Archive for the ‘Folk beauty’ Category

Of Native wampum, scrimshaw, & copper cuffs

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

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.

 

Kolam Art: An Afternoon with Tamil Makkal Mandram

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

Nora interviewing Priya about kolam

As promised, here is a guest blog from MCC intern Nora Martinez-Proctor.

In early April, I set out to learn about the art of kolam and to find an artist or group who could show me what goes into creating these fabulous pieces. Kolam are designs made by dropping lines of colored rice flour on the ground at the thresholds of homes and temples throughout India.  In the north, they are called rangoli and they have other names in other regions. They can be geometric and pattern-based or freehand, incorporating various types of iconography. The daily practice of creating kolam is a tradition that has reached across India for hundreds of years with mentions dating back to the Ramayana.

After several unsuccessful leads, I found my way to Tamil Makkal Mandram, Inc. TMM is a social and cultural group dedicated to preserving the arts and traditions of Tamil culture.  The president of TMM, Karthekian Ramu, quickly set me up with several members of the group who were able to answer my questions and we had a wonderful afternoon with them in late April, observing their work and talking with them about their designs.

Priya, Nora, and Sridevia

We met at the home of Maggie Holtzberg in Newton on a windy day (although, thank goodness, it didn’t rain!) Maggie and I weren’t sure what to expect, but as soon as Priya, Geetha, Sathya and Sridevi arrived dressed in beautiful, sparkling sari with everything they needed to create their kolam, we knew we were in for a fantastic afternoon! The artists immediately set to work figuring out the best spaces for their designs. Wanting to show us a range of kolam styles, they each planned to each complete one so that we could see examples from the most traditional to the most secular and celebratory. We talked with them as they worked and it was a pleasure to see the way these ephemeral pieces were created at close range.

Close-up of Sridevi making kolam

As a violinist (my other day job), I particularly noticed the loose and yet efficient sweep of the women’s arms as they created the long, curved lines of the kolam. The amount of flexibility, relaxation and control needed is similar to what string players look for in their own arms, something that became especially interesting when I found out about the connection between kolam and cymatics. Cymatics is a visual-vibrational phenomenon where geometric patterns are derived from rhythmic motion (think about putting sand on a plate and then tapping the bottom of it and seeing waves appear). Geometric kolam designs are closely linked to cymatics in the idea that their patterns are similar to naturally occurring cymatic patterns, and that these “visual vibrations” are calming to the mind and encourage meditation.

One of the kolam with deep meaning was Geetha’s “Sikku” kolam. Sikku, meaning “knotted” is a traditional “everyday” kolam done without any color and made of a pattern of white lines curling around each other.

Geetha finishing up Sikku kolam

One of the most interesting things to learn here was that although the organized designs look impossibly complicated to create freehand, they are actually laid on a grid of rice flour dots which are then disguised or incorporated into the design as the artist follows the dots like a map. In India, Geetha explained to me, mothers teach the technique to their daughters starting with these counted dot patterns, which easily can reach over fifty dots per line and can then involve adding and subtracting from other lines to create the shape of the grid. I realized that all over South Asia, mothers are teaching their daughters math at a very young age through this technique. Pretty fantastic!

Geetha doing Sikku kolam Watching Priya make kolam

The interaction between mothers and daughters, and between all the women of the family, was something that all four women stressed as an extremely important part of creating kolam. I learned about this while watching Sridevi create a wildly colorful freehand design of peacocks and flowers that would not adorn a temple, but would be done in the streets.

Sridevii working on peacock kolam

During December and January, the gala season of Marghazi Maadham celebrates the art of kolam. For an entire month, the women of each household arise in darkness together and bring lanterns out into the chilly street, where they lay out their kolam and work to complete them by dawn. This is seen as a treasured time for the women to bond as they work. Mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts all create the kolam and at dawn, Sridevi told me, they finish and go bathe before attending temple. Before temple, however, the street becomes an informal competition to see whose kolam is the biggest, the most colorful, and who was finished first.  Sridevi added that the dawn bathing ritual is considered very healthy, and repeating it for a month is thought of as a cleansing and purifying ritual that is beneficial for women’s health in many ways. The designs during Marghazi are unique and creative and might appear in front of houses or even, as Sathya told me, in the road as a way to say “Happy Holidays,” to everyone!

In contrast, Priya created a holy design that is traditionally used at the threshold of temples or in front of deities.  The design was done only in white and red, because these are the colors most closely associated with the colors of the temple. The central part, she explained, is the most important and the borders can be embellished or left simple, depending on the wishes of the artist and how much time they have to create.

Priya working on kolam

Kolam vary widely and are often modified depending on the day, because they are a part of daily life and therefore designed to fit in with the other demands of the day.  A busy day still requires a kolam, but it might be a small and simple design that takes a few minutes, whereas a holiday or other celebration would include more time set aside for a bigger and more complicated work.

The last design was splendid! Blending the aesthetic styles of several of the kolam, it was large in size, geometric and full of color.  Sathya laid out a huge grid of dots to begin the design and then connected them into a pattern of flowers and butterflies.

Sathya layinhg grid

As she worked, Sathya talked with me about what creating kolam means to her. Whenever she travels home to India, she told me, she tries to go during Marghazi so that she can have the pleasure of participating in creating kolam every morning with her family.  She remarked that in New England, it is particularly difficult to practice this art because kolam are normally created outside – a tricky thing to do during a Massachusetts winter! In addition, the pace of American life is different from life in India, and does not lend itself as easily to a daily meditative art.

All four artists from the TMM expressed how pleased they were to set aside time on the day they met with us, not just in order to show us the kolam, but in order to enjoy creating the kolam themselves, something they rarely get to do in their American lives.  Although a few solid days of rain soon washed away their fabulous work, Priya, Geetha, Sathya, and Sridevi were able to teach us that the joy of kolam is not only in its visual beauty but in the connections it keeps for them – connections of country and of family, of spirituality and all the meanings of home. As Sathya perfectly articulated gazing at her finished kolam, “I’m very happy today. My heart felt very happy today.”

Photos: Maggie Holtzberg

The “whole nine yards” — telling the story of the unstitched garment from South Asia

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

Jaya and Lakshmi in their booth at the folk craft area

Guest Blog by Lakshmi Narayan, Auburndale, MA

When Maggie Holtzberg asked me if I would participate in the Lowell Folk Festival, I was excited to be able to share my fascination for the “unstitched garment” with visitors to this unique festival. It has been fifteen years since I moved to Massachusetts from India. While living in India, I had been deeply entrenched in working with hand woven, hand block printed, embroidered fabrics, for close to 15 years. I still continue to stay connected with craft communities in India and keep looking for ways to share my love of South Asian textiles with communities here in the US.

On the day before the festival I pulled out all my favorite saris from my wardrobe — Ikats, Jamdanis, Benaresi, Mysore silks and Kanchipurams. To this collection I added a suitcase full of incredible hand spun, hand woven contemporary saris from “Taan Baan” a label well respected and known for revivals, and all my books on saris including the one I contributed to, Saris: Tradition and Beyond.

South Asian sari textile

I loaded my little Volkswagen beetle on the morning of the festival. On my way to Lowell, I stopped to pick up Jaiya Aiyer, a truly remarkable young girl who was introduced to me a few months earlier as a student of Indian dance. The plan was for us to demonstrate the folding and wrapping of the sari and discuss the ways the unstitched garment could be worn in myriad elegant ways.

Jaiya had worn the sari as a costume for her Bharatanatyam dance recitals in the past and was very familiar with the regular six yard wearing style.

Jaiya in Bharatanatyam costume. Photo by Michael Walz Photography

Jaiya in Bharatanatyam costume. Photo by Michael Walz Photography

When Jaiya got into the car I was thrilled to see her wearing a beautiful traditional “Narayanpet” from Andra Pradesh, which she had borrowed from her mom’s wardrobe.

Jaya wearing a purple sari

As soon as we arrived at the Lowell festival we got busy hanging up the saris and stoles in our tent and putting up the posters I had made. In preparation for meeting festival goers, we continued to chat about saris — their structure and materials, the weavers and printers, the wearers and the community.

