Falling Between the Cracks

As folkorists, we are always questioning what constitutes “tradition,” “transmission,” and “context.”

Mary Hart attended the Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts exhibition twice during its run at the National Heritage Museum. Like many visitors, she filled out a comment card — in her case, the one where we asked people to tell us about a folk art tradition we should know about. Mary described her work in the German paper cutting tradition known as Scherenschnitte.

Scherensnitte is a tradition of making decorative documents that flourished within German American farm communities in and around Lancaster, Pennsylvania from the 1750s to the 1890s. People used these cut papers for birth announcements, memorials, love letters, and baptismal certificates. Rather than put them on display, many families stored them between pages of the family Bible.

I was curious about Mary’s paper cutting, but well aware of how she didn’t fit our criteria of traditional artist. Not only did she learn her folk art from a book, she claims no German heritage, and she is what folklorists refer to as a “revivalist,” practicing her art outside of the cultural context in which it was created. After Mary and I exchanged a few emails, I picked up on her frustration of falling in between the worlds of fine craft and folk art, not fully appreciated by either.

Folklorists place great emphasis on the cultural context in which traditions are transmitted. Who one learned from is important. How someone’s work is valued within the community in which the traditional art originated and is practiced is relevant.

So what does a folklorist do with an artist who essentially learned folk art from a book, doesn’t claim any familial or ethnic connection to a tradition, and has a college degree in art? In this case, I drove out to meet with her.

Although Hart has a studio — a small and bright room off the dining room of an open plan contemporary house — she does most of her paper cutting on the dining room table. Before my arrival, Mary had brought out samples of her work, as well as magazines, craft catalogues, and books about paper cutting. She showed me examples of Scherenschnitte, pointing out what attracted her to this German style of paper cutting: the symmetry, the simplicity of the cuttings, and the historical use of recycled papers. Back when paper was not readily available, people reused old letters — not unlike the recycling of cloth in the making of pieced quilts. She also likes the fact that you don’t need specialized equipment to do paper cutting.

Mary creates her own patterns, drawing in pencil. The paper is folded in half. Using an exacto knife, she cuts only the parts that won’t be different once the paper is unfolded. Unique elements are cut only once the paper is unfolded. Her work is traditional in that she uses borders and standard subject matter (farm imagery, trees, flowers, vines). Examples of how she has introduced innovations into the tradition are by adding fruit on the trees, or using a flock of birds.

Like any self respecting artist, Mary would like to be able to sell her work for a fair price and to be appreciated. She also wants to continue being able to teach – she keeps a busy adjunct teaching schedule. Teaching grammar school students is especially gratifying, “I see the visceral pleasure they take in making something with their own hands.”

Mary Hart’s work is beautifully rendered. Is she a folk artist? The folklorist in me must point out that Hart is working in a culturally specific tradition, yet completely outside of the cultural context in which this folk art was created and is practiced. But it is beautiful work, nonetheless.

When work “falls between the cracks” it brings us back to larger questions, such as: How are the traditional arts perpetuated outside of their cultural context? How is tradition reinvented in a transplanted community?

What do you think?

Contact Mary Hart at Jeffrey.Hart@verizon.net

Folk Traditions Flourish in Norway

Successive waves of immigration have always been a source of America’s vitality. Areas with high concentrations of specific ethnic groups often hold rich centers of traditional arts activity. If one were looking into Norwegian American culture, it would make sense to go to the upper Midwest. But I recently discovered a micro-community of people passionate about Norwegian folk dance and music right here in New England. There are regular folk dances where people swirl in elaborate folk costumes. Devotees from Vermont to DC attend summer camps and immerse themselves in springars, gangars, and hallings (traditional dance forms). And surprisingly, many of these individuals were not born into this tradition but rather discovered it as one one might pursue swing dancing, knitting, kayaking, or raising show dogs. A few dancers and fiddlers can claim the cultural heritage passed down to them through their genes, but many devotees of Norwegion folk culture are not of Norwegian heritage.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, work in the fishing industry drew large numbers of Norwegians to the southeastern Massachusetts towns of New Bedford, Fairhaven, and Dartmouth. By the 1930s, New Bedford had a thriving Norwegian community that quickly rose to command the scalloping industry, owning most of the boats and processing plants. Many of these people emigrated from Karmoy, an island off the coast of Bergen. Today, there is a great cultural pride and an enduring sense of national identity among the area’s older generation of Norwegian Americans. However, there seems to be a general concern that the young people aren’t interested in their heritage or in learning traditional skills. Though the Norwegian craft traditions of rosemaling , cutwork embroidery, and knitting can still be found amongst descendants of Norwegian immigrants, the hardanger fiddle tradition – if it ever existed here — has died out. Sadly, many of the old timers passed away without passing on their music.

On a recent vacation, I discovered that, in the home country, Norwegian folk traditions continue to thrive. Maybe it has something to do with the long, dark, cold winters. Or Norway’s geography – the spectacular yet isolating terrain of mountains, valleys and fjords. Whatever it is, folk culture is alive and well in Telemark, Norway. Even in this age of iTunes and Facebook, regional styles of dancing, fiddling, and adornment remain in tact.

Couples dancing to a single fiddler playing a hardanger is a common social activity. And young musicians continue to learn from master players in weekly spelemannslags.

Regional and national competitions called kappleleiks are well attended by dancers, musicians, and singers. Musicians are careful to acknowledge whoever taught them a particular tune. Many of the fiddle tunes have stories associated with them.

Rosemaling (Norwegian rose painting) embellishes wooden surfaces of all kinds — furniture, cabinetry, walls, fiddles.

Rosemaling, in the form of embroidery, adorns clothing as well — even undergarments. Dancers literally wear their cultural pride on their sleeves. The traditional folk costume, known as a bunad, varies from district to district and identifies a dancer’s home region.

The hospitality of Norwegian locals and their generosity in sharing traditions was heartening. Being there reminded me of what led to my becoming a folklorist in the first place.

All photos except first one by Maggie Holtzberg.

Our local gem, Club Passim, on NPR!

Folklorist Millie Rahn knows the history of folk music in Massachusetts – and serves as the archivist for Club Passim. Catch this recent story on NPR celebrating the legendary folk music venue.