Jon Kay on August 2, 2016

Folk Art and Aging BookIt has been a while since my last post to the Artisan Ancestors Podcast website, but it has been a very busy year. Anyway, as of today, my book Folk Art and Aging:Life-Story Objects and Their Makers is officially out. The book is about the creative practices of older adults., and is published with Indiana University Press. It is part of a new series that they are producing with the Mathers Museum of World Cultures called Material Vernaculars, which is edited by Dr. Jason Baird Jackson, who is  has been a special guest for several of our podcasts.

Here is a bit more about the book and the artists about whom I write. Through the work of five elders living in Indiana, this book examines the ways elders contemplate, make, display, and narrate their life-story objects. Readers will come to know Bob Taylor a retired pattern-maker and memory carver; Gustav Potthoff, a painter and survivor of the death camps of Burma-Thailand; Marian Sykes, a rug maker and retired working-mother; John Schoolman, a prolific walking stick maker and hiker; and Milan Opacich, a Serbian-American instrument maker and storyteller. Each of these artists will teach us how their creative work assists them in making sense of their lives, connecting with others, forging a new identity in their later years, and making commentary of the changing world around them. 


Jon Kay on February 13, 2015
A stone wall at the corner of Ninth and Fess in Bloomington, Indiana.

A stone wall at the corner of Ninth and Fess in Bloomington, Indiana.

Here at Indiana University, several historic houses are being relocated to make room for a new building. It is a shame to see the houses moved from the sites where they were built more than a century ago, but the community thought this to be the best compromise.  While everyone gawks at the spectacle of an  old brick house rolling down the street, few took notice of the old stacked-rock wall that the movers tore down to facilitate the relocation. Building walls without mortar is an art. The dry-stone wall at the corner of Ninth Street and Fess Avenue in Bloomington, may date to the late 1800s. Though no doubt maintained and altered in spots, they are an excellent example of local limestone masonry.

Not to be confused with the rock fences that line family farms in southern Indiana and that  date from the early nineteenth century, the dismantled wall was of  humble construction, built to raise the houses above the streets and to make basement constructing easier. Nevertheless, my heart sank just a little, when the movers stacked the stone on wooden pallets to make room for the housemoving change that was coming to our neighborhood. I thought I would write this short post honor the mason’s trade and the wall which for a century students have walked past, sat on, and occasionally admired.

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Jon Kay on January 10, 2014

In this episode, I talk with my good friend Jason Baird Jackson about his new book Yuchi Folklore:Cultural Expression in a Southeastern Native American Community. Jason tells us about the diverse cultural expressions of this often overlooked community. He talks about his collaborative research with the Yuchi, a native people of the South, who now live in Oklahoma.  Jason’s Research methods provides a wonderful example of how historical research and ethnographic field methods complement each other. Jason is the director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures and an Associate Professor in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University.

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Jon Kay on October 29, 2013

Baskets_500In this episode we talk with Nicholas R, Bell who works at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery and is the curator of A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets. The exhibit is on display this fall, and there is a beautiful catalog with essays by Bell as well as a forward by folklorist Henry Glassie. My conversation with Bell  covers a range of topics including the nature of revival and revitalization of traditional crafts, and the threats facing the future of basketmaking in the United States today.

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Jon Kay on August 30, 2013

Ch-HouseIn this episode I talk with Carl Lounsbury an Architectural historian who has worked in the Research Department at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation since 1982. He and noted material culture scholar Cary Carson are the editors of a new book that has been more than thirty years in the making, The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigation by Colonial Williamsburg. In addition to discussing how this book came into being, the interview delves into what scholars can learn from old buildings and why these types of studies are important. The new book is a must for any one who works in preservation, enjoys learning about regional history and historiography and a fascinating read for anyone who lives in an old house.

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Jon Kay on April 16, 2013

I stumbled on this YouTube video that aired in 1979 on WTTV show 4 Thought.  This segment features John Smith a fiddler and fiddle maker from Tunnelton, Indiana. He plays Old Dan Tucker and other old tunes, and talks about playing for square dance when he was ten years old and the process of making a fiddle from tree to tune.

