason, 44, and Donna, 43, first met at Donna’s fifth birthday party on the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation, and as children they learned to bead on looms side by side. Today, they’re known in the Penobscot community for ceremonial regalia and trendy fashions alike. They collaborate on most designs. “We keep trying to push the envelope,” Donna says. “It’s about doing and sharing what we love and inspiring others.”
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Dalayun Demmons in traditionally adorned haute couture; Jason Brown and Donna Decontie-Brown in their Bangor studio.
Tell us more Jason K. Brown
The stones you use in your jewelry are incredible. Where do you find them?
I mostly use stones that I find in Maine streams and beaches. I bring a squirt bottle because it brings out the color. I look not so much for a type of stone but its beauty. Volcanic rhyolite and granite come in all different colors and patterns. Sometimes I add Southwestern stones, like turquoise. Red or orange granite from Maine really shows them off.
What will you be entering into this year’s Santa Fe Indian Market?
I’m working on a collar-style necklace — it’s a representation of trilliums, leaves, and unfurling ferns based on the design aesthetic of Wabanaki floral and vine beadwork. Created in argentium silver, the trilliums will be set with Swarovski crystals and malachite leaves. The tiger’s eye honeybee will have wings of Maine mica.
Maine’s Wabanaki people are known for their weaving and basketry. But what about jewelry?
In the 1600s and 1700s, most Wabanaki jewelry was beadwork and quillwork. When it came to metalwork, we’d take our designs to local silversmiths. Anthropologists Harald Prins and Bunny McBride told me that, historically, Wabanaki people mined copper out of the Bay of Fundy and cold-formed it into adornments. I feel I’m kind of bringing back that tradition.
You and Donna both grew up on Indian Island. Was it a creative atmosphere?
In every part of our daily life, everything was handmade with care, and those skills have been passed along for millennia. Having also spent time with Native people in the Southwest — I went to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe — I find that the ability to create runs throughout our cultures. It’s a huge part in my life, the need to make stuff.
How do the traditional craftspeople from your community respond to your work?
They’re so excited to see how we’re reinterpreting traditions. Their love is sometimes overwhelming. It keeps us going and makes us proud.