Franchell Mack Brown (born 1962 in Washington, D.C.) is an artist employing an amalgam of materials in her practice. From the pliancy of crocheted ribbon to industrial cordiing and the solidity of welding, she juxtaposes soft and hard, exploring the dualities of being. Undulating forms and dripping tendrils suggest movement evocative of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits. Color and texture prevail in ecstatic collision, echoing her fascination with Egungun masking traditions and Native American tribal ceremonies. With her background as a jewelry designer, she features semi precious gemstones, particularly freshwater pearls, in much of her work. The pearl embodies individuality. Each is a unique speck emerging from metamorphosis as an exquisite gem, a metaphor for the development and full expression of self.
Mack Brown’s upbringing in a family of civil servants who pursued creative avocations alongside their occupations instilled a reverence for honoring the artistic impulse and awe for ingenious problem-solving. Her police officer/leather craftsman father created belts that dipped in the back to counter the gaping fit of dropped-waist 1970’s hip-hugger pants. Southern ingenuity and imaginative solutions reigned in the Mack household. Young Franchell headed to school one morning; by her return that afternoon, her great aunt had crafted a fitted slipcover for a living room chair from the draperies. The figure-it-out-use-what-you-have-and-make-it-marvelous ethic remains with her today.
She jumped at the chance to attend Duke Ellington School of the Arts in a cohort of creative kindreds spending their high school years balancing academic rigor and collegiate-level immersion in the visual arts. While majoring in Fine Arts at the University of the District of Columbia, she took on two invaluable apprenticeships. One, costuming with the esteemed costume designer and Howard professor, Reggie Ray. The second, metalsmithing with Salim Shakur, a Georgetown goldsmith.
A short stint in Chicago followed, collaborating on ethereal hand-dyed, beaded wearable art with fellow Ellington alumna, Adrienne McDonald, before landing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Having apprenticed with Mr. Shakur, her time at Pratt felt like “an expensive refresher course,” so she moved on. A string of retail posts kept her fed until a position as assistant gallery manager at Robert Lee Morris’ era-defining Soho shop, Artwear, also fed her creative soul. Morris’ generosity and humility inspired her, as did his belief in jewelry as art. As exemplified by the work of gallery artists such as Tone Vigeland’s sculptural chainmail, Mack Brown’s perception of art’s boundaries broadened dramatically.
If her time in New York shaped her vision of her art, her time in Tokyo revealed its value. It was the first time she commanded and received a significant sum for her work. She was also profoundly inspired by the use of textiles in Japan, particularly in the designs of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons.
Seeking out pockets of artistic communion and opportunity in other cities, including Atlanta and Wilmington, she continued to hone her craft. Donning one of her jewelry pieces, she caught the eye of a curator who tapped her for the roster of artists at Philadelphia’s Snyderman-Works Gallery, where she showed for a decade.
When marriage to a Naval officer took her to rural Virginia, a fertile period followed with her children’s births and an unrelenting impulse to create. She reveled in motherhood and conceived a series of two-dimensional fiber works integrating jewelry elements. Well-received, they led to solo and group exhibitions, awards and collaborations. Conversely, she began to incorporate fiber elements into her jewelry. Over time, as her concepts expanded, her work increased in scale and dimension, evolving into sculpture, which led the former metalsmith apprentice to welding. She needed to move from the PVC pipes she was using to metal to build armatures for her free-standing works.
Mack Brown entered the New River Community College weld program in 2014. She spent her after-work hours in the campus weld lab, creating those armatures and improving her welding skills. In 2015, as a certified welder, she accepted a position on a crew for a project that took a prototype truck cab to production. But in the predominantly white male welding industry in her conservative region of Southwest Virginia, it was challenging for her to secure adequate compensation for her skills.
Seeking offers elsewhere, she accepted a lucrative, non-welding creative position in Richmond, VA, where she resides today with her daughter and son, reinvigorated to continue and expand her art practice.