Today’s Native American Art in New England

November 6th, 2013

Guest blog by Dawn Spears,Program Manager, Native Arts, New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) 

The Native Arts program at NEFA has partnered with the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center(MPMRC) on Native New England Now, an exhibit featuring many of New England’s Native American artists who have been supported through NEFA’s Native Arts program. The exhibit is up through January 4, 2014.

Cradleboard by Julia Marden, 2007.Photo by Doug Currie Spoon carved by Annawon Weeden, 1998. Photo by Doug Currie

This is a rare opportunity for an organization to be able to showcase the work it supports, and we are grateful for the partnership and expertise of MPMRC. It allows the visitor a quick immersion into our world, to showcase our artists and the work that is happening now. The work here and the work supported in our program represent our master artists, our elders, our youth, our emerging artists, and those in between.

The exhibit of NEFA-supported work, which has been a goal of mine for a while, was the result of a conversation with MPMRC. Fast forward through a lot of work by the museum and NEFA staff together: contacting grantees, other museums, working on image collection and object curation, and collecting the artist statements.  It’s been a true community effort that would not have happened without the support of our artists, the museum, and those who have loaned from their collections (the Abbe Museum, the Hood Museum), or their own private collection. It was an intense and exciting period, but with an amazing team and eyes focused on the opening, I could not be more proud of the result.

Decorative covered vase basket, 2007 by Jeremy Frey. Photo by Jeremy Frey

Personally, I can’t say enough about the art that is happening in New England. It’s our home, and what you see in this exhibit really represents the love of our land and its gifts. The work that is happening represents this connection to our land, our resources, our cultures and heritage, and, in reality, to our future.

It was such an honor that so many of the exhibited artists attended the opening reception, along with  program advisors, funders, museum officials, NEFA board members, and my own NEFA colleagues. I’m hopeful that we will have similar participation at the artist panel discussion on November 16 and the holiday artisan market on November 30!

Native artists posing on the stairs at museum. Photo by Ann Wicks

This exhibit shows the work of 28 of the over 80 artists and organizations – representing over 35 tribes – that have received grants from NEFA’s Native Arts program. You can learn more about the artists in the companion book we  published, but the best way for you to really understand the work that has come from this love – and really see the talent and creativity of our amazing artists – is to see it in person.

NEFA’s Native Arts program supports projects that nurture artistic exchange, community development, youth engagement, environmental resource research and preservation, cultural preservation, and artistic innovation. Special thanks to the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the six New England state arts agencies, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, and other Native Arts program funders.

What do you hold on to?

October 25th, 2013

Come join us for a film, a hands-on weaving experience, and a faciliated conversation about the complex meanings of cultural heritage for refugees.

Mone Saenphmmachak is a master weaver. She is also a Lao refugee, tormented by survivor guilt. Resettled in St. Louis during the 1980s, she finds factory seamstress work sewing gun holsters.  In her precious spare time, she weaves traditional Lao skirts and teaches the next generation of Laotian children. Winning a National Heritage Award in 1993, Mone ultimately chooses to give up her looms.

Weaving Bitter with the Sweet is a moving documentary film that explores the refugee experience and its impact of sustaining cultural heritage.  The film invites viewers to “unpack” assumptions about the meaning of cultural heritage for refugees — a topic with the potential to resonate with many re-settled communities here in Lowell.

7:00 p.m.         Welcome & introduction

7:15 p.m.         Hands-on weaving experience

7:45 p.m.         Film screening

8:15 p.m.         Facilitated conversation

This Lowell Folklife Series event is co-sponsored by Lowell National Historical Park, Lowell Film Collaborative, Tsongas Industrial History Center, & Massachusetts Cultural Council.

For more info, call 978-275-1719.

For information about Teacher Professional Development Points, contact the Tsongas Industrial History Center: TIHC@uml.edu

Watch Live webcast of National Heritage Fellows Concert

September 10th, 2013

We are coming up on the last week of September, which means it’s time for the annual feting of our country’s National Heritage Fellows. This year’s fellows include former Massachusett’s resident and Irish fiddler extraordinaire, Seamus Connolly.