Towards the end of the clip, Owen Stout from Paoli joins Smith. This piece captures some fine Indiana fiddle music.

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Jon Kay on April 12, 2013

F360-poster-2013-webI will be teaching Indiana Folklore and Folklife this summer at Indiana University and am enjoying putting together the Syllabus for the course.  This course explores the folklore and traditional arts of Indiana. First,we survey the oral traditions of our state. From local legends and ghost stories to jokes and personal experience narratives, we probe how the stories reflect and shape the everyday lives of Hoosiers. Second, we study handmade objects and their makers. From gravestones and quilts to buildings and musical instruments, artifacts provide a lens for understanding the identities and creative lives of people and the communities to which they belong. This course is specifically designed to familiarize students with the research methods and skills needed for studying vernacular culture in Indiana and beyond.

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Jon Kay on April 8, 2013

Teresa Hollingsworth and Louisiana Bendolph presenting the quilt exhibition to the Shanghai consulate (quilts by Erick Wolfmeyer and Gwen Proctor Johnson)

No cultural expression is more synonymous with American traditional arts than quilt making. In this episode, I talk with SouthArts folklorist and senior program director Teresa Hollingsworth  about The Sum of Many Parts, a large exhibit of quilts made by 25 contemporary America artisans. Katy Malone joins the interview and explains her work overseeing and designing this exhibition, which opened in Shanghai in September 2012. quilts_audienceTeresa and Katy tell how the program came into being and some of the unforeseen benefits of sharing this traditional art of quilt making with Chinese museum-goers. For example, the exhibit has presented several workshops for Chinese audiences lead by U.S. quilters and arts professionals, which offer meaningful cross cultural exchanges.

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Traditional Navajo Ceremonial or wedding basket (Photo by Carol Edison, Courtesy Utah Arts Council)

Traditional Navajo Ceremonial basket or wedding basket (Photo by Carol Edison, Courtesy Utah Arts Council)

Carol Edison tells us about her work with  Navajo basket makers in Utah, including Mary Holiday Black the legendary matriarch of the basket tradition.  An ancient artform, the Black and other families have both continued and revitalized a beautiful type of basket that is both ceremonially and economically important to their community.  Carol shares how she was introduced to this art form and how she researched the contemporary revolution of basketry among the Navajo. She also tells us about a new exhibition of these baskets on show at the Natural history Museum of Utah. “Weaving a Revolution: A Celebration of Contemporary Navajo Baskets” tells the story of the revitalization of the tradition and the emergence of this contemporary movement through more than 150 baskets made in the past thirty years. The exhibition catalog can be purchased from the museum store by calling 801-587-5784.

During our conversation, Carol mentioned the publication Willow Stories: Utah Navajo Baskets, which can be purchased from the Utah Division of Arts and Museums for $8.00 + postage/handling by contact Jean Irwin at 801-533-5760.

Agnes Black Gray with her story basket titled Separation of the Sexes (Photo by Carol Edison, Courtesy Utah Arts Council)

Agnes Black Gray with her story basket titled “Separation of the Sexes” (Photo by Carol Edison, Courtesy Utah Arts Council)


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kfp-basket-2In this episode I talk with Brent Bjorkman, the new director of the Kentucky Folklife Program. Brent shares his vision for this organization which recently moved to Western Kentucky University. We also discuss his research with the basketmakers along US 31W, an old tourist route where the old folk tradition of making white oak baskets became a popular tourist craft.

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Jon Kay on February 18, 2013
Baskets by Ida Pearl Davis. Photo by Robert Cogswell.

Baskets by Ida Pearl Davis. Photo by Robert Cogswell.

Tennessee and baskets seem to go together, but their relationship probably is not at all what you think. In this episode, I talk with folklorist Roby Cogswell, the director of Folklife at the Tennessee Arts Commission, about his research of the basket making tradition in Cannon County, TN.  This amazing craft has long been one of Tennessee’s best-kept secrets. We talk about his use of both fieldwork and genealogical methods to uncover the untold story of this long-standing white oak tradition. Roby recently published an article about Cannon County Baskets in the Tennessee Folklore Society’s journal, but nothing can compare to listening to him talk about his research.  However, as Roby would say, “don’t ask him the time, if you don’t want a history of watch making.” So, this episode is a little longer than usual, but I think is exactly the content that Artisan Ancestors listeners are looking for.

