Folk Art by the Feds: How a tiny NEA program for apprentices helps keep folk art alive

By Deborah Busemeyer

Apprentice Valerie Edwards (left) has been learning to make Yamani Maidu burden basketry from master artist Shewaya Peck (right). Burden baskets were traditionally used by the Yamani tribe for storage, gathering roots, berries, food, and ethnobotanicals. Photo courtesy of Russell Rodriguez/Alliance for California Traditional Arts.

For three years, Louie Garcia has been guiding apprentices to learn traditional weaving, according to the customs of the Tiwa and Piro Pueblos of southern New Mexico. The apprenticeships, which involve a year of study, cover everything from hand-spinning the heritage cotton he grows in his garden to the history and significance of the tools, colors, and designs that his ancestors have used for thousands of years. “Weaving is an expression of identity for me, for my family,” says Garcia. Now 39, Garcia started weaving at age 6, under the tutelage of his grandfather.

Garcia’s work gets at the heart of a little-known office inside the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the federal agency that has become a perennial target of subsidy-hating politicians. Founded in 1965, and still operating with pocket change compared to other federal agencies (2018 NEA budget: $152.8 million), the NEA has continually managed to survive. In the process, for a mere $4 million a year, it has managed to support American folk art in 43 states.

It’s not difficult to see the public benefit in this little program. Just this summer, as we recently reported, in our story, “Folk Art on Steroids,” New Mexico hosted the world’s largest Folk Art Market, drawing more than 20,000 people to see, and buy, indigenous crafts from across the globe. But you won’t find any festival of that magnitude on American folk art. Although we live in the world’s most culturally diverse country, most of us don’t know the stories and histories of the many folk-art traditions practiced right here at home. 

In 2017, Louie Garcia (right) and his apprentice, Alex Gutierrez, put on a Pueblo Fiber Arts show at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. Here, they are using “complementary floated warp” to weave a Pueblo sash This traditional technique makes the design appear on both sides of the weaving in complementary colors—what is red on one side, for example, is black on the other. Photo courtesy of Louie Garcia

THE LAST PUEBLO WEAVERS

Most of the NEA’s $4 million budget for folk art is dedicated to project-based arts grants; the remainder (approximately $1.3 million) is split between National Heritage fellowships that honor master folk artists and folk-arts partnerships. Those partnerships, which are funded by a variety of local nonprofits and state agencies, provide stipends to master-apprenticeship programs like the one funding Garcia.

“These programs help carve out space for people who are often working fulltime jobs, not as artists,” says Clifford Murphy, director of Folk and Traditional Arts at the NEA. “It also serves as a vehicle for states and arts organizations to celebrate these master artists and to remind people in the community that these are art forms of great value in the community, and they are accessible to people. They are not exotic. They are practiced by your neighbors and your co-workers. You can also be someone who becomes a part of these extraordinary art forms.

Garcia says that these colors represent important elements in Pueblo culture.  “The green represents our planting fields—primarily corn, beans, and squash, the staples in our Pueblo diet. The black represents the earth as well as the underworld that we believe we emerged from in our Pueblo origin stories. The red represents life and rain because rain is life. All of these colors together with the designs represent our Pueblo world and the Pueblo way of life—a spiritual life, a life of hard work and humility and living simply on our Mother Earth.” Photo courtesy of Louie Garcia

Garcia says it’s deeply satisfying to see his former apprentices fill the role of weaver in their Pueblo communities, sustaining the art of making ceremonial attire. As but one example, he and his students are reviving the technique of weaving short rows in the middle of red, green, and black sashes—a key piece of traditional Native American attire in his Pueblos.

Garcia believes he’s the last Pueblo Native American still practicing the weaving technique he teaches—a method called “complementary floated warp,” which means that the design appears on both sides of the weaving in complementary colors.  “I observed this in the many belts I have seen in museum collections dating from the early 20th and mid-20th century,” he says.

“A SENSE OF COMMUNITY”

Lilli Tichinin, who coordinates the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs’ folk arts program, has seen myriad benefits from the program. “Through the process of working one-on-one and learning an art form that has cultural significance to a particular group of people, you are passing on a valuable world view, and the values embedded in a culture,” she says.

