The power of a custom-made religious garment

Detail of embroidered attarah saying, “Hear our voices” on tallit by Amy Lassman

I first met Amy Lassman in November 2017 at a craft fair held at the Hyde Center in Newton Highlands. The artistic craftsmanship and depth of meaning in her work stood out from the rows of vendors offering beaded jewelry, crocheted blankets, and felted critters. Amy’s table displayed a combination of Judaica (Jewish ceremonial art) including tallises (prayer shawls), yarmulkes and kippot (head coverings), coverings for challah (braided bread), and afikomen bags used to hold matzoh during the Passover Seder, as well as secular handbags and scarves.  It was only when I visited with Amy at her Needham home and studio that I learned she recently decided to focus strictly on the Judaica.

Amy’s Judaica work involves custom design, selection of fine fabrics and notions, sewing, embroidery, lettering, and knot tying — all of Amy’s work is deeply informed her practice of Judaism, familiarity with the sacred sartorial objects of religious ritual, and her educational background in psychology and family dynamics.

In addition to my recording gear, I had brought my late father’s tallit, tefillin, and yamulke as a way of reconnecting with these religious objects and to learn something of how tallises dating back to the mid-1930s differ from ones custom made today.

Tallis, tefillin, and velvet bag belonging to Maggie’s father

For a folklorist, I am remarkably uninformed about my own heritage. Unlike Amy, who attended Jewish Day school and high school, worships at a local synagogue, and is very involved in the Jewish community, I was raised without formal religious education and self-identify as a “secular Jew.”  Although I  have fond memories of attending Passover Seders with extended family and friends, I have never stayed home from school or work on Jewish holidays.  And although my father’s family attended a conservative temple, the rabbi there was a socialist. My mother’s father was anti-organized religion and felt more affinity with socialism and unionism than Zionism. So it was especially meaningful to get tutored in the meaning of the contents of my father’s velvet tallis bag.

Green velvet bag to hold tefillin

Amy looks at my father’s tallis with care. She says that it is typical of the early 20th century and most likely commercially made, noting that the edges are beautifully knotted. “The tassels mean nothing,” she explains “they’re just pretty. The only [tassels] that count are tied into the four corners of the garment and are called tzitzit.”

Corner of tallit belonging to Maggie’s father, showing tzitzit .

She goes on to explain that although Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews have different ways of tying tzitzit, the combination of the number of strings, knots, and twists must equal 613. The sum represents the original number of mitvot (commandments) in the Torah (Jewish written law).  “Honestly, nobody really can fulfill all 613; that’s the ideal. That’s perfection. It includes the number of times you pray each day. It includes kashrut (keeping kosher). It includes the way you treat your fellow man. It’s not just good deeds, it’s intentions – who you are as a person and how you relate to the world around you, and what your connection is to God.”

Amy Lassman holding up the corner of a tallis with tzitzit

Once Amy finishes a tallis and the client returns to pick it up, she purposely leaves two of the four corners untied. “I will teach them how to tie and I will talk to them about the meaning of tying. And they will tie them themselves. So, it’s not just the design piece;  the concept of it, it’s actually physically creating the garment . . .  And so many times, when it’s a parent of a grandparent, and a Bar Mitzvah, then they’re all tying together. So that ’s going to be part of that memory as well.”

(Youtube provides an instructional video on YouTube for how to tie tzitzit.)

Amy holding up afikomen bag embroidered with Hebrew letters for Pesach.

Having sewn all of her life, it was just a few years ago that Amy began making challah covers and afikomen bags.

Soon after, people started asking Amy to make a prayer shawl or head cover. She admits it was intimidating at first. I ask why and she responds, “Because it’s a lot of responsibility. A tallit is something that once you have you’re going to wear for the rest of your life. It  represents your foray into Jewish adulthood. . .  So now, I have this responsibility of bringing all of this to a piece of fabric. And because of this, it’s a daunting task.”

It is a task Amy Lassman is  undeniably up to.