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patterson_true-244x300In today’s podcast we talk with folklorist Daniel Patterson who is a professor Emeritus of English and former chair of the Curriculum in Folklore at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a Fellow of the American Folklore Society. Dr. Patterson has recently written a monumental work on early gravestones in the Carolinas. In the True Image, he traces the vernacular stone carving traditions in this region and use these stones to tell a compelling story about life, work and culture in this region. Combining his study of the material and textual elements found on these markers with historical contexts and related documents, Patterson has revealed a complex story of early life in the Carolina’s at a time of great religious and social change.

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Jon Kay on February 6, 2013

Digital-TraditionsIn this episode I talk with my old friend Saddler Taylor, the Chief Curator of folklife and fieldwork at the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina.  He has researched the traditional arts and culture of the American South, and helped produce the Digital Traditions website, an online repository of resources pertaining to the folk and traditional arts of South Carolina. In this interview we talk about Saddler’s research and public outreach initiatives and about the ongoing impact of the Digital Traditions website.

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Jon Kay on January 29, 2013

I am planning a new podcast series about the history of folk arts in Indiana tentatively titled Indiana Folk Arts: 200 Years of Arts and Crafts in the Hoosier State. The aim is to identify 200 folk artists and objects for our state’s bicentennial in 2016. I will feature one artist for each year of our state’s history. As a folklorist, I know many contemporary folk artists in our state, but I need help finding crafts and folk art objects from Indiana’s past. My aim is to highlight artists from each of Indiana’s 92 counties, while trying to show the diversity of our state. I will include limestone carvers from Lawrence County, a potter from Park County and a basket maker from Brown County. I am asking for help identifying artists from all of the counties.

What do I mean by folk art? Folk art refers to the handmade crafts and works of art that individuals make that are expressions of their personal and cultural identity. Henry Glassie, in his Spirit of Folk Art (1989) described it this way:

Remember that art is the result of the merger of people and materials. It records the interaction of human beings with their physical environments. When we qualify that interaction as folk, we stress its social dimensions… And the artists act so as to connect again to social reality. Saying “folk art,” we emphasize the cultural aspects of every endeavor (Glassie, 88).

Some examples might be christening gowns made for a grandchild, a gravestone carved for a loved one, furniture fashioned for a neighbor or a quilt made for warmth.

I am asking for nomination of objects that could be included in this podcast. I need: 1) Name of artist if known, 2) a specific object being nominated, 3) the year that the object was made (if not known, an approximate date or range), 4) any support information such as item location, owner, historical data, etc. A photograph would be great, if you have one.

stonehead smallKeep in mind, I will be researching each of these. Your help is in making me aware of items and artists, so don’t feel like you have to do a lot of research up front. Feel free to nominate as many works as you like. I am especially interested in objects and artists from Indiana’s Native American and immigrant communities in your region. Do you have a tradition of quilt making, woodcarving, pottery, basketry, or other art? Also look for distinctive items. I could focus this project on gravestones or quilts, but I want to include as many genres as possible.

I want to thank you for your help in the early stages of this project. I probably won’t start releasing podcast episodes until January 2014. However, I will be researching and producing them throughout this year so let me know your thoughts ASAP.

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Jon Kay on January 28, 2013

The treestump marker for Ruth and Joel Philbert and their two sons

In a small country cemetery just outside Dugger, Indiana is a remarkable double treestump tombstone. These stones tend to be very biographical; the motifs carved into them often reveal information about the deceased, or at least how their family or community wanted to remember them. The spinning wheel is a common symbol for women who were prominent early settlers to a region. Spinning and weaving have deep roots as symbols of devotion to family and country. Women in colonial times took up making homespun as a protest to unfair textile taxes, and the imagery continued through the Victorian era.

The long rifle is a sign of male patriotism and “pioneer” spirit. Many of these type of stones also have axes, splitting mauls, and wedges, each perhaps referencing the work of carving out a life in the rolling hills of southern Indiana.

