A portrait of a man with a long mohawk sitting next to a vase
Ethan Brown has found artistic inspiration in the works of 16th-century English artist John White and the work of Algonquin artisans. (Contributed photo)

Pamunkey artist Ethan Brown brings his work, process and expertise to VCU

Brown is serving as the inaugural Karenne Wood Native Artist/Writer in Residence at the Humanities Research Center.

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Ethan Brown, a member of the Pamunkey tribe, takes pride in honoring the history and culture of his tribe through his artwork.

“There is so much that has not been explored through artwork,” said Brown who lives on the Pamunkey reservation, which was established in 1646 in King William County, Virginia. “There is an endless well of ideas. That’s what keeps me going as an artist.”

Brown is currently serving as the inaugural Karenne Wood Native Artist/Writer in Residence at the Humanities Research Center (HRC) in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

“It’s been an honor having Ethan on the Monroe Park Campus, and we hope this is the beginning of a long and productive collaboration between the HRC and Virginia Indigenous communities,” said Cristina Stanciu, Ph.D., director of the HRC. “Faculty and staff in the College of Humanities and Sciences and the School of the Arts (the Department of Painting and Printmaking) have welcomed Ethan to campus.”

The HRC launched the residency in November 2021 in memory of Monacan poet Karenne Wood. Stanciu, who is also leading efforts toward a VCU land acknowledgment this year, said that funding for this residency comes from a VCU Foundation Big Ideas grant and from the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation.

“We hope to continue to partner with units on campus to make this residency available annually to Indigenous writers and artists in Virginia and beyond,” she said. “It is high time we listened to Indigenous voices and reexamined our settler colonial history.”

Finding his inspiration

Brown moved to the reservation in 2007 from the West Coast, where he had lived as a child.

A gourd with an image of a man wearing a deer head on it
"Huskanaw" (Ethan Brown)

“My grandma was living on the reservation and so did both my uncles. I would visit them as a kid. I was 18 when I moved to Virginia,” he said.

He was always inspired by art and storytelling but didn’t think of it as a profession when he was growing up.

“My grandma worked at the Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center. She would make gourd art and sell it in the gift shop,” Brown said. “By watching her, I decided to give it a shot, and I put some things in the gift shop. I sold everything I put in. The more I did, the better I got.”

Brown got immersed in the process and has been a working artist for a decade now.

“I kept getting opportunities,” he said. “My art has been an encouraging endeavor.”

One of his specialties is creating art on dried gourds, which were used by American Indians to carry water because they were water-tight and lightweight.

“I’m drawn to these three-dimensional objects. They have a special aura,” Brown said. “I like the technique of burning an image into the gourd with a wood burning tool. I often start out with a line drawing in pencil and then I use tools, dyes, paints and stains or varnish to add color.”

Brown found artistic inspiration in the works of 16th-century English artist John White and the art of Algonquin tribes’ artisans.

“They would all tell stories — both historical and cultural — through their art. They would often use the flora and fauna of Virginia,” said Brown who likes to create by using a mix of traditional materials and contemporary art.

Brown is working on three commissioned pieces of gourd art for the Valentine Museum during his residency at VCU.

The first piece of art will depict the time when Opechancanough and 200 of his fellow Pamunkey tribesmen signed a peace treaty with England.

A dried gourd with an illustration of a frog on it
"Four Frogs (Ethan Brown)

“After signing the treaty, wine was passed around and it was poisoned. Some of the Pamunkey were shot,” Brown said, adding that Opechancanough recovered and came back and led the second attack on Jamestown. “That has had little to no representation in modern art that I’m aware of.”

His second piece of art shows Cockacoeske, Queen of the Pamunkey, signing the Virginia-Indian Treaty of Middle Plantation of 1677. A statue of her can be found in the Virginia Women’s Monument, Voices from the Garden in Capitol Square, which honors notable Virginia women for their contributions and creativity.

Brown’s final piece for the museum commission shows the paleo life of Virginia Indians living in stone quarries during the Ice Age.

“I wanted to show how long people have been in Virginia,” he said.

Interacting with students and exploring the world of filmmaking

During his residency, Brown has been able to interact with students and their art. He has given workshops and participated in discussions with students on campus.

“I’ve talked to classes about my art and life on the reservation,” he said, including a recent visit to an upper-level English course on sustainable/unsustainable environments.

On Oct. 19, Brown will give a public lecture on “Fractures of Memory: Indigenous Futurisms and Experiential Symbolism” at the Commons Theater with Federico Cuatlacuatl, an artist and filmmaker from the University of Virginia.

There will also be a screening of two experimental films Brown made with Cuatlacuatl.

Filmmaking is another way to tell stories through images, Brown said.

“As a visual artist, I approach it as strong imagery. It’s just another medium, and I like to experiment with different mediums,” he said. “It’s been good to be able to jump from one medium to another. Jumping keeps you going forward. I like to change up how I make things for the different mediums.”

Working on low-budget film projects is like painting a picture, he said.

A dried gourd with an image of four women holding bowls standing in water on it.
"Water Carriers" (Ethan Brown)

“You’re experimenting with different things. It’s been a creative process for me,” he said, noting that he also helped with the documentary “Pamunkey River: Lifeblood of Our People,” directed by Kevin Krigsvold (Pamunkey) and Michael Bibbo, which was nominated for a regional Emmy.

Brown has spent part of his residency working on a screenplay for a new project.

“My residency has been great. I live in the country, and this is a change of pace. Working on campus is inspiring. It recharges your batteries,” he said. “It feels good to form a relationship with the university.”

The Humanities Research Center has an ongoing series of events as part of the “On Native Ground” initiative. Learn more about them at humanitiescenter.vcu.edu/initiatives/on-native-ground/.