In Selmer, Tennessee, fourth-generation master broom maker Jack Martin (right) teaches his apprentice, Jack Tipton, how to properly cut cut a child’s broom. Photo courtesy of Bradley Hanson, Director of Folklife, Tennessee Arts Commission

Kristin Sullivan, director of the Center for Washington Cultural Traditions, notices how the apprenticeship program she runs oft gives people a necessary nudge. She recalls a young woman who wanted to learn traditional Chinese recipes and their cultural context but was stalled by her grandmother, who didn’t want her getting distracted from her education and career. “What I’m hearing is [this] gives people a sense of place and a sense of community that aids in resiliency and community health,” Sullivan says. “It is community building.”

In Westel, Tennessee, master fiddle maker Jean Horner works with his apprentice, Austin Derryberry, during one of their sessions at Horner’s workshop. Their work is part of Tennessee’s portion of the NEA National Heritage Fellowships. Photo courtesy of Bradley Hanson, Director of Folklife, Tennessee Arts Commission

Often the community building is sparked by the relationship of the apprentice and master. Murphy, who directed Maryland’s folk-art program before joining the NEA, says that when he visits with artists, he is struck by how the apprenticeships are driving cross-generational relationships.  “That is something that a lot of Americans express anxiety about—that those relationships and conversations are becoming a rarity,” Murphy says. “I think these programs do an effective job of providing that, and that’s bigger than the art form itself.”

Once an apprentice shows a mentor that he’s going to stick around a mentor for a while, the fun often begins. Here, we have a wooden puppet hand made by Helmut Hellenkamp’s young apprentice, Leander Laga Abram. Photo courtesy of Grietje Laga

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME

Leander Laga Abram was 11 when his family gave him a day in Helmut Hillenkamp’s blacksmith shop in Santa Fe, NM. Leander made iron nails and was thrilled with the whole process—the fire, and his ability to transform a hard material with heat. Hillenkamp had never worked with someone so young, but Leander was patient, and he kept returning to his shop, where heat and soot and noise fills almost every space.

Thanks to the guidance of Helmut Hellenkamp (right), Leander Laga Abram might become tomorrow’s blacksmith. Photo courtesy of Grietje Laga

Leander is now 14 and in his second year of learning blacksmithing; he expects it will be a lifelong hobby, and maybe a career. In the process, Leander has found a mentor, who has opened up a whole new way of thinking for him. “You learn many other things from the mentor other than just a craft,” Leander says. “It’s a learning relationship that I don’t think many kids or young people really get to have.”

Leander Laga Abram spent four months carefully molding iron into a blossoming rose. His mentor told Leander the rose was an ancient test of a blacksmith’s skill—of his ability to stay with a project, and to craft a rose that feels alive like no factory-made metal rose could. Photo courtesy of Grietje Laga

Leander’s mother, Grietje Laga, believes the apprenticeship has shaped her son’s character, through his commitment and dedication to learning a craft and his ability to connect with adults on a deeper level. In a sense, an experience like this creates a kind of mutual apprenticeship.

Tichinin is currently planning ways to showcase the work produced in the apprenticeship program so a broader audience can see what the next generation like Leander can accomplish with his own two hands. For her program in Washington, Sullivan is creating a public archive of the state’s folk-art traditions.

At the Delgado Guitars shop in Nashville, Tennessee, third-generation luthier Manuel Delgado has been teaching Ava Delgado how to make a custom mandolin. Photo courtesy of Bradley Hanson, Director of Folklife, Tennessee Arts Commission

 “It’s so important to have a means of building up your community, and learning about other’s people’s communities and cultural traditions, so we’re not as scared of one another and have some grounded-ness to grow,” Sullivan says. “The more we can learn about other people’s traditions, it will tear down some divides between us.”

Louis Newberry (left) and Mark Newberry (right, and the shop’s master), show Malika Scheu, their apprentice, how to remove the bark of a hickory log in their chair-making workshop in Macon County, Tennessee. The Newberrys have been building handmade chairs for at least five generations. Photo courtesy of Bradley Hanson, Director of Folklife, Tennessee Arts Commission