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.

Six New Apprenticeships Funded by MCC

We are delighted to announce this year’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants. The following six traditional art forms will be taught by master artists to their apprentices: Irish uilleann pipe playing, South Indian carnatic singing, sign painting and gold leaf, ornamental and architectural wood carving, North Indian Madhubani painting, and South Indian carnatic drumming.

Irish uilleann pipe playing: Joey Abarta, master artist and Caroline O’Shea, apprentice


South Indian carnatic singing: Tara Anand Bangalore, master artist and Pratik Bharadwaj, apprentice



Sign painting and gold leaf: Josh Luke of Best Dressed Signs, master artist and Corinna D’Schoto, apprentice


Ornamental and architectural wood carving: Dimitrios Klitsas, master artist and Spiro Klitsas, apprentice


North Indian Madhubani painting: Sunanda Sahay, master artist and Sanjana Krishna, apprentice


South Indian carnatic drumming on mridangam: Gaurishankar Chandrashankar, master artist and Kaasinath Balagurunath, apprentice


Apprenticeships are a long-standing method by which an individual learns skills, techniques, and artistry under the guidance of a recognized master. Applicants were reviewed by a panel of experts who evaluated the artistry of the master artist, skill level of the apprentice, rarity of art form, significance of the tradition,  appropriateness of the pairing, and work plan. Grantees are expected to offer a community presentation at the end of their 9-month long apprenticeship.

To see a list of all MCC-funded apprenticeships since 2002, click here.

Sign Maker to Give Artist Demo

We first wrote about Nicholas Lonborg back in September, but it’s worth repeating, since he will be doing an artist demonstration a few days after Christmas at the National Heritage Museum. Lonborg has mastered the art of hand carved signs featuring V-cut letters and the application of gold leaf. He specializes in highly finished quarterboards, like the one he is working on here. Once associated with ships, quarterboards now mark personal property, especially on the seafaring island of Nantucket and other coastal communities.”

Come watch Lonborg work, ask questions, and hear him talk about his craft on Sunday, December 28th from 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.

Nicholas Lonborg outlining in black. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Native veteran and woodcarver

Joseph Johns, aka Cayoni, with one of his woodcarvings.

Last week we headed out to Worcester County to meet Joseph Johns, a.k.a. Cayoni, a Muscogee Indian who is reputed to be the last practicing, (if not last surviving) traditional Muscogee Creek woodcarver in the United States today. Here you see him holding one of his carvings — a green corn mask which is used in the Muscogee Green Corn Ceremony. Johns explains that the festival is usually held around the first of June because the corn is beginning to ripen.

“[The greencorn masks] are carried in your hand and rested on your shoulder. See? And you kind of dance in a procession of people. It’s a very festive time of year because the fires are all extinguised in the village — every fire goes out. They pour water on them. And they start the festival. No fire is lit until it’s over. And all things are forgiven.”

Though Joseph Johns has lived in Massachusetts for nearly 60 years, he was raised on an island in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. It was there he learned traditional carving from his grandfather, Tahoma. It is important to Johns that you know his Indian name, “Cayoni” which means bad weather. On the night he was born, a freak storm brought high winds and snow — an unusual weather pattern for southeast Georgia.

Cayoni working on an eagle mask. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg.

Below is a traditional woodcarving Johns created around thirty years ago. Made of cypress wood with elkhorn eyes, the carving symbolizes the trials of the Trail of Tears.

Buffalo carving by Cayoni. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg.

“When the army removed the people from the Okefenokee Swamp [forcing them to march] to Oklahoma, they were told there would be buffalo, antelope, all kinds of animals out there for them to eat when they got there. That was during the Trail of Tears March. When the people got to Oklahoma, the only thing out there was a few poor jack rabbits and an antelope or two, and no buffalo. So the people wound up eating their horses and their dogs and their cats, and every damn thing that had followed them out there to Oklahoma. And somebody created this design; instead of it having the buffalo horns come up, they turned down because it was a sad occasion and they had been lied to . . . it’s an old design.”

As if being the last in a line of Muscogee woodcarvers isn’t rare enough, Johns also has a singular military history. When he was only fifteen years old, the navy came around looking to recruit Muscogee men to serve in World War II. Johns’ exceptional marksmanship was too good for the Navy to pass up. A career military man and Native Veteran, Johns went on to serve in the Normandy Invasion and Korean War, and did two tours in Vietnam, before retiring from the military. He then spent six years in the Delta Force. As if that weren’t enough, he survived being bitten by a venomous snake (which blinded him for four days) and he chain smokes. Clearly, a man with nine lives.

Joseph Johns outside his home. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg.

Now enjoying his retirement, Joseph Johns and his wife live in bucolic New Salem, Massachusetts.

The view from John\'s home in New Salem. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg.

Have a comment? Send me an email:

Handmade signs in Halifax

He served in Desert Storm. His dad played for the Red Sox. And he keeps bees — but we’re interested in him because he has mastered the art of hand made signmaking. A day’s work for Nicholas Lonborg entails carving letters in wood and applying gold leaf. He specializes in highly finished quarterboards, like the one he is working on here. Once associated with ships, quarterboards now mark personal property, especially on the seafaring island of Nantucket and other coastal communities.

Nicholas Lonborg outlining in black. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg