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.



Kolam Art: An Afternoon with Tamil Makkal Mandram

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

MCC Awards 2016 Fellows & Finalists in the Traditional Arts


Portrait of Shannon Heaton

Shannon Heaton, Irish flute playing, singing, & composition

No matter how well any of us play, our Irish cred lies in
how tightly we can play with others. Irish music is social.

Shannon Heaton is highly regarded in Irish traditional music circles for her beautifully expressing playing, composing, and dedication to teaching and promoting the music. She was fortunate to learn firsthand from musicians in Chicago’s rich traditional Irish music scene and later in repeated trips to County Clare, Ireland. For National Heritage Fellow, Seamus Connolly, Shannon’s playing encapsulates the tradition, “In it I hear so many elements of the old styles, such as the playing of Kevin Henry from County Sligo, Ireland, who lived in Chicago and whose music goes back to another time.”

Shannon co-founded the Boston Celtic Music Festival in 2001, a festival that continues to bring Irish musicians together with other Celtic styles. “Live Ireland,” an Irish music radio show broadcasting from Dublin, nominated Shannon “Female Musician of the Year” twice. In addition to performing regularly, Shannon is a sought after teacher, not only of tunes and technique, but also of the tradition’s social and musical customs, e.g., the importance of session etiquette.


Dimitrios Klitsas at his workbench
Dimitrios Klitsas, architectural and ornamental woodcarving

Both students and seasoned wood carvers come from around the country to study with master woodcarver Dimitrios Klitsas in his studio in Hampden. Like the architects and designers who seek out his impeccably carved ornamental work for fine homes and churches, these students are inspired by Dimitrios’s ability to shape slabs of walnut, mahogany, or oak into breathtaking architectural and figurative works. Guided by his deep knowledge of the fundamentals of classical European design, Dimitrios patiently creates carvings that exemplify both his unique talent and his devotion to the tradition of his craft.

Dimitrios began his training in classical carving at age 13 at the Ioannina Technical School near his home in the foothills of northwestern Greece. After graduation, he served a five-year apprenticeship and then ran his own woodcarving shop in Athens for another five years, before coming to Massachusetts nearly four decades ago. His work here has been recognized nationally with commendations including the Arthur Ross Award for Artisanship from the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art. Many of Dimitrios’s students have gone on to professional carving careers, including his son, Spiro.


Delft redware by Stephen Earp

Stephen Earp, redware pottery

Stephen Earp works within the redware tradition, the common name for a variety of domestic, leadglazed
pottery made in New England between the 17th and 19th centuries. Originally, redware was produced to meet the daily needs of food storage, preparation, and serving such as plates, platters, and pitchers. On occasion, redware served commemorative and decorative purposes. Stephen has perfected the functional forms and sgrafitto of Colonial redware, and more recently found his way to his own heritage through making Dutch Delftware.

Most of Earp’s pottery is thrown on a wheel that he designed and built. He uses local materials including clay from a family owned pottery in Sheffield, Massachusetts, which mines clay from a local seam. His glazes include locally dug clay, as well as ashes from the hay of a nearby farmer. In 2007, Stephen was included in Early American Life Magazine Directory of Traditional Crafts. Stephen was named an MCC Finalist in the Traditional Arts category in 2008. He writes an engaging and informative blog, This Day in Potter History.

Soumya Rajaram

Soumya Rajaram, Bharatanatyam 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, Soumya 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.


Maria Neves Leite, Cape Verdean singer

Known in the performing world as  “Lutchinha,” Maria Neves Leite is a singer of Cape Verdean songs. She was born into a singing family on the island of Sao Vicente, Cape Verde Islands, part of an archipelago off the coast of West Africa. She began singing at age seven, first with her father and later with family friends who would come to the house. Luchinha’s first solo CD Castanhinha bears the title of a mourna that her father wrote for her mother. She went on to become one of the winners at the Todo Munco Canta singing competition, representing her island of Sao Vicente. Engagements in the Soviet Union and in Portugal soon followed.

