Famous Abenaki designers are ditching jewelry for a new art form
More than 20 years after Penobscot Nation artists Jason Brown and Donna Decontie Brown began making and selling jewelry as Decontie & Brown, the duo have so far hung up their claws in favor of a broader and interdisciplinary way of making art.
Shortly after the onset of the pandemic, Jason Brown threw his passion behind Firefly, a multimedia performance art project that over the past two years has transformed his artistic life. Through music, video, dance and fashion, Brown creates an immersive live experience, drawing inspiration from ancestral Wabanaki music and imagery, but with a futuristic twist.
“It’s native futurism,” he says. “A lot of people think that indigenous peoples are something ancient or of the past. They don’t see us as current, and they certainly don’t see us as futuristic. But we are there, and we will be there. One of the reasons I do this is to show it off.
The road to Firefly was long but inevitable. In 2016, Decontie & Brown began making apparel and accessories in addition to jewelry, appearing in fashion shows at major Native American art shows like Santa Fe Indian Market, Heard Museum Guild Indian Market in Phoenix , Arizona, and more locally at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor.
Brown created his own music for some of these shows, inspiring him to learn more about recording and creating soulful electronic beats to sing and drum to. The songs themselves were already there, drawing inspiration from ancient Wabanaki music that he learned years ago from tribal elders.
“There’s a reason these chants, these notes, these melodies have lasted for thousands of years,” he said. “They may have changed a bit over the generations, but the original power behind them comes through. We just put our own flavor into it and pass it on. It’s all part of a continuation of that 13,000-year-old circle of creativity.
Although Brown and his wife and creative partner Decontie Brown found great success in making fine jewelry, when the pandemic hit, it changed everything for them. All the art exhibitions they normally go to in the spring, summer and fall have been cancelled.
Bored and restless, Brown began hosting live streams featuring himself singing and drumming to these beats, wearing some of the clothing designs he and Decontie Brown created, and setting up evocative lighting in purples. deep, blues, reds and greens – colors inspired by the light of fireflies, the northern lights and the night sky in general.
Its live streams were popular from the start, and Brown dubbed the project Firefly. After a few months, it became very clear to him that this was the direction he needed to go creatively. In 2021, he and Decontie Brown made the decision to begin refocusing Decontie & Brown away from just jewelry and fashion, and being a “house of creativity” – a partnership that encompasses the elements of design, music and video of their work.
“COVID was a tragedy, but it was also a great reset for so many people. It made so many people re-evaluate things in their lives,” he said. “I know it did for me.”
Since then, Brown has released a number of songs as Firefly, releasing her debut album, “Sacred Fire,” last year. He performed live shows across Maine and the country, including several shows in Portland over the winter. In his live shows, he transforms venues into glittering nocturnal paradises and encourages the audience to participate in the sung and rhythmic aspects.
Earlier this year, Brown also completed work as Firefly on a digital video art piece called “WABANAVIA,” which not only explores his Wabanaki heritage, but also his Scandinavian roots, as he has Swedish ancestry. The Portland Museum of Art purchased “WABANAVIA” in February as part of its permanent collection.
While Brown creates his music and visuals, Donna Decontie Brown works with him to create and present the live shows and manage their business, while working as the director of the Wabanaki Women’s Coalition. They’ve also been busy transforming their Bangor home and studio into a media hub, and far from a jewelry studio.
Not that Brown intends to give up jewelry making forever. That’s what launched him as an artist and what put him on the path to Firefly.
“The other day I had to get my tools out so I could do a little repair on a part I made a few years ago,” he said. “It’s nice to remember that I haven’t lost my touch, even though my creativity is in another place now.”
Firefly will next perform on Saturday June 18 at the Bangor Arts Exchange as part of WERU-FM’s Summer Concert Series. For more information, visit fireflythehybrid.com.