Festival goers looking at Lakshmi and Jaya's display

I dressed the mannequin, so kindly lent to us by Lowell National Historical Park, in a white cotton Kerala sari and our first visitors watched with amusement as I wrestled with the mannequin, to turn the skinny blond lady into a traditional South Indian “mohini attam” dancer.

Mannequindressed in a white cotton Kerala sari

It wasn’t long before we overheard friendly chatter coming from the other end of our tent. We soon learned that our tent neighbors were Liberian Rosaline Accam Awadjie who had arrived with brightly colored Dutch wax prints fabrics for African head wraps and Qamaria Amatal-Wadud, a young woman from western Massachusetts with her fine Islamic hijabs.

Roseline Accam Awadjie (left)standing behind a woman she has dressed. Qamaria Amatal-Wadud with her hijabs

We spent two days sharing wonderful stories and experiences with visitors explaining the wearing style they would try on, the materials, the variable textures. The way the sari is worn conveys a wealth of cultural information about an Indian woman- her religious belief, marital status, wealth, or social standing. Visitors asked several questions on rituals, customs and culture.

These exchanges did not stop with just a greeting — something that I have experienced, having participated as a vendor of Indian hand crafts on several occasions. Here, people were interested in knowing more about the culture and story behind the cloth, the women who wore them, and the weaver who wove printed or painted them. We used the charts I had made to explain the process of hand spinning, weaving and printing.

festival goer dress in red sari

At the end of day, Sunday, a woman who had visited the day before came back with a sari in her hand. She had gotten it as a gift years ago and wanted to know if I knew which part of India it might be woven. “I think Bengal,” I told her, looking at the fine cotton thread work and indeed there was an old label stamped with a shop’s name in Bengal!

Another enthusiast we dressed in a sari wanted photographs of herself after she been dressed with an African headwrap; by combining the two she made a unique fashion statement! Below you see Qamaria taking a photo of this woman walking past a patch of black-eyed Susans.

Lakshmi_Qamaria shooting photo

Both Jaiya and I enjoyed our two days of interactions and were happy to have shared the story of the unstitched garment, literally the “whole nine yards” with visitors to Lowell.

Children posing in unstitched wrapped garments

Scenes from a Festival: Textile Traditions

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Signage in Folk Craft & Foodways area

Entrance to folk craft area in Lucy Larcom Park

Kudos to all the textile artists who made the Folk Craft area of this year’s Lowell Folk Festival so vibrant! Here are some images from the two-day event.

Kathy Blake-Parker (far right) of the Cranberry Rug Hookers Guild

Kathy Blake-Parker (far right) of the Cranberry Rug Hookers Guild

Fatima Vejzovic of Hartford demonstrating Bosnian rug weaving

Fatima Vejzovic of Hartford demonstrating Bosnian rug weaving

Jonas Stundzia holding a frame with Lithuanian pick-up weaving

Jonas Stundzia holding a frame with Lithuanian pick-up weaving

Jonas Stundzia (right) with friend Irene Malasaukas, who demonstrated Lithuanian pickle making in the Foodways tent

Jonas Stundzia (right) with friend Irene Malasaukas, who demonstrated Lithuanian pickle making in the Foodways tent

Entrance to Foodways demonstration tent

Entrance to Foodways demonstration tent

David Blackburn serving pickes at the foodways demonstration tent

David Blackburn serving pickles at the foodways demonstration tent

Samples of torchon bobbin lace by Linda Lane

Samples of torchon bobbin lace by Linda Lane

Sisters 'n Stitches quilting guild members

Sisters ‘n Stitches quilting guild members enjoying the crowd

Melissa Dawson of Chelmsford Quilters' Guild

Melissa Dawson of Chelmsford Quilters’ Guild

Elizabeth James Perry discussing Wampanoag weaving traditions

Elizabeth James Perry discussing Wampanoag weaving traditions

LFF2015_Patrisiya Kayobera with festival goer

Patrisiya Kayobera holding one of her Rwandan coiled baskets

Rwandan coiled basket by Patrisiya Kayobera

Rwandan coiled basket by Patrisiya Kayobera

Qamaria Amatal-Wadud with examples of her Islamic hijab and abaya

Qamaria Amatal-Wadud with examples of her Islamic hijab and abaya

Rosaline Accam Awadjie (on right) with two festival goers that she has dressed in African headwraps and dress