Through the many stories Amy told of working with clients, the most moving were those recounting her work with individual families with children who are preparing for a Bar or Batmitzvah, and adults who missed out on the experience. The process of making custom tallises reveals the power they hold as personal and ritual objects. Amy tells me of working with a family over the creation of the young man’s tallit. His favorite color is red, but his father preferred the more conservative and typical white and blue. The story is also recounted on her website:

“A family arrived in my studio to create a tallit for the upcoming Bar Mitzvah of a very bright young man. Before our appointment, he let me know that his favorite color is red. Armed with that fact, I shopped for silks that had red tones for him to use in the creative process. Meeting the expectations of mother, father and son can be a challenge. Combining the tradition of simple blue and white prayer shawls with a more contemporary vision that includes a variety of colors, Hebrew embroidery and symbols, we came up with a design that everyone loves. The attarah (neckband) is embroidered with the Priestly Blessing, the red silk is a subtle highlight on a finely woven cream woolen shawl and in the inside corner, his Hebrew name is embroidered in gold thread. When this young man came to pick up his tallit, I taught him how to tie the tzitzit (woolen strings) at the corners of his garment. When he wears his tallit, hopefully for many years of good health and happy occasions, he will always remember that he inspired the design, that his parents worked with him to create something meaningful and he is wrapped in his families’ love.”

Amy described how clients often come in with an old tallit, saying they would really like their son or my daughter to wear something that had belonged to somebody in the family. “So, we will take something – we may just take the attarah, the neckband, and create an entirely new garment and just use that.  We may only take the corner fabric.”

At Amy’s workbench

Amy prefers the word “integrate” rather than “recycle” or “re-purpose” to describe this use of a relative’s old clothing, wedding dress or veil in a chuppah (wedding canopy), or the embroidered attarah of one’s grandfather’s tallit.  Stressing the importance of creating something new, she says, “I want [the old piece] to have a new life. And I want the person who is using it to feel connected to it, not just because it was in their past.”

Amy continues,  “In some traditions, a person will be buried with a tallit . . .  what some people will do is they will actually cut one corner, they will cut one of the tzitzit out. And that will be something that the person closest to them will keep as a memory. I have had the honor of creating a tallit  from this cherished string. I’ll actually stitch a little pocket underneath the attarah and put the tzitzit inside. Whenever the tallit is worn, you’re actually carrying your loved one with you.”

Tallit created by Amy Lassman for a Cantor in New York. The text reads “Right by the side is the Eternal to all who call out, seeking truth for all who desire it”

Maggie Holtzberg is Folk Arts & Heritage Manager at Mass Cultural Council.


Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Opportunity

Apprenticeships are a time-honored method by which an individual learns skills, techniques, and artistry under the guidance of a recognized master. Since its founding in 2001, the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s  Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program has funded  over 100 artists in a vast array of traditions, both old and new to Massachusetts. Applications are now available.

Recent apprenticeships funded by Mass Cultural Council’s Folk Arts and Heritage Program include mentorships in Cape Breton step dancing,  design and building of wooden ship’s steering wheels, Cambodian traditional ornamentation, wooden boatbuilding and restoration, West African dance, Scottish & Cape Breton fiddling, and Mithila and Warli arts.

The deadline for applying is April 12, 2018. Guidelines and applications are now available. 

2018 Fellows & Finalists in the Traditional Arts Awarded by Mass Cultural Council

We are delighted to announce the 2018 Artist Fellows and Finalists in the Traditional Arts, awarded by Mass Cultural Council. Fellows each receive $12,000 and Finalists each receive $1,000. The next opportunity to apply for these awards will be October of 2019.

Kieran Jordan, Traditional Irish step dance

At the age of five, Kieran Jordan watched Irish step dancing for the first time in a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Soon after, she was taking lessons in her parish hall on Saturday mornings. Thus began her life-long journey to becoming not only a renowned Irish step dancer, but also a cultural activist and an invaluable resource within the Irish-American community.

Jordan is a gifted dancer, choreographer, and teacher of old style Irish step dances, a tradition that is intricately tied to Irish history, local culture, and traditional music. She displays the aesthetic assurance that naturally evolves from the dedication of a gifted artist who has danced competitively within the Irish traditional step-dancing sphere.

Panayotis League, Greek lauto playing and oral poetry

Panayotis League specializes in traditional Greek music and oral poetry indigenous to the Greek island of Kalymnos, Crete, and their diaspora communities. With family roots in the Greek community of Tarpon Springs, Fla, League pursued his interest in traditional music by journeying to the Greek islands to study laouto and tsabouna, with older master musicians on Kalymnos in 2001 and violin on Crete in 2003.

