Lowell Folk Festival Highlights

We had great fun at this year’s Lowell Folk Festival, where artisans demonstrated the folk art of head and foot gear. Who knew there were so many ways to adorn the head and protect the feet?


Luidgi Felix and Nicole Scott from the Trinidad and Tobago Social Club brought several Caribbean Carnival headdresses to show. These handmade costumes are worn by dancers in Boston’s annual Caribbean Carnival.

Here Nicole Scott shows off one of their creations. Months of work go into constructing these costumes made of wire, steel, feathers, sequins, and glitter.

Jonas Stundzia brought the tradition of Lithuanian Midsummer celebration to Lowell. Under a huge double-horsehead gate, to the sound of Lithuanian folk songs, he created head garlands out of oak leaves and wild flowers. Visitors joined in, making garlands for themselves. 

Angel Sánchez Ortiz  brought his Puerto Rican vejigante masks used for carnival celebrations.  His striking, fantastical masks of boldly painted papier mâché depict animals, legendary people, and sometimes spirits and monsters that are imbued with cultural meaning.

Qamaria Amatul-Wudud designs and sews fashionable clothing for Islamic women who choose to dress modestly. She brought some of her elegant dresses and showed visitors how to wrap headscarves.


Eniko Farkas brought her Hungarian beaded maiden crowns worn by unmarried girls after confirmation. Before marriage, they would ritually replace them with a married woman’s headdress. Eniko also talked with visitors about the traditional Hungarian art of embroidery.

Our own J. Arthur Poitras from Lowell seemed to have brought his entire cobbler’s shop with him. There were pliers, knives, creams, and even a hanging shoe last.


The infamous “Hat Ladies” of Gloucester, Amy and Robyn Clayton amazed people with their whimsical hats. Here, Amy hands out pamphlets about the Saint Peter’s Fiesta next to their handmade statue of Saint Peter. 

The “Hat Ladies” make a new hat every year for the Saint Peter’s Fiesta, featuring local sights in miniature. For the Lowell Folk Festival, they even brought a life-size cut out of Saint Peter for visitors to pose with.

Theodore Green entranced visitors as he constructed hand built shoes out of leather. If you looked down, you may have noticed his own glittering gold shoes!

Samuel Brown and his custom made hats were a big hit. It was all he could do to keep the ladies from walking off with his hats on their heads.

Faith Izevbijie demonstrated how to tie gele, Nigerian headwraps.


And, last but not least, there were tomatoes, lots of tomatoes. Eleni Zohdi was one of five cooks demonstrating recipes using tomatoes. Here she explains how to make a Greek dish called Kayiana, with Lowell NHP Chief of Cultural Resoruces David Blackburn looking on.

We all had a good time and hope you did too. If you missed it, there’s always next year!

Photos and blog by Lesley Ham


Festival Food a Family Tradition

Music isn’t the only draw of the Lowell Folk Festival. Unique to the festival are the ethnic food booths run by local churches, temples, and non-profit organizations. Festival-goers come to sample the variety of international food, handmade by volunteers. These food booths are often family affairs, with young children and teenagers working side by side with their parents.

During the festival, ethnic food booths line French Street behind Boarding House Park. Near the corner of Kirk and French, the Filipino food booth is always one of the most popular, with infamously long lines every weekend. Profits benefit Iskwelahang Pilipino, a cultural and language school in Bedford, and many families who attend the school volunteer to help cook and run the booth. Small children play in the alley behind the tents, young girls serve fried rice and noodles, men barbeque beef, and women roll turon (banana fritters).

Although he’s only 18, Joseph Umali has been volunteering for ten years. “I used to be one of the kids hanging out back,” he said. He started out by serving food, and now is in charge of the cash register and running beef from the truck to the grill. Last year he was one of three young volunteers awarded scholarships from the Lowell Festival Foundation for their service at the various food booths. Working at the festival is something he looks forward to every year, calling it “such a blast.” People from different food booths help each other. “It’s all one big community,” he said.

Both his parents are originally from the Manila area and his family is actively involved in the school and the festival. According to their website, one of goals of Iskwelahang Pilipino is to “develop in Filipino-American children a strong positive ethnic identity and instill pride in the students’ cultural heritage.” Joseph hopes to visit the Philippines either as an exchange student or after graduating from college.

Several booths down from the Filipino booth, facing Boarding House Park, the Parekh family is busy serving Jamaican beef patties, Indian vegetable curry and samosas. Edith Parekh first ran a food booth for the 1986 Regatta Festival to benefit the Celebration of Life non-profit organization, now called Seed. Along with her husband Nalin, and later her four children, Anissa, Natasha, Noah, and Naomi, she has participated in every Lowell Festival. Former Lowell State Senator Dan Leahy, whom Edith calls the “spirit of the organization,”  founded Celebration of Life to help benefit the Mustard Seed orphanages in Jamaica after he saw the plight of poor children in Kingston. There he met Father Gregory Ramkissoon, a priest from India, who founded the orphanages 1978. Naomi spent one year in Jamaica as a Fulbright scholar working with Father Gregory helping orphans stigmatized by HIV. This year’s profits from the Seed booth will go to help both Lowell charities as well as Jamaican orphanages. Any leftovers will be donated to a homeless shelter.

Edith’s mother immigrated from Jamaica to Canada as a young girl. Nalim came to the U.S. from India for university. Together they prepare both Jamaican and Indian food for the festival.  Before the festival, they chopped 15 pounds of red peppers and175 pounds of boneless chicken and cooked a couple of 100 pound bags of rice. The Jamaican beef patties, wrapped in pastry, sell out every year. This year Naomi added her own recipe for rum cupcakes.

For Edith “the real essence of the festival is the last few hours of the festival when vendors all start eating each other’s food.” The Filipinos eat watermelon from the Seed stand, Naomi eats beef on a stick from the Filipino right in front of her mother’s food booth. “Ethnic camaraderie what it’s all about” said Edith.

Next to them, Emma Phachansiry serves fried noodles at the booth benefiting Wat Lao temple in Lowell while Suvana Phomma makes spicy papaya salad with fish sauce, chili pepper, shrimp paste, lime, and tomatoes. Nearby in Boarding House Park, Nana and Dan Dunn from Gloucester enjoy plates of Filipino beef barbeque, fried rice, and spring rolls while waiting for the music to start. They have come to almost every festival since 1988 and come as much for the food as for the music and art. “It’s wonderful to see real people making food,” said Nana, noting that the festival is a major fundraiser for the ethnic groups. She said the food is “prepared with love,” and represents the diversity of cultures. Nana said at the festival you can find out about cultures you don’t know about and “food adds a dimension to that experience.”

Photos and blog by Lesley Ham

From Head to Toe: Adorn & Protect

These are just some of the craft artists and traditions you will find at this year’s Lowell Folk Festival in the Folk Craft area of Lucy Larcom Park. They craft a variety of gear to progect and adorn the head and the feet.  Using an array of materials, techniques, and styles, each craftsperson works within well-established traditions. Some  creations express religious devotion or ethnic identity, others sheer practicality. Many fulfill a cultre-based license to be “on display.”


 For more info on the 2012 Lowell Folk Festival click here.  Hope to see you on July 28 & 29th!







The Hat Ladies of Fiesta

It’s late March and we are well into planning the folk craft area of the 2012 Lowell Folk Festival. Though the festival is best known for its music and food, there has long been a vibrant showing of traditional craft by artists who demonstrate their work under tents located along the canal in Lucy Larcom Park.  The theme for the area this year is “Head to Toe” and we are in the process of identifying people who craft a variety of head gear (hats, Caribbean carnival headdresses, crowns, head wraps, etc.) and foot wear (handmade shoes of all kinds).

High on my list for awhile has been finding the Hat Ladies of Fiesta. The first I’d heard of them was in the summer of 2009, when I was lucky to have two college interns who spent the summer documenting ethnic festivals around Massachusetts. (Ellen Arnstein and Signe Porteshawver’s fieldwork is sprinkled throughout our Keepers of Tradition website).  A highlight for them was attending Gloucesters’ St. Peter’s Fiesta in late June, which honors the patron saint of fishermen. In amongst their photos were shots of two women wearing fantastic hats.

After a little research I discovered their identity: Robyn and Amy Clayton.  As it turns out, the Clayton sisters are known around Gloucester as “The Crazy Hat Ladies of Fiesta.” Their outlandish hats have become an integral part of St. Peter’s Fiesta.  I wrote them a letter back in December and soon after had an invitation to come meet with them in Gloucester to learn all about their hats.