Rosaline Accam Awadjie (on left, standing) with two festival goers that she has dressed in African headwraps and dress

Jaya Aiyer and Lakshmi Narayan displaying South Asian saris

Jaya Aiyer and Lakshmi Narayan displaying South Asian saris

LFF2015_attendance at unstitched garment tent copy

Visitors checking out the “unstitched garments” in the folk craft area

The “unstitched garment:” Indian saris, African headwraps, & Islamic headwear

Monday, June 1st, 2015

As mentioned in two recent posts, this year’s Folk Craft area of the Lowell Folk Festival will feature textile traditions. You will have the opportunity to watch artisans demonstrate techniques such as lap and loom weaving, quilting, lace making, basket making, and rug hooking. In addition, there will be a tent dedicated to the textiles and techniques used in creating what is known as the “unstitched garment,” e.g.,  South Asian saris, African headwraps and fashion, and Islamic hijab and abaya.

Woman riding a bicyle wearing a sari. Photo from Saris: Tradition and Beyond by 	Rta Kapur Chishti

South Asian saris
Lakshmi Narayan, Auburndale, MA

For over 1,000 years, women throughout the Indian subcontinent have worn the sari. Conceived on the loom as a 3-dimensional garment, the sari is made from a single piece of unstitched fabric 5 to 12 yards in length, that is wrapped and pleated, pulled and tucked around the body.

Lakshmi Narayan knows the sari both as cultural insider and researcher. Born in South India, she immigrated to Massachusetts with her family in 2000. When possible, she travels to India to work with people involved with Indian handicrafts and handlooms.

Lakshmi notes that there are over 100 different traditional styles of wearing the sari in India. “You could tell from the way the lady drapes her sari, which community she belongs to.” Once common for everyday wear, the sari now survives as special occasion wear, especially here in the United States. “Women now go to the tailor to have pleats stitched and pinned up. We are losing the ability to wrap the sari, something that was traditionally passed on.”

How comfortable do you feel in a sari? Lakshmi is often asked this. “I can bike miles in one, my aunt played tennis in a white sari with the British memsabs, and today it is worn with pride in corporate India to board meetings.”

Headwraps and clothing by Roseline Accam Adwadjie

African textiles, headwraps, & fashion
Roseline Accam Adwadjie, Worcester, MA

In many cultures around the world, clothing and head adornment are made by wrapping textiles around the body. Roseline Accam Adwadjie, who grew up in Liberia, says, “Africans, we wrap, but not all of our clothes are wraps. African women love dressing, they love colors. They are very elaborate in dressing.”

Roseline runs Chic D’Afrique, a store in Worcester specializing in imported African textiles. “Fabrics come in different grades,” she explains. “The highest quality of waxed cotton has a supple sheen – almost like fine leather.” She also carries plain brocades and Dutch wax prints known as Hollandaise. The latter are stiff from sizing, a combination of wax and starch. “In Africa,” Roseline explains, “after dying the cloth, they put sizing on it and beat it with sticks. They sing as they beat the sizing into the cloth – both as a way of keeping rhythm and avoiding boredom.”

African headwraps can be truly sculptural in form. Their voluminous style enhances the face, like a crown worn by a queen. Roselines more fanciful headwraps are wrapped, pinned, and sewn, thereby holding their shape. A single headwrap provides multiple looks, depending on how it is positioned. The variety is a form of improvisation, a concept fundamental to African and African American performance.

Qamaroa A,ati; Wadud in Islamic hijab and abaya

Islamic headwear & fashion:
Qamaria Amatul-Wadud, Springfield, MA

Qamaria Amatul-Wadud designs and sews clothing for Islamic women who choose to dress modestly. She is skilled in making both the hijab (headwear) and the abaya (outfit). Her creations are primarily for herself, but also for friends and family. In her Muslim community there are many women who sew for themselves, because modest, fashionable clothing is often hard to find commercially.