The National Council for Traditional Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts produce a spectacular evening performance September 27th at Lisner Auditorium on the George Washington University campus. Fortunately, for those unable to attend the concert, the event will be live streamed at arts.gov,  with an archive available following the event. Viewers can share comments and photos on
Twitter using the hashtag #NEAHeritage. You may also request copies of
the concert program by emailing heritage@arts.gov.

Learning Chinese calligraphy from a master

August 14th, 2013

Qianshen Bai is a demanding teacher.  Leaning over his apprentice’s brush work, he points out tiny things, “This  is the problem. Her problem here is that here, so far so good, and she move this way, see the brush toward this part? The stroke should keep in the same direction. You see? You need to use finger and wrist. . . This kind of work is an illusion. The trick is, where this stroke came from, because calligraphy is art of movement.”

Although there are still quite a few people who practice calligraphy for leisure, very few take the time to study, in depth, the history and various aspects of the art of writing calligraphy. Mei Hung, Executive Director of Chinese Culture Connection, is one of those people.  In September 2013, Qianshen Bai and Mei Hung were awarded a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

In addition to learning the subtleties of the techniques in writing balanced and artistic calligraphy, Mei Hung learned to appreciate a piece of good work with a critical eye. During their 8-month apprenticeship, Mei was introduced to writing couplets, horizontal banners, and, in a smaller font, on fan shaped calligraphy. In addition to learning how to compose the writing in various styles, she completed the composition with date and signature, and the proper way to apply the seal.

For Mei Hung, having had such a direct experience with master calligrapher Qianshen Bai has been a privilige.  “Now I understand that the art of writing calligraphy can be related to playing music, practicing Tai Ji . . .To do it well is a total harmonious relationship among one’s intent, the brush, the ink and the paper. Professor Bai described it this way: the “brush dances and the ink sings.”

This apprenticeship enhanced my knowledge of the art and improved my writing skills, but most importantly, it made me feel humble. It is truly an art that requires a life long practice.” Perhaps, most importantly, Mei mastered a method of how to learn calligraphy by herself in the future.

The next deadline for Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants is April 2014.

 

Customized fruit carver comes to the Lowell Folk Festival

July 23rd, 2013

Earlier this spring I was searching for someone who specializes in the tradition of carving fruits and vegetables to demonstrate at the folk craft area of the Lowell Folk Festival.  This year the theme is carving traditions. After following up on a few leads, all within the Asian community, I eventually gave up on trying to find someone to demonstrate this culinary skill.

Then, just six weeks shy of the festival, I received an email from Craig Gates of the Lowell Festival Foundation. He’d been contacted by Ruben Arroco inquiring whether he could demonstrate fruit carving at the festival this summer. Serendipity? As it turns out, Ruben recently demonstrated fruit carving at the Rock ‘N Ribfest in Merrimac, New Hampshire. When someone came up to him to ask if he would be at the Lowell Folk Festival this July, he thought to himself, “Why not?” Hence, his inquiry. Craig passed him on to me, with the thought that it was probably too late and that I could “let him down gently.” Instead, I was thrilled to learn of this local chef who had trained in the Philippines, has been an executive chef for 30 years, and now specializes in customized fruit and vegetable carvings.

So last week, Phil Lupsiewicz and I drove over to the Highlands neighborhood of Lowell to interview Ruben Arroco. Ruben, his wife, and daughter live in a newly built enclave of condominiums tucked into some lush foliage just off a busy street. Ruben welcomed us in, offering us freshly brewed coffee and slices of tiramisu cake. Presentation was done with the utmost care; the cake was served on white porcelain plates decorated with mango carved to look like roses. Amazed at the trouble he had gone to and delighted in sitting down to this unexpected afternoon treat, Phil and I readied our recording equipment.

