The Trove: Franchell Mack Brown

One of the brightest smiles around.

Preamble to a lasting friendship:  Newlywed receives panicked phone call from the mother of one of his best high school friends.  Said friend is “in jail, in JAPAN!” Fast forward a few weeks. Finally back in the states, said friend needs a place to stay.  Newlywed asks wife if friend can stay with them during the getting-on-one’s-feet process.  Against the advice of all around wife says yes.  You just got married and you’re gonna let your husband’s friend come live with you?  Your husband’s female friend?  Are you crazy?

Am I crazy?  Maybe. But opening my home to Fran Mack all those years ago opened me to a friendship which has lasted longer than did my marriage. I was a bridesmaid at her wedding. So who is she?  Franchell, like me, grew up in Washington, DC surrounded by creative people.  Though her father was a cop, he was also both artist and artisan, a painter and leather craftsman of handbags, wallets and belts.  When standard belts of the 1970’s created bunching in the back of then-popular hip-huggers, he created one that dipped so that it would lie flat on the hip line. Fran still has one today. The women in her family were creative as well. “My Grandma was a fabulous seamstress,” she says. “And my Aunt Jannie who celebrates her 100th birthday next week. I remember going to school one morning and when we got home that afternoon, the curtains that had hung were now a fitted chair cover, remarkable!  We were like Is she a leprechaun?”

Fran too spent hours creating. “I always made things.” She jumped at the chance to attend Duke Ellington School of the Arts and upon graduation embarked on two valuable apprenticeships: costuming with esteemed costume designer/instructor Reggie Ray and goldsmithing with Salim Shakur. Fellow Ellington alum, Adrienne McDonald, was attending the Art Institute of Chicago and convinced her to give Chi-town a try.  “It was beautiful in June.” She and Adrienne collaborated on incredible wearable art, but six months later, “it was too doggone cold when winter hit and I couldn’t handle it,” she says. Next stop, Brooklyn and enrollment at Pratt for jewelry design. Early on she realized that she was ahead of the curve having apprenticed Salim and that “this is a really expensive refresher course.”  So she left Pratt for a string of retail jobs until another Ellington classmate, stylist Johnetta Hamilton suggested Soho shop, Artwear. Fran was aware of designer Robert Lee Morris’ gallery of jewelry artists from reading magazine credits.  “I loved Soho then, it was fabulous!”

The good old days. The talented trio of Johnetta Hamilton, (now Boone) Fran and the late Adrienne McDonald.

Robert took to her and she to him. “He’s a very nice guy. I learned a lot from him… to be generous and humble.” She realized “that jewelry can be art. Robert taught me that loud and clear. In the Artwear stable of artists there were many varied expressions.” She was stunned when Robert started selling strands of beads. She was of the school of thought that “like a Ted Muehling, you make a wax, you cast it and then you’ve created something.” But Robert was “just putting beads together on string and charging $400,” she thought at the time. Robert gently explained that yes he was stringing beads together, beads he’d carefully selected, beads he’d painstakingly ordered to create a specific design, and yes it is thus, art.  Her perception was forever changed, broadened.

Fran.Mack signature: hand-cut, formed and wrapped wire, pearls and gemstones (here faceted blue topaz accents a bib necklace.) “Like” her on Facebook. Photo: Alex Crookshanks.

Wanting to expand her horizons further, she who had never been out of the country, decided to “push myself out of my shell. When I was invited to join my new boyfriend in Japan with the assurance of a cheap ticket and free housing, I felt compelled to accept, risk and all. I pay my own way, no return ticket, not knowing the language, and not knowing anyone else.”  She took some of her artwork with her and was encouraged by the sale of a big piece soon after.  Still creating, she hoped to take advantage of her height and slender frame to get work as a model.  Though her agency sent her on go-sees, she never booked a job.

About 45 days into her Far East adventure, the beau had a change of heart and free housing was no longer part of the program. So how does a black girl from the states who speaks no Japanese make a living in Tokyo?  By teaching English. The beloved gaijin (foreigner) lived in the house with the students, was paired with a tomin (Tokyo native) roommate and had a blast.  “There was no strenuous curriculum, it was like a party, very fun.”  But then, she was deported.