Today League is one of the few in the US who specializes in the laouto music of Kalymnos. In addition to concerts and festivals, he is a frequent performer at local marriage celebrations, baptisms, and feast days in the Greek diaspora community. He is also a scholar of Greek music. His dissertation focused on the music of Boston’s Anatolian Greek diaspora. League is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature, where he is managing the digitization and cataloguing of James Notopoulos’ field recordings from his 1952-53 trip to Greece and Cyprus.

Sidi Joh Camara, Malian dance and drumming

Sidi Mohamed “Joh” Camara grew up in Bamako, Mali surrounded by musicians, praise singers, and story-tellers. He began his formal training with Mouvement Pionnier, and then went on to work with Troupe Sewa and Troupe Districte de Bamako before relocating to the United States in 1996. He has experienced West African dances in their purest traditional form, where a particular dance is unique to that village and the movements have remained unchanged for centuries. Though West African dance companies in urban centers keep the traditions alive, often the context and meaning in which these village dances originated gets lost. “Once they are performed by dance companies in the cities, they are taken out of context. . . As a ballet, it is no longer a part of the ceremony it accompanies.”

Joh’s research has taken him all over Mali to see the dances in the ceremonies of which they are a part. He and his young son Tiemoko were awarded a 2017 MCC Traditional Arts Apprenticeship They focused on the learning of  four dances (Didadi, Korodjuga, Mandiani, and Madan), the songs that accompany these dances, as well as why and in what context they are danced. Father and son will also take part in ceremonies within the Malian and Guinean diaspora community both here and in New York.


Geoffrey Kostecki, liturgical painting

Geoffrey Kostecki excels at the sacred art known as liturgical painting. As a young man, he was inspired by the powerful imagery of Catholicism, first created for the Church during the Renaissance. Kostecki moved to Italy to study at University Lorenzo Di Medici in Florence. There he gained advanced painting techniques required for liturgical painting which include site-specific design, fresco painting, figurative sculpting, stencil design, gilding, and marbleizing.

After returning home and earning an MFA, Kostecki apprenticed under  figurative painter Graydon Parrish, who himslef had trained through the Atelier method, and with trumpe-l’oeil painter Robert Bock.

Kostecki’s original work and restorations can be seen in churches throughout Central Massachusetts and upstate New York, including  St. Paul’s Church in West Warren, St. John’s in Worcester, and the 30 x 40 feet nave mural depicted here,  commissioned by St. Agnes Church in Lake Placid, NY.

Fabian Gallon, Colombian tiple player

Fabian Gallon grew up in Pereira, the mountainous coffee region of Colombia, where he learned to play the tiple from his father and brothers. He went on to study with Maestro Benjamin Cardona before entering the conservatory of Universidad Technologica of Pereira.

Similar in shape but distinct from the guitar, the 12-stringed tiple is considered the national instrument of Colombia. It recently gained a renaissance when it began to be played more as a solo instrument. The style Gallon developed went from simple strumming to a complex blend of sophisticated picking and rich variations of strumming figures.

Before moving to Boston, Gallon was very active in Bogata’s musical scene, performing and recording with Trio Ancestro, as well as dedicating himself to bringing up the next generation of leading Colombian tiple players.  He recently recorded with several Latin American musicians in Boston. He continues a tradition of well-known tiple players like Gonzalo Hernandez, Pacho Benavides, and David Puerta. Eduaro Carrizoa, Orquestra Conductor says, “Colombian tiple has in Fabian Gallon its best passionate and knowledgeable interpreter.  In his hands lay the responsibility of keeping the path of the development of the technique and interpretation of the instrument.”

 Emerald Rae Forman, Cape Breton & Scottish fiddle player

The distinctive fiddling style of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia has roots in the strathspeys and reels brought to Canada by early 19th century Scottish immigrants. Emerald Rae Forman has mastered both Scottish and Cape Breton fiddling. She began her study with Boston based Barbara McOwen, renowned for her private library of Scottish music books. Emerald went on to compete in the US Scottish Fiddling Championships, winning the US National Champion title at 18 years old. She went on to earn degrees from Berklee College of Music and the University of Glasgow.