The Islamic hijab can be square or rectangular, and fastened with a safety pin under the chin and worn with a decorative hijab pin or headband on top. Qamaria adds her own twist to a traditional craft. She considers her style comfortable, yet elegant and modest, pointing out that her designs adhere to religious customs.

Qamaria grew up the youngest girl in a family of 10 children. She started sewing her own clothes when she was 14, following in the footsteps of her mother and older sisters. She makes outfits for every-day, party, and wedding wear, including headscarves, tops, and pants. She never makes an outfit the same way twice, preferring to “switch it up a little.” Now she is passing on the tradition of handmade clothing by teaching her young niece to sew.

 

 

In search of a hat maker: notes from the field

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Back in March, I had attended “Crowning Glories: Hat Show and Contest” in Roxbury. I was hoping to see some fancy hats, the kind traditionally worn to church by African American women. The event was hosted by the Friends of Dudley Street  Branch Library and it was the first hat show they had organized. It appeared to be modeled on traditional African American hat shows and contests. Nearly all of the 30 or so women who attended came wearing a hat. Some were crocheted, others were adorned with brooches or feathers, but all in all, they were rather modest. As for seeing more elaborate hats, several folks suggested observing what women wear on Easter Sunday. “Try New Hope Baptist Church in Boston’s South End.”  Folklorist friend Kate Kruckemeyer, who grew up in the South End, also suggested United Methodist on Columbus Avenue. “It’s the home church for many. There are so many cars that the police let people double-park in the middle of Columbus Avenue.”

The website of Union United Methodist indicated that Easter Sunday services would let out at 12:30.  So I made my way there, arriving at 12:30 p.m. on Easter Sunday. Everyone appeared to still be inside. 

 

There was a temporary wooden crucifix draped with a long narrow white cloth, whipping around on this windy day. The faint sound of organ music indicated that the service had not ended. A young girl entered the building so I decided to follow her inside. People were shaking each other’s hands, giving hugs, carrying Easter lilies, and generally making their way out of the sanctuary. I looked around to see a mostly black congregation, but there were some white folks too. Amidst the crowd, I spotted only one woman wearing a fancy hat. I slowly wound through the crowd and left to stand on the sidewalk outside.

About ten minutes later, the doors opened and parishioners began to trickle out. First to leave was a woman and a young boy, talking about how much they had enjoyed the service.

A few others emerged, and then the woman with the large white hat exited. I admired her outfit and asked her if I could take her picture. She smiled and agreed. Though she’d bought her hat in Baltimore, she did recall there being several hat shops in Roxbury, near Dudley station.

The lack of headwear at Union United Methodist was a bit of a disappointment. I thought I’d try to find New Hope Baptist Chruch, even though I didn’t know their Easter Sunday schedule. Got a little lost driving around the South End. Finally, as I circled around back toward Tremont, I saw a woman on her way to a large granite stone chuch, which turned out to be New Hope Baptist.

 

Several women were exiting the church and they were wearing large, fanciful hats.  So I risked double-parking on a side street and made my way to the door. A man was about to enter and he motioned for me to go first. In the foyer were an older seated couple and an older woman on her way out. Both women were wearing hats, so I began a conversation with them, letting them know I was looking to find anyone who might make hats locally. The gentleman knew of someone names Sykes. He offered to bring me inside to try to find her. More women came out of the sanctuary wearing hats and I asked them where they got them. One answered, “Oh honey, I got this online.”  As she was leaving she offered the name of several websites that sold hats. The older gentleman spoke up, with a touch of impatience in his voice saying, “No, she’s looking for a local maker.”

I was delighted to see he had taken interest in my quest. We walked into the hallway that separates the sanctuary from the function hall. The service, led by Rev. Willie Dubose, Jr., was still ongoing – I think I came in during the offertory prayer/doxology.  The band consisted of a guitar, bass, keyboard and drums and they were rocking. 

The service ended and people slowly began to make their way out. White was the predominant dress and hat color. No one seemed to mind my presence. Many seemed eager to pose for photographs. 

 

  

I left after most others had gone outside. It was chilly for April and people didn’t linger.  Several older women were boarding a van. Others walked. I took a few more photos.