Ruben placed a round watermelon on a rotating board, securing its base with a rolled dishtowel. Then he picked up a very sharp tool and began to work. “I just start by looking for a nice surface and just make a little peel. I peel that until I see a little red color. Like so. . .  I’m going to make the center petals of the flower. Most of the time they use a knife to make a circle – but I just use a cookie cutter to make a round shape. This is how it’s started. See, I love that color right there, it’s coming out, the red color. Then you start making the petals. . . ”

 

Ruben makes most of his own carving tools out of specialized stainless steel. I ask if fruit carving is a relatively rare skill to have. “It is. This is actually a 700-hundred year old art that originated in Thailand.”

Ruben learned to carve fruit during his training as a hotel chef in the Philippines. “There is a place in the Philippines — Paete, Laguna — where people there make a living out of carving wood. Some of those guys, I was lucky enough to work with in the hotel. . . If you see a chef doing this, most of the time, if you ask, ‘Are you from [Laguna]‘ the answer is yes. If you can carve wood, you can carve this — so I kind of learned it from them.”

Ruben picks up a specialized tool he made which creates V-cuts in one movement. “Even just making simple V-cuts transforms it and gives it that nicer look. You go around making these V-cuts, like that. Separation of the petals from the part that you carved, that’s very important. The part that is removed, they call that the negative side in the carving world. If you don’t remove that, you won’t see what you just carved.”

I wonder aloud  if there is something hard about making art which is so ephemeral. It can take from seven to ten hours to create, yet it’s there to be consumed. Ruben says, “Even though it takes a long time to make, the best part of it is when we bring it to the party and everybody likes it. Even though it took me seven hours to make, it always feels like it only took me a half hour when everybody likes it.”

“Most of the time, we bring it to the party and then they call me back say, ‘We have a problem.’ ‘What? Why, what happened.?’  ‘Nobody wants to touch it!’  So I tell them to find a kid and tell him or her it’s for them. They won’t care; they’ll just start eating it.”

Come to the Lowell Folk Festival this July 27 and 28 to watch Ruben and 15 other traditional artists demonstrate their remarkable carving skills.

 

 

 

 

Carving Traditions on Display

July 18th, 2013

Come to this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival next weekend and seek out the Folk Craft & Foodways area, which is located in Lucy Larcom Park, not far from Boarding House Park. Under the shade of big tents, you will discover 16 traditional artists who spend their days carving in a variety of media (wood, stone, clay, plaster, & fruit). Like ornamental woodcarver David Calvo . . .

stonecarver Jesse Marsolais . . .

and Chinese seal script carver Wen-hao Tien.

The majority of the carvers demonstrating their skills on Saturday and Sunday (July 27 - 28)  work with hand tools — gouges, chisels, knives, and rasps. One carves with the help of an electric powered lathe. You will see whimsical carvings revealing dazzling skill, religious figures to aid worship, ornamental elements to enhance architectural trim (and hide joints) and figurative carving depicting wildlife, logging traditions, and more.

As you visit the craft area, see if you can discern the place of origin for each of these carving traditions whose techniques and styles originated in Italy, Greece, Japan, French Canada, Puerto Rico, England, Cambodia, and China. Ask questions. What role does design and drawing play in producing carved art? How are these individual artists able to sustain their craft in today’s globalized, mass-produced marketplace?

 

 

Fried dough, anyone?

June 21st, 2013

Bread may be the staff of life, but fried dough is its treat. Fried dough is often associated with summer fairs and carnivals, where it’s made in vats of hot oil. But this seemingly generic food has roots in many cultures. Varieties of fried dough made in local home kitchens are part of the foodways of cooks with African-American, Greek, Italian, Polish, and Portuguese roots.

Fried breads are made with yeast dough or flour, which is shaped and transformed by frying.  Frequently the small, often bite-sized confection is finished off by being rolled in toppings such as honey, sugar, cinnamon, or the sweeteners are sprinkled on top. There’s no such thing as leftovers where fried dough is served!