Fiddle and dance are closely related; to become a great traditional fiddler, it helps to know the dance steps the fiddle tunes accompany. In 2011, Emerald Rae completed a Mass Cultural Council Traditional Arts Apprenticeship in Irish step dance with Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellow Kieran Jordan. In 2016, she was awarded a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship to mentor Elizabeth Kozachek in Scottish and Cape Breton fiddle playing. Emerald Rae works as a professional performer and teacher of multiple styles of fiddle and step dance. She leads workshop at the Boston Fiddle Club and has served on the Boston Celtic Music Festival

Soumya Rajaram, Bharatanatayam dancer

Soumya Rajaram performs and teaches Bharatanatyam dance, a South Indian classical tradition with strong spiritual connections to Hindu religion and mythology. Although originally a hereditary tradition, the teaching of Bharatanatyam has become institutionalized. Indeed, Soumya came up within a deep lineage of dance teachers trained at the Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai, India. In addition to her years of dedicated training in the technique and expressive elements of Bharatanatyam, she has extensive training in Carnatic music, which is integral to Bharatanatyam dance.

Known for her exacting standards, Rajaram is skilled in nritta (abstract dance) and abhinaya (emotive aspect). She performs regularly at festivals and concerts and is thought of highly by senior dance teachers who first brought Bharatanatyam to southern New England. Soumya is an active contributor to the India arts community in Greater Boston. She continues to enhance her learning under the mentorship of Sheejith Krishna, spending a few months a year at his studio and home in Chennai.



In studio with Alan Kaufman & local Nepali musicians

A couple of years ago, Alan Kaufman introduced me to Sushil Gautam, a Nepali immigrant he’d met at the local Dunkin Donuts in Arlington. It was Alan’s fiddle case that caught Sushil’s eye and the two struck up a conversation. Sushil, who had written a book on the Nepali sarangi (fiddle), was eager to meet an American  fiddler.  Today, the two have become friends and Sushil has moved on to work in information technology for a local healthcare company.

Last week, I was delighted that Alan invited me to the filming of In the Tradition, a studio show he writes and hosts at Arlington Community Media, Inc.  The hour-long broadcast features local and visiting musicians. Recently, Alan has ventured beyond western traditional music. On the December 20, 2017 shoot, the featured guests were three local Nepali musicians: Shyam Nepali on sarangi, Sushil Gautam on jaw harp and madal, and Ranjan Budhathoki on flutes.  Of the three, only  one, Shyam Nepali, is  a member of the Gandharba occupational caste of musicians. Historically, the Gandharba traveled from town to town in the mountainous regions of Nepal. Much like other hereditary musicians, they played a key role in society, traveling from village to village, spreading news and entertaining.

The tradition of playing the sarangi  is associated with the Gandharba. Indeed, Shyam comes from a long line of traditional musicians, primarily sarangi players.  His instrument was made by his brother and features a carved bird as a scroll. The sound box is covered with goat skin. Shyam explains that the string is played by placing the fingernail (rather than the pad of the finger) on the metal strings. Although he uses a western style violin bow, traditionally, the bow was made from bamboo strung with soaked cactus fiber instead of horse hair.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. . .

We all arrived around 6:00 p.m. at Arlington Community Media, Inc., the local cable television station. It being late December, it was already dark and cold. After unloading musical instruments in “Studio A,” everyone gathered downstairs for pizza while Alan went over production notes.

Alan joked with us about how when he picked up the pizza, he mentioned to the take-out staff it was for some Nepali musicians who were going to be performing on his show. “Oh, who?” they responded.  Turns out they were from Nepal as well –Greater Boston’s Nepalese version of serial migration.

Once back up in the studio, it was time to tune up the musical instruments, check mic levels, and go over the script.

In addition to the interview-style chat led by Alan, the group performed a number of songs and instrumentals.

Shyam Nepali and Ranjan Budhathoki grew up together in the Kathmandu, Nepal. Ranjan, whose family’s home was farther from the school they both attended, would often go to Shyam’s home. It was a welcoming and musical household. Sushil Gautam grew up 200 kilometers away in Pokhara where he was hypnotized by the music of he Gandharba people. Usually the sarangi  is only taught within the occupational caste. However, Sushil’s parents supported him in learning to play the music. It was not common for someone outside the Gandharba commutniy to learn sarangi. He eventually moved to Kathmandu, where he had the luck to rent a house next door to Shyam Nepali.

At the time, he had just started to play the flute, having fashioned one out of small bamboo growing in the back yard. Ranjan went on to become a professional dancer and teacher of dance in Nepal. He and Shyam emigrated to Massachusetts within a few years of each other. When Shyam arrived, the two said, “Why don’t we start a school here? Our population is growing, the children are missing the connection to our Himalayan culture.” Both currently teach at the school they established, the Himalayan Heritage Cultural Academy  in Medford, MA.