Just as I was starting to leave, I noticed a lovely outfit on a woman who was about to get into her car. After commenting on her outfit, I asked to take her photograph.

I was fully expecting  her to tell me she had bought her hat online, but asked anyway, “Do you happen to know who made your hat?” “Yes,” she answered. “I did.” Turns out, she is Ms. Sykes, the woman who several people had mentioned. I told her I’d been looking to find a local hat maker and asked for her email. 

A few days later I sent her an email telling her about my interest in African American hats, my wish to learn more, and the “Head to Toe” theme of this summer’s folk craft area of the Lowell Folk  Festival.  I attached the photo I’d taken of her, which showed off her lovely pink hat and matching blouse.

Dear Ethel: It was a pleasure meeting you (ever so briefly) on Easter Sunday.  I had admired your hat and asked you about it. Attached is the photo I took.  I’d come by New Hope Baptist Church at the suggestion of several women who had organized the hat show at the Dudley Street Branch Library on March 17th. I’ve been wanting to learn more about the African American tradition of wearing fancy hats to church — and was delighted to see so many beautiful hats this past Easter Sunday at New Hope Baptist Church. Many of the women I spoke to told me they had bought their hats online or in a shop. So I am thrilled to meet you and hear you say you had made your hat yourself!

I curate the Folk Craft area of the Lowell Folk Festival ( www.LowellFolkFestival.org). This year our theme is “Head to Toe” and I am in the process of identifying traditional artists who craft a variety of head gear (hats, Caribbean carnival headdresses, crowns, head wraps, etc.) and foot wear (handmade shoes of all kinds).

I’d like to be able to learn more about your hatmaking and perhaps see if you might consider participating as a craft demonstrator at the festival. If you think you might be interested, let me know how and when I can reach you be telephone.

Regards,

Maggie

 

Ethel wrote back right away.

Dear Maggie:

You are very good at what you do. I will be looking forward to talking with you.

Thanks again,

Ethel

 

In all my years of doing folklore field research, I’ve never had anyone tell me that.

I phoned Ethel at work on 4/12/12.  She’d be happy to meet with me in her home studio, as long as I can come by on a weekend. Ethel makes hats for herself, as well as for others, and still has a few hats on hand which she made for a hat show for the Shriners. She mentioned that she would be traveling to Tennessee for a school reunion, after that would be fine. 

 To be continued . . .

 

 

Saddles and Sallangs: Working with Leather Fit for a Horse

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Ava Vettenberg apprenticed to a Hungarian saddle maker in her twenties. Years later she found herself working with master saddle maker (and former Olympic gold-medalist rider)  Tad Coffin. Now Ava makes her home in Swansea, Massachusetts where she is building a reputation as a skilled saddle maker who breathes new life into worn and broken English saddles. It is a skill born of many years of working with leather and horses. “My master told me that you cannot learn all of this in the time it takes for a candle to burn down.”

At the core of a saddle, underneath the leather padding and synthetic webbing, is a structural unit called a saddle tree. In Ava’s words, “It is the heart, the engine, the center, the base, the frame of a saddle.” A well-built, well-engineered saddle tree needs to be super strong, but also have give. A saddle, as Ava points out, is really “sporting goods equipment between two living beings.”

In one corner of Ava’s shop is a saddle needing repair made by Hermés, the Parisian company known for their haute couture silk scarves. The company still hand-stitches their saddles, however most saddle makers today use machines.

Hand stitching leather requires strong hands and two needles. Ava sits at her “stitching horse” to sew two pieces of leather together, using two needles and an awl. The majority of her tools she inherited from her master, Ferenc Laszlo.

 

In addition to building and repairing saddles, Ava is a master of the Hungarian art of braiding leather into decorative pieces called sallang. The Hungarian word translates to scrap leather. Originally, horse owners attached leather straps to the harness as a way for horses to fling away flies.

Some 400 years ago in Europe, these functional leather scaps were developed into decorative pieces used to dress up the horse for special occasions. “It was naturally a different culture. There was no airplane, there was no car, there was no telephone. And when a prominent guest or political person came to the town, how did you go to the railroad station to pick them up? With a beautiful pair of horses, or four in hand — two in front, two behind.” 

