In the canvas of life, some circles brush by us so effortlessly and organically, resonate with us in a way that ignites in our soul and stirs itself there for the duration of life’s exhibit. Enter Buffalo-born Mark Dabney, a charismatic collector of art and appraiser of fine trinkets and sentiments, and also, a giver – of extended lifespans in memories and heritage. With something so fleeting as life, he captures invaluable and precious pieces and people – the present, the history.
interview / nicole camack portrait / maxim vakhovskiy
Growing up accompanied by his mother’s patterns and pieces of fabric flirting over the dining table to later marry and merge, it’s only fitting that Dabney acquired a knack early on for piecing together times and treasures. Raised by a single mom, Dabney was hardly raised alone and maintained a strong connection to family.
“I’m that kid who was raised by the village – uncles, aunts, community,” he says. And these people, blood or not, are family, too. For such a savant who has traveled across the world, careers and experiences, one fear looms over him still, heavy and dark, and drives him to stay connected. “I don’t know if I’ll ever overcome my major fear – losing my family,” he confesses.
Starting with ambitions as an athlete, strengthening the human kind—physically and spiritually—has been with Dabney since an early age, his attraction to travel ignited with his collegiate abroad studies for his athleticism.
The catalyst for his fire, however, is two-fold. An absolute fiend to finding the many places in his heritage his extended ancestors involuntarily dispersed across countries, Dabney’s provocation is largely inspired by the revolutionary Marcus Garvey, and the Langston Hughes book, “I wonder as I wander”, all culminating to a love affair of learning with each appraised piece to fill fractures in the familial lineage. He realizes the dispersal is not just geographically around the world, but also internally, running through his veins – therein lie copious synergies of cultures and heritage.
Making history himself as he travels and treks for the ties that bind, Dabney reflects, “I was one of only five African American appraisers when I started.” Inspirations abundant, sparking a creative start entails escapism to an elusive mental island, clean, without clutter, to focus on one feat and one feat only – the next find, the next creation. As he marvels in to people’s homes, their most intimate dwelling, and shares in their most precious intricacies, he unearths the value, the history, the story, the people. All in all, bringing the past to the current and future generations of a people scattered and searching to stay connected – to each other and to their origins.
His people, his “family”, definitely beat close to his heart in the soundtrack of his life. In the midst of his grandfather’s passing, Dabney found comfort and community while promoting a spirits brand on the Tom Joyner cruise, surrounded by Black people of all shades and sectors – all with a singular salvation – coming together to have a good time. “It wasn’t on my bucket list, but I can check it off. It was one of the best times I’ve had,” he says. Promoting spirits is kind of his niche, after all.
That aura of love, peace, and happiness accompanies Dabney in his personal and professional life, and he acquires and spawns the energy of a bursting star from exotic islands to the concrete jungle. He recalls, “In Brooklyn, that very first hot day, the projects open the windows, they come out and all you hear is Biggie. That’s Brooklyn. It’s a beautiful thing.” And this inspirational spread of love continued into the homes of his most admired confidants and business associates, his most acclaimed appraisals, adventures and experiences. His biggest accomplishments? Reuniting with his school love later in life, and marrying her. His love, like his life, cyclic. And purchasing his grandparents home, haunted with history of abolition and freedom fighting.
Unfortunately, the pleasantries of heritage aren’t the only things dispersed. In his travels, Dabney most admires St. Martin for the abundance of experiences to acquire, and Barcelona for the architecture and spirit of the people. But Madrid makes for a dark dichotomy, “During the day I was a nigger; then at night I was a star,” he says. Pretentious, unauthentic areas abound, Dabney’s ambivalence for Madrid have not quelled his love affair with Spain, travel, or culture.
His own culture with diluted dots to connect, Dabney remains committed to his people, his family, and the power of community – and educating on the value in valuables, knowing and recognizing worth and history. “With Obama winning,” he explains, “now we all think we can. But when you go back to the Black Wall Street in Oklahoma where Black people had their own businesses, their own Wall Street – they torched it and burned it down. It makes me go back to Marcus Garvey” – and his plight to piece together a history burned, captured, killed, mixed, and let loose albeit not yet liberated.
Dabney remains committed to his lineage and his people. “I want to give back to the community, show them the values and valuables that they have. All of our parents and grandparents worked so hard to obtain certain things,” and Dabney is ignited in the potential and possibility of bringing past, present, and future to the same table to marry and merge. “Everything is cyclical,” he says. “What you think is new is really old.”
And in the end, it’s back to the beginning for Dabney.
I want to do a project in Buffalo because that’s where I’m from. In the future, I just want to be able to be here for my people to offer them the information that they need.
I want to give back to my people what they’ve given to me.
And with that, the beautiful circles of art on life’s canvas complete and continue simultaneously.
This interview was conducted fall 2014.