Shyam spoke of the relationship between the music of Nepal and Southern Appalachia, both being mountainous regions. He recalled first hearing old time and bluegrass music and being blown away by the similarities. Alan and these three Nepali musicians have found common ground, swapping and sharing tunes like the classic, “Cluck Old Hen.”

If you are curious to hear this music live, head over to Chulo Cuisine & Bar, a recently opened Nepalese restaurant located at 5 Spring Street (upstairs) in Watertown Square.  They perform Friday, Saturday, and Monday evenings.  And be sure to watch for the upcoming Nepali feature on In the Tradition.

Photos & video by Maggie Holtzberg, Folk Arts & Heritage Program, Mass Cultural Council.


Food from Land & Sea: 2017 Lowell Folk Festival

Guest blog by Millie Rahn

Harvest is past and Thanksgiving is upon us, the perfect time to recall recipes and stories, and celebrate the traditions that make us who we are as individuals, families, and communities. We do this in kitchens, at tables, or in other formats where we remember and reflect on the foods we eat, the ways we acquire and prepare them, and the symbols and meanings they have for us, past and present.

As a folklorist, I’m still savoring the bounty of summer’s riches showcased and shared at regional festivals, particularly in Lowell in late July, where I curate and present the foodways demonstrations. The foodways stage at this year’s 31st event was a festive sampling of tastes, cultures, techniques, and stories featuring foods with ties to land or sea.

Foodways complemented the larger folklife area theme of coastal and inland traditions exemplified by tradition bearers who produced items such pottery and baskets used to gather and/or store foods, or the quahog and other shells that are turned into wampum by Wampanoag and Narragansett artists, or ship’s wheels, horse saddles, and blankets for gathering and transporting foods, or temple ornaments used in the blessing of the bounty.

On the makeshift kitchen stage, both home and professional cooks talked about their individual history and culture. Each assembled a recipe while sharing stories of their homelands and the foods they grew up with, and recipes they adapted and maintain here, and then let audiences sample the finished fare—from Lithuanian pickles to Caribbean and Asian poultry and seafood, rounded off with Southwest chili adapted to coastal New England.


Irena Malasauskas emigrated from Lithuania, where her mother always kept wooden barrels of pickles and of sauerkraut in their kitchen. Now Irena makes pickles regularly, keeping them in plastic and glass jars, and even assembled ready-to-eat ones in plastic bags. Pickles, we learned from Irena’s husband and from her granddaughter visiting from Germany, don’t last long in the Malasauskas household.

Geetha Raju, originally from Tamil-Nadu in southern India, made a South Indian shrimp curry, ably assisted by her daughters, Shuruthe and Laya, who are learning the family traditions of cooking and baking. While Geetha here uses tinned coconut milk, she noted that at home in India, which she visits as often as she can, they simply can go outside and pick a coconut off a tree. Laya wants to go into the culinary arts; I suspect we’ll be seeing more of her on the Lowell foodways stage.

Gaitskell Cleghorn, Jr., known as “Chef Gates,” teaches culinary arts in an after-school program for middle school students. He and his partner, Mika Brinson, have Jamaican roots. They talked about the variety of fresh ingredients in Jamaica, where chicken is widely available, either in shops or raised in backyards, and the ease of the cooking and eating on the beach or on rafts in the water in a mild climate. They, too, used coconut milk for their chicken dish, while giving tips on slicing vegetables safely and easily, and quizzing the audience on culinary knowledge and the science of cooking.

Han-Ting Lin is a physician from Taiwan where, she says, fish is a staple in markets and “is a must” at New Year’s Eve dinner. As an oncologist and enthusiastic home cook, she advises “everything in moderation” and talked of the benefits and ease of preparing simple, healthy, and inexpensive meals from scratch, especially in a wok.  She uses a square-bottomed wok that she brought from Taiwan, but noted similar ones are available in Boston’s Chinatown and can be used on either electric or gas stovetops without an adapter. She shared her favorite fish marinades, which she served on different days with squid and salmon–a commercial Korean barbecue sauce, and her own blend: 1 cup olive oil, a “big ginger root,” and 1 ½ tablespoons bottled curry powder.