Without a visa, a U.S. citizen may spend 90 continuous days in the island nation. Fran intended to make a jaunt to Thailand, then  return to Tokyo to begin another 90-day cycle in a city she’d grown to love. As the ninetieth day approached, “I allowed the pain of my failed relationship to spiral me,” thus she missed the last ferry to Thailand. “With no plan I jumped on the first bullet train and landed in Beppu on Kyushu Island. I decided I would enjoy the beaches of southern Japan then hitchhike my way back to Tokyo, gather my belongings, say my goodbyes and head back to the States.”

“My second hitched ride ended abruptly on a dirt road in a one-stoplight town at dusk when I fiercely rejected the trucker’s sexual request. I walked to the nearest hotel for help. The well-intentioned manager directed the police to me.”  In a “Mayberry RFD” setting, they vigorously interrogated her and instructed her to sleep on “a little bench in a room with oddly bright colors for confinement.”  She was transferred to the deportation office the next day.

“An expired passport stamp brought me a strip search and a surreal stay in a deportation center for several weeks.”  Her accommodations? One toilet per room of 8-10 bunks; communal showers every other day.  She connected with several of the women, teaching them hopscotch and other games to wile away the hours during their once-a-day outdoor time.  She bartered for snacks, toiletries, even a facial with her drawings and portraits. Though she’d been in touch with the American Embassy and her family had sent the necessary monies for her release on the first day, she was detained day-after-day.

Eventually she rebelled at roll call, turning her back to the guards and saying, “I’m not doing it.  You see I’m here, just mark me present.  I don’t even belong here, you have the money and you need to send me home.”  An additional call to the embassy secured her release. Though harrowing, “I learned that I am brave, resourceful, an idealist, spiritual, and resilient. I will cherish those experiences for the rest of my life.”

So upon her return to Brooklyn, Fran stayed with the hubby and me for bit until she re-situated herself in the New York scene.  It was during this time that we bonded and I advocated for her work by bringing her jewelry pieces on every photo shoot I did and by wearing them frequently so they could be seen.  Donning one of her own pieces, she caught the eye of a curator who introduced her to Philadelphia’s The Works Gallery, where she was a featured artist from 1994-2004.

 

Mr. & Mrs. Brown.

Marriage in 2002 to handsome, U.S. Naval careerist, Bobby Brown took this city girl to Virginia, where she now resides in rural Radford.  Sassing detention center guards now a thing of the past, the wife and mother of two young children continues to create from her home “in the sticks.”

Recurrent in her work is the bubble, the enveloping circle; no beginning, no end…the continuous loop. Left,”Beautiful Bubble,” marker on watercolor paper.  Right, “Full Circle VI,” 10″ x 10″ Agate, crocheted cotton yarns and ribbon embroidered on cotton batik. 

“Bubble Limnings,” whimsical portraits from “The Village.”

Her exhibition of affordable works on paper, “Beautiful Bubble,” opens tomorrow at the Gallery at Mish Mish in Blacksburg, VA.

Her exhibition, “The Village,” a mixed media installation of embroidered fiber art, works on paper and jewelry is up until August 12 at the Gallery at Glencoe Museum in Radford, VA and will open at Red Creative on September 10 during the Atlanta ArtCrawl.

Moved by gorgeousness, from the sublime simplicity of nature to the exquisite beauty of hand-wrought work, here are some of the things that take Franchell’s breath away…

1. Time With my Kids.  “I love their laughter. Our little dance parties are the funniest thing.”

Fran with 4-year-old daughter, Mason and 3-year-old son, Jamison.

2. Santorini, Greece.  All through high school she’d gaze longingly at the posters of Santorini at the diner across the street from Ellington.  In 2000, she jumped on an opportunity to go to Athens with a friend and was delighted to learn that she could take a ferry to Santorini.  “It had been a dream for so many years, to see the view that I’d seen on the posters: the white houses, the blue domes was fabulous!”  She loves a good beach and was blown away by the black sand. She raves about the amazing food.