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Jon Kay on January 23, 2013

Opacich-image-podcastI learned that Milan Opacich, tamburitza musician and luthier passed away Monday morning (January 21, 2013) at his home in Schererville, Indiana. Many folklorists who worked in Indiana will be familiar with his work, he was a key collaborator in the Gary Project and was featured by Richard Dorson in his classic Land of the Millrats.  In 2004, he was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship. The son of a Croatian mother (Roza) and a Serbian father (Mile), Milan Opacich was born in Gary, Indiana in 1928. Religious and political conflicts between Serbians and Croatians were persistent when he was growing up in the Calumet Region, which is home to one of the largest Serbo-Croatian communities in the United States. His blended heritage positioned Milan on the cultural boundary between both communities, where his family bore the brunt of ethnic and religious prejudice. His mother was not allowed to worship with the Croatian Catholics, because she had married a Serbian. His father chose not to worship at the Serbian Orthodox Church, because they did not accept Milan’s mother. While religious and ethnic differences divided his community, Milan used music, art and stories to bring together his family and friends and combat the discrimination that he faced.

Living within this large enclave of South Slavic immigrants, Milan heard the music of tamburitza orchestras playing at neighborhood gatherings. Tambura and gusles leaned in corners of living rooms or hung on walls, as symbols of national aOpacich-imagepodcast2nd ethnic identity. At around four-years of age, he remembered playing with an old prima at the house of a Gary couple, until its owner scolded him. The tambura was musically, materially, and symbolically a persistent part of his early life.Though he grew up during the Depression, Milan’s parents encouraged his interest in music and building instruments. He recalled,

So my dad, (who was quite a craftsman in his own right) fashioned me a prima out of plywood and strung it up with rubber bands.  And I watched this whole procedure. And I think somewhere in the back of my mind, he created this desire for me to be able to do this.

In addition to the tamburitza music he heard at community gatherings, country music flowed into his home from Chicago radio stations. By eighteen, he had taught himself to play guitar, and formed a country band called the Opossum Holler Ramblers, which featured four youths playing guitars, electric mandolin, and washtub bass. Despite his interest in country music, Milan started a tamburitza band called the Continentals, which employed a mix of experienced Serbian, Croatian and Irish musicians. The eclectic band “played music of all nationalities, pop tunes, even a few country songs.” Milan liked playing tamburitza; while club owners usually paid the country band in beer, the tamburitza musicians were tipped well by listeners who wanted to hear music that reflected their ethnic and national identities.  For more than fifty years, Milan played tamburitza music, much of it with the ethnically diverse Drina Orchestra, which provided music at social clubs, weddings and festivals throughout the Chicago-land area. When Milan retired from the orchestra in 2006, the band was still ethnically blended: three of his bandmates had Serbian fathers and three had Croatian fathers. Milan commented about the diversity of his group, “Only in America could this happen.”  Through choosing a varied repertoire of songs and assembling an ethnically mixed band, Milan worked for decades to heal his community, while still embracing his Serbo-Croatian identity through tamburitza. 

Milan’s story is the story of the power of the arts to overcome life’s hardships. His instruments have been exhibited at both the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution and at the Roy Acuff Museum. In 2002 he was named to the Tamburitza Association of America Hall of Fame. In 2004, he was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as a National Heritage Fellow; he was Indiana’s only living recipient of this prestigious award. In 1976 and 2007 he was an invited artist to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Again in 2012, he was planned to demonstrate at the Smithsonian, but due to health related issues was unable to attend. Milan Opacich will be missed by many. He is survived by his wife Roz and daughter Karin Opacich.

Milan with the Drina Orchestra in East ChicagoI was blessed to call him a good friend, who taught me much. I produced a documentary about Milan with Anders Lund several years ago called the Birth of a Prima. Milan also helped me build my first (and only) guitar. A great man, who will be missed.