Patricia Hazard and her sister Viola Solano, dubbed the “Chili Sisters” onstage, made two kinds of Southwestern chili from their mother’s recipe originally from New Mexico, whence they ordered the special chili pepper ingredients for the Southwest flavor they remember from childhood. One sister likes beans in her chili; the other does not, but the basics are the same and each has been making her chili recipe for decades in coastal New England.

Catch us next year at the 32nd Lowell Folk Festival, when our foodways theme will be FLATBREADS & WRAPPED FOODS. Flatbreads, often called pancakes, can be served “as is” or topped, or wrapped and filled with sweets or savories. Whether you call them ploys, hoe cakes, crepes, blintzes, chapattis, johnnycakes…they’re delicious. Come taste for yourself.

Here’s what happens when . . .

. . . you have the opportunity to hire a professional film crew and still photographer  to capture master musicians and dancers performing in a beautiful venue. Videos by Blake Road Productions and stills by Brendan Mercure.

Below are links to each segment of the concert – shot and edited by, Blake Road Productions.

Highlight Reel from Showcase Concert

We are excited to share this highlight reel from our “Hiding in Plain Sight” showcase concert, which took place on Mother’s Day. It captures the talent and energy of some of our state’s most vibrant traditional artists. Shot and edited by Blake Road Productions.

Coming soon will be concert footage of each of the four segments: a Dominican carnival procession by Asociacion Carnavalesca de Massachusetts, South Indian carnatic music and dance, Irish music and dance, and Malian music and dance.

Apply for an Artist Fellowship in the Traditional Arts

Mass Cultural Council is pleased to announce that guidelines and applications are currently available for the next round of  Artist Fellowships in the traditional arts.

Recent recipients include architectural woodcarver Dimitrios Klitsas, Cambodian ceramicist Yary Livan, Irish flute player Shannon Heaton, wooden boatbuilder Harold A. Burnham, and Malian balaphon player Balla Kouyaté. To see a complete list of past fellows in the Traditional Arts category, see here. All were recognized for their artistic excellence within art forms that are deeply rooted in traditional and ethnic culture.

The traditional arts include music, craft, dance, and verbal arts that are created and preserved within communities defined by cultural connections such as a common ethnic heritage, language, religion, occupation, or geography. Whether sung or told, handcrafted or performed, traditional art forms reflect a community’s shared sense of aesthetic heritage. The folk and traditional arts typically are learned during the course of daily living from someone steeped in the tradition, rather than through books, classes, or other means of institutional instruction. Artist Fellowships are for individuals not groups.

Fellowships in the traditional arts are awarded biennially. The postmark deadline to apply is October 2, 2017.



Angkor Dance Troupe’s impact

Take a listen to this podcast about how ancient Cambodian dance continues to embolden youths in Lowell, Massachusetts. Anita Walker, Executive Director of Mass Cultural Council, speaks with Linda Sopheap Sou. Linda’s parents moved to Lowell in 1981 as Cambodian Refugees. Her father, Tim Thou, is co-founder of Angkor Dance Troupe.

Linda danced with the troupe for 25 years and spent several years as the dance troupe’s executive director. She currently works at Lowell Community Health Center.

Of Native wampum, scrimshaw, & copper cuffs

Here are a few more craft artists you can look forward to meeting in the folklife area of the 2017 Lowell Folk Festival. Native craftspeople from Massachusetts and Rhode Island will be in Lucy Larcom Park, demonstrating and talking about their work with quahogs, deer antler bone, and copper.

And in one tent, it will be a family affair. Patricia James-Perry and her children James and Elizabeth are highly skilled artists whose work draws inspiration from the skills and craftsmanship of their Wampanoag ancestors.

Patricia James-Perry’s family roots are deeply planted in Wampanoag ancestral lands on Aquinnah, Martha’s Vineyard. One could say she was born into the tradition of scrimshanding, the once common art of hand-crafting decorative and functional items from salvaged whale ivory. She fondly recalls the abundance of scrimshaw in her 1940s-childhood home in New Bedford – her grandmother’s ivory sewing needles, pendants inscribed with tiny whaling scenes, niddy-noddies for yarn, rolling pins, and pie crimpers.

The Wampanoag people of Massachusetts/Eastern Rhode Island were inshore whale hunters and later heavily involved in New England’s global whaling industry. Gay Head whalers were prized for their hunting prowess and navigational skills. Patricia’s grandfather, Henry Gray James, was a career whale man, as was her uncle, Joseph Belain. Family stories tell of Belain twice leading captain and crew to safety, after their ship became ice-bound in the Arctic.