What started as a backyard party 18 years ago has grown into a highly anticipated display of creativity.  It’s just around this time of year that Robyn and Amy begin working on their Fiesta hats. Made from scratch, each hat replicates in miniature key elements of Fiesta:  local churches, temporary altars, the St. Peter statue, the greasy pole competition, Gloucester’s fishing fleet, concession stands, and carnival rides.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table in Robyn Clayton’s home. Spread out on nearly every available surface were hats from previous years and supplies for creating this year’s hats including large light slabs of foam core, pipe cleaners, glue, popsicle sticks, paint, Sculpey clay, Legos, and  HO-scale model railroad figures.

Robyn modeled last year’s hat for me. “My friends joke that when I put this hat on, I’m going to need some kind of out riggers because they think it’s so heavy, but it really isn’t heavy. It’s just a little awkward if it’s really windy out.” Not to be missed is Robyn’s replica of herself on her hat, wearing her signature hat, standing in front of the working Ferris wheel.

Though they create new hats with a new theme each year, some things stay the same.  Amy’s hats always include the greasy pole and Robyn’s always feature the altar. All the references are local. Robyn points out a perennial figure, “This guy here is always on my hat. He’s Ambie, the sausage man. He’s also my UPS man. It looks just like him.  Made him out of some Legos, some Sculpey clay, and the left over umbrella from a Mai-Ti.”

Robyn describes the early days of Fiesta, “Way back when, when there was a huge fishing fleet, this was a huge celebration. The carnival wasn’t involved.  This was about people dressing their houses. They would put their old quilts out the window.  Fiesta has been going on for a long time. Same thing for the greasy pole competition. What they did was, they just paraded St. Peter up and down. It was about the feast.  It was about praying for people’s families and the safety of their men. . . St. Peter has been put around different areas. He used to sit in the old grocery store windows. As the fishermen would go out to their boats, as they went by St. Peter, they would pray to him. Just keep us safe. Bring us back home.”

The original life-size statue of St. Peter, which was brought over from Italy in 1927, remains the centerpiece of what has become a five-day celebration. Recently, Robyn was inspired to make her own statue of St. Peter. During the year, the statue of St. Peter is kept at the Saint Peter’s Club on Rogers Street; Robyn’s Saint Peter hibernates in her cellar.


I wonder aloud what the older, Italian generation of Fiesta think of this relatively new addition to their festival. “The old Italian women absolutely love these hats,” Robyn says. “The Fiesta committee [which is made up of mostly men], they recognize us as the crazy fiesta hat girls. Here we come. By no means are we mocking the Fiesta; we love this tradition.”

The Clayton sisters are elated to be coming to the Lowell Folk Festival this July, where  they will join a variety of other hat and shoe makers in the folk craft area. They plan on bringing plenty of hats, some handouts,  pictures of Fiesta over the years, and a huge cut-out of St. Peter for photo-taking opportunities. Their enthusiasm for hat making will be matched by their pride in representing Gloucester and St. Peter’s Fiesta. We’re honored to have them.




Scenes from a folk festival

The Lowell Folk Festival is best known for its spectacular array of traditional music and ethnic food. Perhaps less well known is the Folk Craft & Foodways demonstrations that take place every year in the shade of Lucy Larcom Park. From watching fishing flys being tied and seeing how Abenaki baskets are woven, to handling newly constructed Puerto Rican musical instruments, it’s an area that encourages a special kind of hands-on interaction that kids especially enjoy.

Folks that stopped by the letterpress printing tent got the chance to set metal type in a composing stick and then pull an impression (i.e., print) their own name on a table top  press.

Samnang Khoeun explained the carving and casting ofan element of Cambodian ornamental design known as kbach.

Just across from the craft demonstrations was the large Foodways tent. Here, people had a chance to watch cooking demonstrations and sample noodle and pasta dishes from five different cultural cuisines.

The demonstrations started at noon with Jewish noodle kugel. Hannah Hammond Hagman and her mother Lynn Hammond, shared a recipe which has been handed down in their family for four generations.

Ronnie Mouth shared her mother’s recipe for cold Cambodian noodle salad.

Other dishes that were presented over the weekend included Italian pasta and peas by Regina Sibilia Sullivan, Polish pierogi by Dottie Flanagan and Carol Matyka, and Pennsylvania Dutch chicken corn noodle soup by Millie Rahn. In addition to the welcome shade of the tent, the crowd seemed to enjoy hearing stories about  family traditions, cooking tips, recipes. . .

. . . and those delicious samples!