Lutchinha enjoyed a successful performing career in Europe before she joined her parents in immigrating to the United States. The family settled in Brockton. Lutchinha sang out in the local region, performing for Cape Verdean weddings, Noite Caboverdiana, and other community events. Her repertoire continued to draw from the deep well of traditional Cape Verdean song including the morna, coladeira, batuku,and funana Only recently, with her own children grown, Lutchina has returned to performing outside of the Cape Verdean community, including appearances at major festivals like the 2014 American Folk Festival in Bangor, ME. and the 2015 National Folk Festival in Greensboro, NC where she was backed by an all-star band of Cape Verdean musicians from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

  Textile with hole to be repaired Invisible reweaving

Toni Columbo, invisible reweaving

When is a traditional art at its best when it can’t be seen? Toni Columbo excels at invisible reweaving, French weaving, over weaving, and reknitting; all are traditional ways of repairing holes and damages by hand as imperceptibly as possible in woven and knitted fabrics. Threads or a frayed piece of fabric are harvested from an inconspicuous spot on a jacket, pants, coat, or sweater, and rewoven thread by thread, into the damaged area, rendering it virtually invisible.

Toni learned needle arts from her mother, who in turn, learned from her mother. Toni was born and raised in Boston’s North End, and she maintains a vital connection to this Italian American community. She is highly regarded by customers and by high end retail stores for her excellent skill in mending cherished items of clothing. Using the skills passed down through her family, Toni repairs and restores suits, sweaters, coats, couches, tapestries, and uniforms (including Babe Ruth’s 1926 New York Yankees baseball jersey). In addition to working on heirlooms, Toni keeps up with the new weaves and fibers used in today’s textiles. To work on these micro fabrics, some containing between 100-125 threads per inch, Toni uses a high powered surgeon’s loupe.

Apprenticeship Grants Available

Are you interested in applying for a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council? Applications are now available.

Recent apprenticeships funded by MCC’s Folk Arts and Heritage Program include Puerto Rican musical instrument making, Irish fiddling, Cambodian kbach (basic element of design), Irish stepdancing, bladesmithing, and Puerto Rican dollmaking, to name a few. Check them out.

Keepers of Tradition garners press

Deborah Joseph, Trinidad & Tobago Social Club, Boston Caribbean Carnival 2003Detail of Hardanger cutwork table runnerAfter almost four years of work, Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage has opened at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington. The response has been heartening – especially from artists, who feel honored, as they should. Their work is often seen only by family members — like the cutwork embroidery of Aline Drivdahl or by the specific community in which it is displayed — like the costumes of local mas bands at Boston’s Caribbean Carnival.

The media coverage and reviews are starting to come in. WBUR’s Here and Now host Robin Young spoke with me recently about some of the artists featured in the exhibition. WGBH’s Greater Boston producer Jared Bowen paid a visit to the show.

Below are links to a sampling of reviews:

“. . . this exhibition is more than just an exhibition. It’s one part of a much bigger project, which includes Holtzberg’s excellent catalog essay (it explains the stories behind the various objects in some depth) and, beyond both the show an dthe catalog, a great deal of valuable documnetation which can only help in the attempt to keep these traditions alive . . .” Sebastian Smee, Boston Globe

Keepers of Tradition reflects the diversity of the state better than any art show you’re likely to see for a long time.” -Greg Cook, The Boston Phoenix

“An engaging, informative exhibit . . .Think of this fascinating show as a tour through the markets and bazaars of the world with no haggling.” – Chris Bergeron, Metrowest Daily News

“. . . head to the National Heritage Museum in Lexington for the enthralling exhibit “Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts.” This is not your mom’s folk art show: check out the stone fence, the sheet-metal “tin men,” and the boat making, as well as the scrimshaw, quilts, and redware pottery. – Stephanie Schorow, Sidekick, Boston Globe

Visit for more on the exhibition.