3. Genmai-cha. A centuries-old Japanese beverage blends roasted brown rice with green tea. She and her best friend, Oi Yin enjoy sitting and talking over a cup.  They swear by Hana Brand, Genmai Cha Tokuyo, imported by Rhee Bros., Inc.

ThePioneerWoman.com has a recipe for making your own Genmai-cha — just in case Hana is not available.

4. Pearls. Lots and lots of them.  She often uses them in her work and is partial to black and “odd-colored” varieties. “I love them because each one is different…that it starts as an irritant, a speck and eventually turns out to be this beautiful gem.”

Pearl assortment from RawPearls.com.

5. Tone Vigeland.  “She’s my favorite artist ever.”  Fran discovered the Norwegian artist’s work at Artwear.   She comes from a lineage of visual artists, “but she expresses herself through jewelry,” Fran says.  “She’s so incredible, she made chain mail by hand, of oxidized silver, one jump ring at a time, she’d pull the wire…just phenomenal.”  On the selling floor at Artwear Fran would “wear Tone’s pieces and push, push, push to move her.”

Detail of a bracelet. Vigeland’s labor intensive process included coiling silver wire by hand, soldering the coils together and attaching them to the hand-wrought chainmail base. Bracelet photo:  Z. Peckler.

6. Long Walks.  She enjoys strolling the verdant arbor that is her neighborhood. “It’s so peaceful, the birds are chirping and I feel like I am right next to God…I often pray while I walk.”

 

Serene woods provide sanctuary.

7. Burt’s Bees Lip Shimmer.  “It smells amazing, it feels good and it makes my lips so soft.  It doesn’t hurt that it’s also yummy.”  In the tube or slim stick, it moisturizes, protects and gives a tint of sheer color with a hint of shimmer.

Her kids like Burt’s Bees, too!

8. The Moon. As a child she’d talk to the moon. “I love that no matter where you go in the world you can look up and see the same moon…I’m nocturnal, so I look for it, love that it changes daily.”  With awe she recalls being awakened by a low, full moon illuminating her Tokyo bedroom, “it was incredible, it filled the entire window frame, like I could reach out and touch it!”

From the slender sliver of a crescent moon to the rotund glory of a full or new moon, Fran enjoys each transformative phase.

9. J.Crew Shoes.  For someone who was wearing size 10 at age 13 (she now wears 11-12), they are like manna from heaven.  “They come in my size and they’re cute. It’s a beautiful thing.”

On sale now at J.Crew.com, the Regina metallic flat, a Franchell fave.

10. Joan Armatrading. “My favorite recording artist of all time.  I saw her on Saturday Night Live in 1977.  She sang Love and Affection and I was like ‘Oh my word, who is that?’ I went out and bought every album.” Even now Fran sings the classic, Willow, to her son before he goes to sleep at night.

Jamison’s lullaby.

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7 Responses

  1. oh i loved this post ( of course i am ellington biased!) her work is beautiful and i love that she lives in such a seemingly peaceful (non NY place) her work reflects it! – inspiring!

  2. This was a wonderful post and I had only heard of Franchell through you. This gave me wonderful insight about a beautiful friend and artist.
    I loved the trio photo that included Adrienne. That was a combustible friendship, but I sure do miss my friend being in the world.
    Thanks Sharon for a lovely post!

  3. Golly Sharon seeing the picture of Adrienne brought back
    memories of a past time paradise.
    It’s wonderful to learn about your friend Franchell her life past and present as a child, woman, mother, wife and artist.

    As Ever
    Montgomery X

  4. She is beautiful inside and out! Her work is amazing. We are blessed to have her living in our community.

  5. Francheee!!! I still remember those late nights w/the pearls & twisting wires! Still adore the jewelry you made me!
    Congrats on your continued journey!

  6. Sharon, if I weren’t a friend of yours I would want to be. Your stories of friendship are the most absorbing I have had the pleasure of reading. I sense a book in your future…

  7. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Franchell through our mutual friend, Oi Yin. She is a wonderful human being with so much love in her heart. I feel blessed that our paths in life have crossed.
    Thank you for a wonderful post about this amazing woman!

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