“Because the working harness is brown or a natural color, getting dusty or dirty, it’s fine when you train the horses. We don’t use decoration. As soon as you dress up your horses for parade, even today, for carriage driving presentation, the Hungarians use these sallang decorations on the harness  One on the forehead, two sideways at the ears and one on the back.” The use of brass ornaments — rosettes, stars, buckles — and painted color initials represent different barns.   

 

With Ava Vettenburg in our midst, perhaps we will see more horses adorned with sallang and more riders who are truly comfortable in their English saddles.

Welcoming a newborn baby, Djeli style

Monday, March 29th, 2010

 

Baby Sira was born just over one month ago. Her family invited friends and relatives for a celebration at their home in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Her father, Habib Saccoh recently befriended balafon player Balla Kouyaté, who in addition to performing with his band, World Vision, carries on his family’s tradition of performing for domestic ceremonies within the local Mandinka community. (The Mandinka are one of the largest ethnic groups found across much of West Africa.) “Even though Habib is from Sierra Leone,” Balla explains to me,  “he is still of the Mandinka people.” For such a momentous occasion, Habib and his wife, who is American, wanted to celebrate like he would, were he home in Sierra Leone.

Dropping by the all-day party was an opportunity for me to witness the role of a djeli (a.k.a. griot) in the context of his own culture. Djelis are the oral historians, praise singers, and musicians who are born into the responsibility of keeping alive and celebrating the history of the Mandinka people. Balla Kouyaté’s family lineage goes back over 800 years to Balla Faséké, the first of an unbroken line of djelis in the Kouyaté clan. Indeed, his family is regarded as the original praise-singers of the Mandinka people. To have him present at a celebration such as this, is a way of bringing together a community far from home, reminding them where they came from, holding the culture together.

And what a party it was. Although I had parked my car several houses away, I could hear Balla’s music from the street.

 

 

Stepping inside the spacious Victorian foyer, I immediately spotted where the action was. A large parlor room off to the right was alive with colorfully dressed men and women dancing to the music.

  

The music was cranked up really loud and some little people were not pleased.

Servings of African cuisine, fresh fruit, nuts, and beverages were plentiful in the kitchen.

Occasionally, people would offer cash to the musicians, in appreciation of their dance music and praises being offered, which went on for over six hours.

No question, this is a rich cultural heritage in which to grow up.

All photos by Maggie Holtzberg

Mehndi: From Tradition to Fashion

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Freshly applied henna by Manisha Trivedi.

Four hours later . . .

What happens when an ancient traditional practice becomes a mainstream fashion statement? Well, perhaps not mainstream.  But I have noticed a difference since the last time I had henna applied to my hand by a traditional mehndi artist, some 15 years ago. The practice of applying dye from the henna plant to beautify the skin is well known throughout India, where it is most commonly associated with the adornment of a bride, a couple of days before her wedding. But less so here in New England. Or so I thought, until I noticed how many people outside of the Indian community saw the applied design and knew exactly what it was. It was one thing for the wait staff at a local Indian restaurant to say, “I love your mehndi.” But almost everywhere I went, from the pharmacy to the grocery store, the bus stop to the library, people were familiar with the practice of mehndi. We have celebrities such as Madonna to thank for popularizing this art form.

Manisha Trivedi is a skillful artist who first learned mehndi as a youngster in Mumbai. She and her husband relocated to Massachusetts a decade ago. She has many bridal customers. Her clients are both from within the Indian community as well as general public who have discovered the art through popular culture. Traditionally, mehndi has been done as good luck for a bride. A typical session may take four to five hours to apply. Ever since Hollywood celebrities have taken to having mehndi, it is now not uncommon to find henna art available in the local mall or beauty salon. But the cultural traditions surrounding mehndi are probably not part of the service. Manisha tells this story about the use of mehndi in very traditional arranged marriages, when the bride and groom typically have not spent time together before the wedding. Once married, and alone for the first time together, they play a game in which the groom searches for the letters of his name, which have been hidden within the mehndi design. Searching for his name, while handling her arms, is a way of breaking the ice. If he cannot find his name, he has to give his bride a nice gift.


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