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Jon Kay on December 18, 2012

John Schoolman and Jon Kay I know it has been a while since I made a podcast post. I thought I would share a 7-minute piece/talk I gave as part of the American Folklore Society Meeting in New Orleans this past fall.  I focus on the work of John Schoolman, a friend of mine who made beautiful walking sticks and canes. The aim of the presentation is to show how handmade objects can serve as tools for life review for the elderly as well as an amplifier for beliefs and values among the very old. Since I gave this at the AFS Meeting, it also stresses my belief that more folklorists should be paying attention to these specific forms of material culture, and the stories they help communicate. I hope you enjoy it.

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Jon Kay on October 20, 2012


I thought folks would love to see this documentary from the 1950s about Sam Rodia’s towers in Watts. I have recently been thinking a lot about art and aging. This video is a classic. I hope to have a new podcast up next week, but busy getting ready for the American Folklore Society Meeting in New Orleans this coming week.



The Alabama in the Making traveling exhibition at the Johnson Center for the Arts. The exhibition features Pad powered kiosks with folklife content: (Photo/Jaine Treadwell, linked from

Look who is 30 episodes old! We are excited to reach this milestone, but are continuing to move forward at Artisan Ancestors. In this  episode we talk with the new Executive Director of the Alabama Folklife Association, Mary Allison Haynie, who has just released into the world a traveling exhibit that focuses on the traditional arts and people of Alabama. From chicken and goat stew to Mardi Gras float making, Alabama in the Making honors the people and traditions of Alabama. While looking at older traditions in the state, the program has embraced new technology using iPads to power display kiosks at the various venues where the show travels.

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Jon Kay on October 8, 2012

Elmer Schlensker stitching up a broom in Milltown Indiana.

I work with a lot of elderly artists. As such, death and dying unfortunately are an ever present part of my life. I don’t think that I will ever get use to loosing people who have shared their stories and talents with me…I guess that is the way it should be. While looking up his address today, I saw that Elmer Schlensker had passed way last March at 81 years old.

Elmer Schlensker was a fourth generation broom maker from Milltown, Indiana. As a child he helped sew the broom that his father made. However, Elmer had never made a complete broom, until many years after his father passed away. A coordinator at the Lanesville Festival approached Elmer to demonstrate the event, when the broom maker who usually demonstrated at the event fell ill. After much encouragement, Elmer went home and took several of his father’s old brooms apart to remind him how they were made. Through trial and error, he taught himself to make brooms.

Elmer used the broom making equipment that his inherited from his father. His father always placed a label on each of his brooms, which looked like a broom maker’s coat of arms; not having these old labels, Elmer would cut rural pictures out of Country Magazines to label his ready-made heirlooms. When he made a broom for a friend or a local business, he would sometimes print a label on his computer with a picture of local landmarks.

Elmer continued to work in the basement of his home making a few brooms each week and looking forward to the Lanesville Festival each September. I am sure he was missed this year at Lanesville. He taught his daughter how to make brooms, and hoped that she might take it up when she gets old enough to retire. He also took great pride in the fact that his grandson, the sixth generation, had made a broom.

Rest in peace Elmer


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Jon Kay on September 29, 2012

Maxine Stovall and Kathy Muhammed presenting a quilt at the Indiana State Fair.

In this episode, we talk about the the diverse meaning of objects. From Civil Rights quilts to Amish buggies, we explore how objects communicate various meanings. Using a semiotics approach we explore the difference between the various ways that objects serve as signs:icon, index and symbol. I share some observations from Peter Bogatyrev’s book, The Functions of Folk Costume in Moravian Slovakia, as a way of talking about the meaning of things. We then discuss how insiders and outsiders can see very different things when looking at the exact same object.

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Jon Kay on September 21, 2012

In this episode, I talk with Folk Art Curator Carrie Hertz about her work at the Castellani Art Museum, where she has just opened an exhibition about Irish Lace making traditions. We talk about her collaboration with Molly Carroll, a lace collector and restorer to produce this beautiful exhibit and discuss how working with local scholars and enthusiast to produce exhibits of this kind, can help museum remain relevant to their communities. A delicate needle craft, Irish lace came to prominence during the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s. The wages earned from the export of this domestic craft helped some to survive during the this horrific period. The exhibit at the Castellani shares this story while highlighting the talents of area artists and scholars in Buffalo, New York.