All photos by Maggie Holtzberg

The Pierogi Queen

We first met Dorothy “Dottie” Naruszewicz Flanagan at Holy Trinity Polish Church during the “Blessing of the food” Easter Saturday. Remember those sculpted butter lambs? So we weren’t surprised to learn that Dottie is also known locally as the “Pierogi Queen.” Raised in Lowell’s Polish community, Dottie, who learned to make this pasta delicacy from her mother, aunts, and grandmother, shares this fact, “Pierogi has always been a part of our life. It’s a staple, especially at Christmas time.”

Dottie invited us to her home to watch her make pierogi along with her good friend Carol Matyka. Carol also grew up in Lowell and the Dracut area, but now lives in Boston. Her family is all of Polish extraction. When we meet, Carol tells us, “I was looking forward to coming today because Dottie is the master of making pierogi. It’s been many, many years since I’ve made them and I wanted to re-establish my roots in Polish cooking.”

Dottie and Carol have prepared the fillings ahead of time. Dottie assures us there aren’t enough hours in the day to prepare the fillings and the dough all on the same day. One filling is made with two kinds of farmer’s cheese, potato, and onion and the other is made with cabbage and sauerkraut.

Carol has mixed and kneeded the dough, which, like noodle or pasta dough, contains no yeast. She rolls it out to an eighth of an inch, then uses the top of a glass to cut out circles of dough.

Next, Dottie fills the circles of dough with filling, wetting the edge to seal the deal. She reinforces the seam by pressing the edge of a fork into it.

Carol points out that if you look at pierogi about to be boiled, “They look like Italian ravioli, Chinese pot stickers, empanadas — every culture has its version of the same thing.”

The pierogi cook for about ten minutes, or until they float. Then, using a slotted spoon,  Dottie lifts them out and gently places them into a pan of melted butter, before letting them rest on a tin-foiled pan.  And of course, it’s time for a taste. The pierogi are delicious; in the boiling process, the farmer’s cheese has melted and the dough is buttery soft. You can’t get a taste and texture like that from store-bought pierogi.

Making pierogi for a crowd is labor intensive. In addition to making large batches of pierogi for the day before Christmas, known as Wiligia, pierogi is made for other special occasions, like wedding showers and baptism receptions. It is usually a group effort, not unlike quilting bees or barn raisings used to be.  Dottie says that at Christmas time, she and Carol’s sister make about 300 pierogi. “We can’t do that alone. We had six people here cooking one day and we were able to make twelve dozen in one night . . . Ideally, you have one doing the dough and rolling it out, one doing the mixing, one taking care of the pots, one putting them in the freezer.”

Carol goes to mix up another batch of dough, adding flour as she goes, “We’re going to start with two cups of flour, but you’ll see, as I’m working the dough, I’m going to have to add more.”

“That’s another thing you get to know,” Dottie adds.  “The feel of the dough. You get to know that it actually talks to you.”

“And what does it say to you?” I ask.

“Sometimes it says, ‘I’m not ready,’ and sometimes it says, ‘O.K,'” Dottie answers, to the sound of sizzling butter in the background.

Before we leave Dottie’s kitchen, I get a chance to try my hand at making pierogi.

For more cooks’ secrets and a chance to taste some of Dottie and Carol’s pierogi, be sure to come by the Foodways Tent at 2:00 pm on Saturday, July 30 or Sunday, July 31 of the Lowell Folk Festival.

Life lessons through doll making

On July 12, 2011, Puerto Rican dollmaker, Ivelisse Pabon de Landron, and her apprentice Jamielette Figueroa will do a demonstration at 2:00 p.m. in the Ashland Public Library. They will be sharing skills passed on during their 9-month Traditional Arts Apprenticeship, which was funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Among the skills young Jamielette learned are hand sewing, joining seams for clothing construction, drawing, cutting fabric, paper pattern making, use of a thimble, color wheel, tape measure, and sewing machine, preparing fabric, stuffing techniques, shearing for skirts, making hair out of yarn, and hand embroidery. These are things that used to be taught in home economics classes, if not not something that most girls learned firsthand from their mother or grandmother. Nowadays, how many youngsters are adept at sewing?