Come to Foodways Tent this July’s Lowell Folk Festival and you’ll have a chance to see and taste five different versions of fried dough.

COOKING DEMONSTRATIONS:

12:00 p.m.  Eleni Zoldi, Greek loukamathes

1:00 p.m.    Lucia DiDuca, pizza fritta

2:00 p.m.    Natalia Cardosa, Portuguese filhoses & malassadas

3:00 p.m.    Lilly Morales, African American hoe cakes and hush puppies

4:00 p.m.    Mary Matyka with Helen Dubuc, chrusciki

Seamus Connolly named National Heritage Fellow

June 4th, 2013

We are delighted to share the exciting news that Irish-born and longtime Massachusetts resident Séamus Connolly has been named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. Though he recently moved to Yarmouth, Maine, we still like to claim him as one of our own.

In drafting his nomination letter, Irish music journalist Earle Hitchner writes, “I can think of no Irish traditional musician more qualified and deserving than Séamus Connolly for a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His achievements as an Irish traditional fidder, music school organizer, and music teacher are long and lustrous. . . First and foremost is his fiddling, a combination of virtuosity and vitality that stamps his style of playing as original, unique, and highly influential . . . Every time he picks up the fiddle — whether on stage, in a recording studio, in a class, or in an informal session —  Séamus both preserves and advances the Irish tradition. His zeal and love for this music are as ardent now as they were when he was a boy in Ireland, and the body of art and work he has created is exceptional and formidable.”

Séamus Connolly grew up in a home filled with music in Kilaloe, County Clare, Ireland. He won his first All-Ireland National Fiddle Championship only ten months after initially picking up the fiddle and it wasn’t long before he gained national prominence. He joined the famous Kilfenora Ceili Band, traveling throughout Ireland and Britain playing for dances, concerts, and radio broadcasts and television programs.

Séamus came to the United States in 1972 as a member of the first Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann (CCE) tour, an ensemble of 26 musicians, singers and dancers. He then returned in 1976 and settled in the Boston area. At the request of the Boston branch of CCE, Séamus agreed to teach and pass on to American-born students the various regional styles of Irish fiddling.

Séamus directed the highly acclaimed Gaelic Roots Summer School and Festival at Boston College from 1993 – 2003. In 2004, Boston College named Connolly the “Sullivan Artist in Residence.” He also coordinates a Gaelic Roots Series of free concerts and lectures by visiting artists throughout the academic year. In 1990 and 2004, he was awarded a Fellowship in Traditional Arts by the Massachusetts Cultural Council;  he was also awarded three Master/Apprenticeship Grants for teaching traditional Irish music.

Séamus often performed and recorded with two stellar musicians —  Irish button accordion player  Joe Derrane, who won a National Heritage Fellowship in 2004, and guitarist John McGann, a gifted guitarist and mandolin player, who passed away unexpectedly in 2012.

Indeed, it has been a momentous year for  Séamus — On May 11, 2013, he was awarded another highly prestigious prize: the Ellis Island Medal of  Honor, given by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations to American citizens for their outstanding contributions to the United States. An exhibition titled “the Musical Roots of Seamus Connolly” recently ran at Boston College’s Burns Library.

We are so very proud of you  Séamus.

 

All in the Family: Learning from Master Musicians

May 14th, 2013

It’s that time of year when the MCC’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeships are wrapping up for the year. As part of the grant program, recipients are required to share what they have learned in a public presentation. This coming Sunday, May 19th, two master/apprentice teams will perform musical selections and share some of the joys and challenges of transmitting musical heritage. The free presentation takes place at Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center theater, 246 Market Street and will begin at 2:30 p.m.

Two continents. Two ancient percussive traditions. And two young people with the good fortune to be born into musical familes headed by master musicians. Balla Kouyaté is a virtuoso player of the balafon, the ancient West African ancester of the xylophone and marimba. Above, you see him teaching his son Sekou the balafon.

