Rural musicians and craftspeople are once more singled out by the National Endowment of the Arts for their contributions to the nation's cultural heritage.
It’s about time that dog sleds were considered an art form!
The awards honor artists who are preserving traditional crafts, music, and visual arts through teaching and the excellence of their own work. Over the past 30 years, hundreds of rural makers and musicians have been recognized, from woodcarver George Lopez (Cordova, New Mexico) to zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier (Opelousas, LA) to weaver Teri Rofkar (Sitka, Alaska).
Many folk expressions originated as the practical arts of rural life (saddlery, quilting,..making snowshoes). Paul Bergren first made human footwear “to outfit his family on trapping expeditions.” The NEA writes that in 1978, when one of their five children “asked for a snowmobile to use while trapping,” the Bergrens got a dog instead and Paul made a sled. In a few weeks the whole family had become “hooked on dog-sled racing,” and Bergren began experimenting with design. “The sleds are handmade of steamed and bent white ash,” laminated for durability and lightness and artfully stitched with rawhide.
The Bergrens were nominated for the National Heritage Fellowship for their skill and craftsmanship and also their generosity in “sharing those talents with others who want to learn.”
Molly Neptune Parker of Princeton, Maine, has sustained and expanded the tradition of basketmaking, an art of the Pasamquoddy tribe. The NEA describes her as the “matriarch of four generations of Passamaquoddy basketweavers.”
She was born in Indian Township, Maine, in 1939, and from early childhood began learning this craft from her mother, grandmother and aunts. Her baskets are complex and feature “flowers” made of ash splits on top, a design the women in her family originated.
“Basketmaking for me is about innovation and creativity within the context of a traditional art form,” Parker says. “The functionality, the materials, and the shapes have been a legacy for each generation. I honor that legacy and believe I have a responsibility to continue it, basing it always on our traditions and knowledge of literally thousands of years. Basketmaking is an art that I believe I was born to do, much as my ancestors have done for thousands of years.”
The Paschall Brothers also carry on family tradition, but with the weave of their voices. Reverend Frank Paschall, Sr., began an a capella singing group in 1981, one of the last exemplars of Virginia’s black gospel “quartets” (the music has four-part harmony but usually more than four singers).
The NEA writes, “Following the Civil War, the Tidewater, or Hampton Roads, area of Virginia …became an important and lively center of African-American culture. Four-part harmony groups were common and performances took place everywhere from churches and street corners to show choir-like competitions in which groups were judged on both vocal gymnastics and appearance.”
Today the late Rev. Paschall’s sons and grandsons, led by Terrance Paschall, continue to sing both songs from the old gospel repertoire and original compositions. Their folk art, while not derived from a practical craft, was likewise grounded in everyday local culture: part of the region’s Protestant Christian religious tradition. Daniel Sheehey of the Smithsonian’s folkways program writes of the Paschall Brothers, “Their multi-generational membership, their creativity, and their positive energy breathe new life into the old sounds.”
Congratulations to these and all of the National Heritage Fellows.