Perhaps, more importanty, these sewing lessons were steeped in folk cultural context. In addition to working on the technical craft of doll making, Ivelisse made sure that Jamielette learned about the history of Puerto Rico and the folk culture of its people. She came to understand that many of the skills that were passed on from one generation to the next were honed during times of hardship, when many rural people could not afford to buy the necessary things to survive, let alone provide toys for their children. Years ago, mothers taught their daughters the craft of making dolls using socks, old garments, corn husks, and banana leaves. To bring this history to life, Ivelisse and Jamielette created characters from Puerto Rican folkore such as the nana (care taker of children) camadronas (midwives), jibaros (farmers) and African bomba y plena dancers.

Ivelisse was a demanding teacher in the way great teachers are. On occasion, Jamielette did not meet her expectations, turning in a half-hearted job. Ivelisse took the opportunity to teach Jamielette the importance of taking pride in what you do. Through hard work and attention, Jamielette grew to meet Ivelisse’s expecations. It helped that master artist and apprentice share the same heritage, Spanish language, and spiritual faith.

The July 21 public demonstration will serve as a dress rehearsal of sorts for a Ivelisse and Jamielette. They will be joining eight other master artist/apprentice pairs participating in the summer’s Lowell Folk Festival. Come by and see them in the Folk Craft & Foodways area along Lucy Larcom Park on July 29-31, 2011.

Under One Tent: Duck Decoys and Fishing Flys

The Folk Craft area at this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival focuses on the role apprenticeships have played in helping to sustain traditional art in New England. Below are two master artists and their apprentices that will be sharing a tent in Lucy Larcom Park. We are thankful to our friend and collegeague, Lynn Graton of New Hampshire Folklife  for connecting us with these talented craftsmen.

Making a beautiful decoy starts with being a keen observer of wildlife, in order to mimic the postures and grace of a variety of wildfowl and songbirds. Skills in carving must be matched by skills in painting. Layers of carefully applied paint help create the sheen and luster of feathers. Fred Dolan, of Strafford, New Hampshire,is a nationally recognized wood carver, specializing in waterfowl and songbirds. In addition to having studied under master carvers both in New England and in the Chesapeake region, Fred has studied ornithology and  worked with New Hampshire Fish and Game officials to band geese as a way of studying the birds at close range.

Fred works primarily with cedar, basswood or tupelo wood. He uses a variety of techniques such as combing to simulate wavy lines;  stippling to diffuse light and provide texture;  airbrush techniques to create iridescent highlights and shadows;  as well as hand painting of feather details. Gary Trotter is one of several apprentices Fred has mentored through a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant awarded by the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts.

Fly fishing has been around for centuries, but the greatest advancements to the tradition were made in19th-century England. Flys are a combination of feathers, fur, and wire to imitate the look, color, wiggle, and silhouette of a bug or bait for fish. As Lynn Graton writes, “Classic Atlantic salmon flys are considered by many to be the king of the ornamental flys and are collected and displayed for their jewel-like beauty.” With up to 30 or 40 steps and taking several hours to complete, they represent the pinnacle of fly tying art. The distinction between working flys and classic Atlantic salmon flys, with their exotic feathers, is akin to that between working decoys and decorative decoys.

As a child, Bob Wyatt watched his father tie Atlantic salmon flys on family fishing vacations in Nova Scotia. The fly is used to catch “the king of fish,” says Bob, who now preserves fly tying as part of New Hampshire’s outdoor heritage. In 2009, Bob  was awarded a grant from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts to mentor Chris Clark, who runs an outdoor adventure guide business.

World of Food at the Lowell Folk Festival


The 24th Lowell Folk Festival will feature cooking demonstrations in the Folk Craft and Foodways area of Lucy Larcom Park and a chance to buy a variety of ethnic cuisine at three performance stage areas.

This year “Foodways” looks at how beans are prepared in several cultures. Often called the “poor man’s meat,” beans are rich in protein and have long been the traditional Saturday night supper in New England. Native Americans introduced slowly cooked beans to early settlers, and like many foodways, recipes were adopted and transformed by immigrants who added their own traditions and ingredients. Folklorists Millie Rahn and Maggie Holtzberg have connected with five cultural representatives, who will share their insights with the audience. Festival visitors are invited to sit down and watch how this simple legume can take on such different flavors. Ask questions. And be sure to sample the beans made by our various cooks —

 12:00  Faith Izevbijie, Nigerian beans

1:00    Guida Ponte, Portuguese beans

2:00    Sellou Diaite, Senegalese bean fritters

3:00    Jeanette Rodriquez-Cumpiano, Puerto Rican beans

4:00    Kurt Levasseur, Franco-American beans