Washington, DC

Interview with Misty Brown: An excerpt from a conversation with artist Bruce McNeil

Artist Misty Brown " Mami Water" stands beside a portrait of Harriet Tubman. Courtesy Bruce McNeil

Growing up on her great aunt and maternal grandparents farms in Magnolia and McComb, Mississippi, Misty Brown witnessed firsthand the healing powers of preventive medicine B: What age did you realize that natural products could heal?

M: My grandmother, Alice was a renowned midwife and herbalist throughout Mississippi and Louisiana. She was from Baton Rouge, an African and Native American descendant who married my grandfather, Alvin of Jamaican heritage,who was from the mighty M. She would take me on sojourns in the woods and take out of her Swiss army knife that always was with her in her apron or handbag. I loved those hikes deep in the woods on our family lands. This started about the age three and lasted until I was eleven or so. As a teenager, I wanted to hang out with my older cousins when we visited for the summer. She would pray to the trees, ask forgiveness and such. Once, she showed me how to peel a bark back, remove a little of the inner pulp and place the bark back for further usage. And she prayed that what she gathers would heal the mother and her newborn.  

B: When did you discover the healing properties and value of water?

M: I learned the value of clean water on that same vast land. We lived far away in the country from other relatives who had running water in their homes. All the men were landowners, farmers and builders who owned their own companies,even a grocery store and gas station. I understood when my uncles and aunts would teased my grandparents about the value of running water and stayed over at their houses or when we visited my mother and father in New Orleans. This was in the late 50s and early 60s.  

We had a well on the land. Pumping endless pails of water for drinking was tiresome. However, placing your head underneath it on a blistering summer day and playing was worth the scolding. As a little girl, I rarely forgot to fill up the water jug in the kitchen, because one had to go in the dark and do your farm chores. Also, one had to remove any bugs out of the rain barrels that surrounded the house. Afterwards, we would take some of that water and place it in covered milk jugs for droughtSometimes, I had to uncover them and sniff the water to see if it was, I guess, stale. I learned earlier on never to forget to run outside and cover them when with cheesecloth when it was raining. It was hard work. I had to roll a tree trunk from the wood pile and stand on it. We used the rainwater for washing dishes, clothes and bathing and for cooking. Also, my granny had us water her personal garden next to the homestead. I don’t recall a water hose. It was fetch a pail of water, until the late 60s.

My brother, Edward, who is an AME  preacher, was about three, and he loved building and working with my grandfather with the animals. They even had a small fishing pond on the first land that was forty acres. The latter was about five acres. Another valuable lesson about water was when I had to take care of my great-aunt, Deal who was blind and in her 90s. It was her farm. My mother’s youngest brother, Ben had heart problems, and it was beyond my grandmother’s scope of healing. My mother took care of him between his hospital visits in New Orleans, and they did the same for us. When he died, we went back home during the summer of 1963We hauled hot and warm water from a wood-burning stove to bathe her in her own large wash tub. Water was precious even to clean out the in-house waste buckets. I hated them. Therefore, can’t remember the proper namesAlso, the slop buckets for the animals to avoid contamination when feeding them. Every drop of water was priceless for anything, everything, and you carried it.  

Another life-altering experience was seeing and realizing the Mississippi River in New Orleans was much polluted and always a dirty brownish color. Daily, we would have water alerts about “don’t drink the water, boil the water” throughout my life.  

I moved to DC in 1982. The eye-opener was when I got a failing grade on my artwork. My first year at a city school. In 1963, my third grade teacher’s assignment was to paint the color of the water that you visited that summer. I drew the bridge and the river because we visited some relatives that lived across it. I colored it a dirty brown. She said, “Water should be painted blue or green.” And we had a serious debate about the color of water. I won that debate, and the ruler was applied. I stood my ground and gave her a piece of my mind. Afterwards, my beloved mother, Mary Jane was summoned to an after-school emergency meeting. She was a baker at a schoolI refused to accept the grade and challenged her by going to the principal’s office. Upon enrollment, they said, “Come if you have any problems.” The principal and I knew the true color of that dirty river was a disgusting brownAlso, she did not know I had an ace up my sleeve. In the thick of it. I blurted out, “We are not surrounded by the ocean. It is blue or green.” Of course, I learned from James Foster, president of Anacostia Watershed Society about the color of water, that’s another long story. Once, my teacher realized what my mother said about my upbringing made me an old soul that always saw things for what they are and not what they were supposed to beWe had a rough year, and she and others gladly applied the ruler. I discovered cold water eases a stinging hand beatingAlso, I got another ear pluck from my mother for not painting another waterway that had better quality water, Lake Ponchartrain. We went to the beach. I discovered ice cubes were a soothing balm. 

B: Do you consider yourself to be an environmentalist?

M: First, I am a country girl who worships Oh,Great Mother Earth, Mother Nature and Father Sky. I am a Virgo. I really like the term naturalist and Mother Earth worshipper for me. Environmentalist for me is a modern term I am still mastering and coming to grips with. For example, I will never go in polluted waters and clean them up. It is very hazardous. I have hypothyroidism from hyperthyroidism. I eat very healthy, literally, organic and always do eco-friendly shopping.  

 B: Besides, working with me how do you support environmentalists?

M: I support and promote my favorites which are Anacostia Watershed Society, 11thStreet Bridge Park, DC Riverkeepers, Earth Conservation Corps, DC Groundworks, District Department of Environment and Energy, Maryland Milestones Heritage Center, and the DC Sierra Club in any form or fashion I can assist you withAlso, I love wearing fur coats. As you know, Bruce, you made me give away my mother’s rabbit fur coat and fox stole due to your community partnerships. I still will buy one and wear it at events they are not hosting or sponsoring. I like leather shoes over pleather or rubber. However, around Earth Day and holidays, I will pick up all the trash on my block. 

Mami Wata and the Honorable Muriel Bowser. Courtesy Bruce McNeil

Currently, I am working on promoting 11th Street Bridge Park to anyone I know who lives in Wards 6, 7 and 8 to enroll in the workforce development training programs at Skyland Workforce Center, especially those who are in the constructions business. Prominent restaurants, that will remain nameless for now, are gearing up to apply for kiosks. And I give their info to those who live in the area and want to buy their own house for the Community Land Trust.

B: What about community leadership?

M: Besides working and supporting you on your projects with your community partnerships, I started my own project with River Road Recreational Center in Ward 7. After meeting with Michael Washington, co-founder and vice-president of Friends of Ridge Road Inc., I decided to partner with them and wrote them a template for their proposal for their football teams that won major championshipsAlso, I donated a collection of healthy cookbooks to the Senior Room.  

For years, as the Program Director for Three60World, a non-profit organization, we created a workforce development program, “Flower Empowerment” to teach AfricanAmerican male youth the importance of giving flowers to seniors in assisted living facilities, especially the United States Soldiers Home and random elder men or businesses in southeast. Shawna Malone, founder and Executive Director had a relationship with a Virginia flower farmer. The thrill of seeing older men receiving a bouquet of flowers was worth the volunteer work. 

In May 2016, I wanted to show the government employees of DDOE and Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) how much I loved them for all the work they do for east of the river residents when ECC produced the DC Climate Photo Contest exhibition. (Bruce was the photography workshop instructor, and I benefited from my first class and was selected as one of the first climate photographer residents.) I prefer creating spiritual images of goddesses with crayons, markers and pencils in the style of pointillism. I am in the collection of Mel and Juanita hardy of Millennium Arts Salon. 

B: What’s next?

M: Personally, I like staying in the background working to promote you, and your award-winning photographs on Anacostia River; and working as an unsung hero in the community by helping others in need and providing simple healing tips. However, I will like to continue to perform and recreate Mami Wata at community events, such as my first in ages. Co-producer, Ibe Crawley, an incredible marble sculptor and artist invited me to perform at the Children’s Art Festival at the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum last fall to celebrate the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Legacy Project’s Black Power Chronicles that celebrated the 50th Anniversary of ArtSpeaks: it’s a youth thing. This innovative arts program was founded in Washington, D.C.  



Bruce McNeil inspired the art world and the residents of the Washington Metropolitan Area, starting in 1969 with an innovative blend of photography and the environment.  Mr. McNeil was a fine arts photographer who received local and national attention for his work that captured the stunning artistic elegance of the Anacostia River and others in the region and throughout the country. His artistic advocacy, which prompted the Washington Examiner and The Washington Post to give him the title "DC River Man” and "Washington's River Man," influenced environmental and social changes. McNeil’s compelling images explored and conveyed, in an impressionistic style, the diverse atmosphere, ambiance, mood, tone and character of the Anacostia and its surrounding environments.