More than 20 years after Penobscot Nation artists Jason Brown and Donna Decontie Brown first began making and selling jewelry as Decontie & Brown, the pair have hung up their pliers for now in favor of a more expansive, interdisciplinary way of making art.
Shortly after the pandemic started, Jason Brown threw his passion behind Firefly, a multimedia performance art project that for the past two years has transformed his artistic life. Through music, video, dance and fashion, Brown creates an immersive live experience, drawing on ancestral Wabanaki music and imagery, but with a futuristic twist.
“It’s Indigenous futurism,” he said. “Many people think of Indigenous people as something ancient, or from the past. They don’t see us as current, and they sure as heck don’t see us as futuristic. But we are here, and we will be here. One of the reasons why I do this is to show that.”
The path to Firefly was a long but inevitable one. In 2016, Decontie & Brown began making clothes and accessories in addition to jewelry, appearing in fashion shows at major Native American art shows like the Santa Fe Indian Market, the 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 those shows, spurring him to learn more about recording and creating soulful electronic beats over which to sing and drum. The songs themselves were already there, drawing on the ancient Wabanaki music he learned years ago from tribal elders.
“There’s a reason why these chants, these notes, these melodies have lasted for thousands of years,” he said. “They may have changed a little bit over the generations, but the original power behind them flows through. We just put our own flavor on it and hand it forward. It’s all part of a continuation of this 13,000-year-old circle of creativity.”
Though Brown and his wife and creative partner Decontie Brown had found a great deal of success in making fine jewelry, when the pandemic struck, it changed everything for them. All the art shows they normally traveled to in the spring, summer and fall were canceled.
Bored and restless, Brown began hosting live streams featuring himself singing and drumming over those beats, wearing some of the clothing designs he and Decontie Brown made, and setting up evocative lighting in deep purples, blues, reds and greens — colors inspired by the light of fireflies, the aurora, and the night sky in general.
His live streams were popular right off the bat, 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 in creatively. In 2021, he and Decontie Brown made the decision to begin refocusing Decontie & Brown away from solely jewelry and fashion, and toward being a “house of creativity” — a partnership that encompasses the design, music, and video elements of their work.
“COVID was a tragedy, but it also was a great reset for so many people. It made so many people reevaluate the things in their lives,” he said. “I know it did for me.”
Since then, Brown has released a number of songs as Firefly, releasing his debut album, “Sacred Fire,” last year. He has performed live shows across Maine and the country, including several shows in Portland over the winter. In his live shows, he transforms venues into shimmering nighttime wonderlands, and he encourages audiences to participate in the singing and rhythmic aspects.
Earlier this year Brown also completed work as Firefly on a piece of digital video art called “WABANAVIA,” that explores not just his Wabanaki heritage, but also Scandinavian roots, as he has ancestors from Sweden. The Portland Museum of Art purchased “WABANAVIA” in February as part of its permanent collection.
While Brown makes his music and visual elements, Donna Decontie Brown works with him to craft and perform the live shows and manage their business, while working as director of the Wabanaki Women’s Coalition. They’ve also been busy transforming their Bangor home and studio into a hub of multimedia activity, and away from being a jewelry studio.
Not that Brown intends to give up jewelry making forever. It’s what got him started as an artist, and what put him on the path to Firefly.
“Just the other day I had to get my tools out so I could do a little repair on a piece I made a few years ago,” he said. “It’s nice to remember that I haven’t lost my touch, even if my creativity is in a different 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.