Patricia inherited her whaling ancestors’ tools and her families’ supply of whale teeth. In the 1970s, she carved scrimshaw at LaFrance’s Jewelers in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

With small children, making scrimshaw became difficult for Patricia, along with changing laws governing marine mammal items. Patricia is making scrimshaw again, but now using polished deer antler. Elizabeth and Jonathan James-Perry plan to apprentice with their mother, keeping scrimshanding in the family and maintaining the Native identity it rightly deserves.

Wampum artist Elizabeth James-Perry is a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah. Her work is strongly influenced by finely crafted ancient wampum adornment and lore, as well as her late Wampanoag mentors and cousins Nanepashemut and Helen Attaquin.

Man's Wampum armband Montaup; Wampanoag wampum; 2013: N. Dartmouth, Massachusetts; Purple and white wampum shell beads, cotton warps; 2

Elizabeth harvests quahog and conch shells from local waters, sorting them by size and color. Using the rich layered purples of the quahog shell and softer conch shell, Elizabeth sculpts patterned whale and fish effigies and thick wampum beads.

Her earrings often contrast the purple and white of quahog shells with the white of deer antler or bone. The combination gives the earrings color and textural variety, while subtly expressing the link between land and ocean. Using shell appliqué, she makes star medallions and finely-woven wide purple gauntlet cuff bracelets, both emblems of traditional Native leadership.

Elizabeth’s art is a form of Native storytelling and genealogy relating to coastal North Atlantic life. She grew up watching her mother Patricia execute tiny whaling scenes on bone scrimshaw, and shared her Wampanoag families’ whaling history in Living with Whales, a book by Nancy Shoemaker. When the historic whaling vessel Charles W. Morgan was newly refurbished, Elizabeth sailed on-board its 38th voyage as a descendant of the Gay Head and Christiantown tribal crewmembers. In 2014, she was awarded a Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship in the traditional arts.

Jonathan James-Perry grew up in a creative household surrounded by music, sculpting, beadwork, and scrimshaw, all coming out of rich Wampanoag traditions. He practices an impressive variety of indigenous art forms including making effigy pipes, copper jewelry, engraved slate pendants, burl bowls and platters, wooden hair combs incised with Native motifs, boat paddles, boats, and flint knapped stone tools. He works with locally sourced woods, stone, and metals.

His preferred metal to work in is copper as it holds a special meaning and significance for Eastern Native people. “Copper’s reflective surface is evocative of the warmth of the sun and is considered medicinal as well as being ideal for adornment.” Jonathan cold hammers and draws out the metal, forming long copper thunder bird breastplates, lunar gorget neck plates, and gauntlet cuffs. He then hand-presses designs into the metal’s smooth finish, embossing them with either abstract edge work or clan animal shapes. These embellishments are inspired by those found in ancient Wampanoag material culture — basketry, tattooing, stone carving, and pottery stamps. Concave discs represent the moon, a repeating double curve may represent growth or a whale’s spout out on the ocean.  As a 2017 Community Spirit Award recipient from the First Peoples Fund, Jonathan is committed to passing on his knowledge to the next generation.

In an adjacent festival tent, you will find Narragansett wampum artist Allen Hazard, who has been making wampum for the last 30 years.

Among Eastern Woodland Tribes, wampum has traditionally been used as adornment in the fashioning of beads for necklaces, earrings, and belts and as a medium of trade. Allen shares that the word “wampum” comes from the Narragansett word for ‘white shell.’ The quahog is a hard shell clam once found in abundance along coastal New England waters. The meat of the quahog has long been valued as a source of highly nutritious food. The white shell and deep purple inside of the shell continues to be highly prized as a material for fashioning beads.”

Allen acquired his skills from his mother Sarah (Fry) Hazard and other Narragansett elders as a child. Creating a single tubular bead from the hard shell of the quahog is a time-consuming task. Using replicas of old school wampum tools, Allen let’s people see how wampum beads were created before the availability of power tools. He has introduced modern tools into the process, including a wet saw to cut the clamshell, and a Dremel to smooth, bore, and polish the final product.

Allen’s wampum beads, necklaces, and belts are made in an old style so they can be worn with traditional Eastern Woodland regalia. He and his wife Patricia run the Purple Shell store in Charlestown, Rhode Island.