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Jon Kay on September 17, 2012

This past weekend I got to try my hand at stone carving. It reaffirmed my belief that one of the most powerful research methods in historical craft is the hands-on approach. It is amazing how much a you can learn just by trying your hand at making a quilt, building a banjo or baking bread.

Learning by doing is a fun and informative approach to material culture scholarship. I have long been interested in stone carving, but had never tried it until stone carver Amy Biers let me try my hand at it, while we were working at a festival. I quickly realized that my notions of this craft were totally wrong. I had been thinking of it as being similar to woodcarving, which I have done, but boy was I wrong. I was instantly humbled. I am planning on trying to attend the Limestone Symposium this Spring and learn some more about this incredible craft.  Thanks to Hannah Davis for taking these pictures.

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Title: John Bohall at work Date: 1927-11-04 Call number: 5x7, Box 78, Item 3 Hohenberger's Subject:	 5x7 Names:	 Bohall, John Location:	 Brown County (Ind.) Topic:	 Basket making Basket makers Baskets Size:	 5x7

Frank Hohenberger’s photograph of “John Bohall at work” this image is linked from the Frank Hohenberger Collection at the Lilly Library at Indiana University.

A ton of information is embedded in historic photographs, especially when the images include artisans and handmade objects. In this episode of the Artisan Ancestors, I talk about my work identifying, organizing, and analyzing historic photograms. Focusing on my work with pictures of oak rod baskets from Southern Indiana,  I share how images can be read to reveal greater amounts of data than what might first be apparent. By looking at a collection of images over time, the researcher can understand shifts in feelings and attitudes about folk crafts. I reference my article, “A Picture of an Old Country Store” as an example of this type of deep reading of images.

Historic photographs are important resources for scholars of handmade objects. They can reflect the everyday use of objects from the past, manifest the variations in crafts over time, record the aesthetic values embedded in objects that have not survived to the present era, and also, document aspects of the construction process of earlier generations. In this podcast I explore more details about each of these reasons.

I also review some of the basic research methods for studying photographs, such as photo inventorying, contextual analysis, and photo interviewing., all of which help researchers both expand and focus their observations.

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Jon Kay on September 4, 2012

The National Endowment for the Humanities just announced their Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections (SCHC) grants, which aim to help cultural institutions preserve their humanities holdings.  This program supports “preventive conservation measures that mitigate deterioration and prolong the useful life of collections,” so that future generations can make use of these resources.

I want to encourage local organizations to step up to the plate and recognize the import humanities related collections that they are entrusted with. In our tourism driven age, more and more museums are being strapped to do more programs and provide greater access, but often to the neglect of their preservation and conservation efforts. I write this not to attack, but to encourage the many small cultural organizations that hold great local collections to continue to labor in their conservation efforts. Though your work is often thankless, know that the future scholars will thank you for attending to these collections.

In this episode of Artisan Ancestors, I talk with Dr. Candace Greene, who directs the Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology or SIMA for he National Museum of Natural History, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution. She is an ethnologist at the Smithsonian and has an adjunct appointment with George Washington University Department of Anthropology, where she teaches graduate students how to apply anthropological understandings to museum practice. The Summer Institute focuses on research training program that aims to encourage and advance the use of museum collections in anthropological research by providing material culture training to graduate students.  This four-week intensive workshop admits 12-14 students to further their understanding of museum research by introducing them to research collections, methods and theories that can help answer their important research questions.


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Jon Kay on August 24, 2012

A couple of months ago, I met  Marian Sykes, a native of Chicago, who makes rugs that tell the stories about her life and her family. Using a process known as rug hooking, she recycles wool that she gets from unraveling garments that she buys at area thrift stores. An amazing and talented artist, she spends months producing a rug. Marian’s rugs are different from most of those produced at hooking guilds and clubs; Marian’s rugs tell stories of “happy times.” Some tell of her memories of visits to Little Italy, where her father lived, other rugs share humorous tales about a young single mother raising a family.