Sixto “Tito” Ayala comes from a legendary music and dance institution in Puerto Rico – the Ayala family. He is pictured here teaching a conga rhythm to his daughter Estefany Navarro.

Come see and hear how West African djeli music and Puerto Rican bomba & plena are being passed on from one generation to the next.

 

 

 

 

Carnival, Dominican style

May 3rd, 2013

For several years now, we’ve been trying to track down the Dominican carnival comparsa rumored to be based in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Having seen photos of these fantasic costumed masqueraders, we thought they would be a perfect fit for leading the parade opening the Lowell Folk Festival. Finally, success! We recently visited with Stelvyn Mirabal, founder of the Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts, in his home in Lawrence.

In the Dominican Republic, Carnival is celebrated during the whole month of February, where groups of elaboratively costumed people parading through the streets.  Some of the most famous of all the masked participants are the Diablos Cojuelos (limping devils). As the story is told, a demon was once banished to Earth because of his clownish pranks and was injured in his fall, hence the limp.  Diablos cojuelos are multi-horned, sharp toothed beings. Many regions of the Dominican Republic have varying versions of this frightening devil.

The Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts brings a bit of Dominican Carnival to the United States. Twelve years ago, Stelyn Mirabal saw the need to preserve Dominican folkloric traditions in Lawrence, where there was (and is) a sizable Dominican population. He formed a comparsa (meaning a group of costumed people who  participate in the carnival parade) to take part in Lawrence’s 2nd Dominican Parade. In 2006, he decided to go bigger and brought back 16 masks at the same time. Currently, there are 75 people in his comparsa.

Stelvyn’s home city of Santiago Los Caballeros is known for its style of masks, which are called lechones (meaning pig). They are considered tradicional costumes and are relatively simple; the masks represent pigs or ducks.  Suits from the city of La Vega are larger and more elaborate and are referred to as fantasía. The lechones play the role of vejigantes, those who protect the people in the carnival, who, at one time, were members of the royalty. Vejigantes carry and swing inflated cow bladders to keep the crowd away from the parading comparsas.  Here in the United States, the cow bladders have been replaced by colorful balloons.

It was Stelvyn’s uncle who taught him and his cousins the carnival traditions of mask making and parading. At age 42, carnival has become a family affair for Stelvyn, “In fact, my mother and my sister, they all dress up. . . My father, a tailor, he used to make the suits.”  Below is a photo of Stelvyn’s son Leonardo dressed in a fancy suit and wearing a lechone mask. Leonardo has also become an expert at cracking the whip.

 

The masks are made from a mold of clay and covered with a paste like papier-mâché. The masks are shined, painted, and decorated. Although Stelvyn knows how to make the molds and papier-mâché masks, he prefers to import them from the Dominican Republic. The more elaborate diablos cojuelos costumes are professionally made using real teeth, horns, and skins, mainly of cows. The Asociación has more diablos cojuelos than lechones because to be a lechone, one has to know how to crack the whip and dance.

One finds Spanish, African and Catholic influences in the tradition. Stelvyn points out a distinguishing feature of the Lechones,  “The way we dance is an African dance. So it’s passed generation to generation. We dance different from the guys from La Vega. They jump,” he says, referring to the Diablos Cojuelos. “. . .  When we move through the crowd, we try to be like the best horse there is, the Paso Fino.”

Carnival in the Dominican Republic has gotten more elaborate, competitive, and commercial. Stelvyn says there is a move to bring back some of its folkloric roots. “The dances and things have been forgotten a little. So some groups are going back to the traditional.”

Today, the Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts is well known throughout New England for their participation in Dominican and Latino cultural festivals and parades as ambassadors of Dominican culture. You will have a chance to see this spectacular entourage by attending this year’s Lowell Folk Festival. The Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts will be leading the parade on by Friday and Saturday evening of the festival.