Marian was raised in the Angle Guardian Orphanage in Chicago, from the age of 3 years until she was fourteen, when she went to live with her father. She hated the institutional life of the orphanage, and lived for her father’s visits and the foods he would bring from Little Italy. She recalls, “It was like living in two worlds: one institutional; the other wild, free, and dirty…[Little Italy] was enjoyable.” Marian chooses not to depict the painful memories from her life in the orphanage, but rather fills her quiet creative days, illustrating the “happy times” with her family. Almost like the rosary of her youth, the time consuming construction of making rugs fills the quite times alone and squeezes out the harsh memories of the orphanage.

This rug depicts Marian’s children playing in the snow, after on of the “Worst snow storms” in Chicago.


One of her rugs records the “Worst snowstorm in Chicago.” Twenty-six inches of snow fell, and for a week the kids were at home, and entertained themselves throwing snowballs and playing in the snow. Her story-rug collapses the week into one scene, which includes the big igloo her son made, her daughter selling snowballs to the other children (2 for 5¢), and building a snowman. In the background of the image are the “coldwater flats” where Marian and her children lived in Chicago. She marked the door to their home by hooking it with red wool. Click here to listen to listen to Marian’s story.

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A wordpress site for a great oral history project focused on the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky. 

Looking for a way to build an online presence or community? WordPress has emerged as the leading tool for building blogs and websites on the internet. As a way to encourage folks to take the plunge, I am hosting a introductory webinar on wordpress this week. I am not a pro on this topic, but I can share the basic process and strategies for using it.  Hope you can join us online on  Thursday, June 14, at 4 p.m. for this free workshop.   If you work at a nonprofit, I would welcome you to share it with some of the artists and community groups with whom  you collaborate. While the title says it is for “traditional musicians and folk artists” it really is for anyone interested in using this easy website building tool. I think WordPress is a great resource and the future of personal websites and digital outreach. I will present on this free tool and explain the simple ways to construct a professional-looking website. I will also share a list of great plugins for expanding your site’s functionality. Here is the link:

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Jon Kay on May 14, 2012

photo from

I was saddened to hear of the passing of old-time fiddler Joe Dawson of Bloomington. He grew up in Axsom Branch, a region in Brown County, which is now nearly forgotten, since it was cleared to build the Monroe Reservoir. While Joe first learned to play tunes in this rural community, it was later in life that he attracted the attention of old-time musicians in Bloomington, where he hosted a weekly music jam in his home. Over the years hundreds of players passed through his living room trying to learn the distinctly local tunes in the elderly player’s repertoire. Up to the end, music and musician friends were around the player. Grey Larsen and Cindy Kallet, became like family to him; helping organize the jams, taking him to doctor appointments and checking in on him. Here is a video of Grey and Cindy talking about Joe, and playing a few tunes from his repertoire.

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Jon Kay on May 1, 2012

My family and I went to visit some friends down near Murphysboro, TN a few weeks ago. While there we searched for some seed for our garden, after looking several places, we visited Pearcy’s General Store in the little town of Lascasses. The small building packed with the gardening and home repair supplies that the rural community needed carried the purple hulls and October beans that we wanted.  Stored in large wooden bins with glass fronts, the array of bean and corn seeds show both the local preferences of food traditions in Middle Tennessee.

You might be wondering what do hardware stores and seeds have to do with artisan ancestors. Food traditions are perhaps the most persistent of cultural expressions. In a very real way, heritage tomatoes or watermelons were the product of generations of artistic selection and breeding, long before agro-science became a multi-billion dollar industry.

This month, I will plant my mother goose beans, which my great-uncle Jim Ramsay passed on to me several years ago. This wonderful pole bean has a meaty and robust flavor, which makes it a satisfying meal all unto itself.( In a future post, I will tell you about this family bean and the story my grandfather told me about where it came from.)

I would love to hear from readers about their favorite heritage seeds and local gardening practices, no matter where you live in the world.  Whether you live in Texas or Turkey, share your favorite growing traditions with the Artisan Ancestors audience. Email me the name of the seed, what it is like and the story of where it comes from. Also, send me a photograph of the seed, plant or dish, if you can. I will post the best of the

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