Preserving culture through art: Folklife center keeps many traditions alive

MIDDLEBURY — Sitting in her Barre living room,Abenaki basket makerJeanne Brink first moistened thin strips of ash to make them more flexible and easier to work with. The Abenaki artist picked up the base of the basket that she had earlier made out of ash, and began to weave the strips so that they built up from the base.
Like many other traditional artists, Brink learned her craft and continues to teach it through the Vermont Folklife Center’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program here in Middlebury. The Apprentice Program, founded 18 years ago, runs annually from May through July and provides an opportunity for teachers and students of a traditional art to come together for up to three years so that, through art, cultures may continue to grow and thrive.
The program recognized Brink as one of the master practitioners essential to preserving culture and identity through art. In the Abenaki basket making tradition, basket makers weave baskets from ash, flint and sweet grass. While this art form embodies the Abenaki people’s culture, history and identity, it does not enjoy the visibility that art forms such as blacksmithing do.
Brink said the Folklife Center’s program has been essential in her own quest to preserve the craft.
 “Basket making has been in my family for four generations, and I wanted to keep it going,” said Brink, who now teaches her craft. “It had an important role in our family traditionally and it was a traditional art. I didn’t want to see it die out.”
The program receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts that supports as many as 20 master-apprentice pairings each year. According to Gregory Sharrow, co-director of the Vermont Folklife Center, the apprenticeship program grew out of a concern that institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts would recognize only “high culture” such as symphonies and museums, but neglect efforts to preserve and strengthen the traditional arts.
“There are women’s sewing circles, old-time fiddlers and drumming groups within resettled African communities that are also vital and dynamic art enterprises,” Sharrow said. “The apprenticeship program was created to make sure that support was available to artists of all sorts across the whole spectrum of art-making in the country.”
Sharrow defined traditional arts as those passed on from person to person, generation to generation, as part of the flow of everyday life. Many of these art forms exist only in the works and the minds of the artist, he added, and when the social structures that surround these daily interactions are eroded by modern life, these integral cultural components can also fade away.   
The program is intended, he said, to provide the space for these arts to continue to flourish through a master-apprentice relationship, and to allow artists the time to focus solely on their craft. It connects teachers with invested students so that their art forms may continue. It provides students access to master artists and the means to connect with an integral part of their culture.
The artists accepted by a Folklife Center committee into the program practice art forms that are emblematic to the larger national culture or to their geographic, religious or linguistic identities.
 “Each cultural community has things that they make and do that are shaped by tradition and emblematic of who they are,” Sharrow said. “Some of these folk art practitioners are held up as emblems of American identity.”
In Brink’s case, before she connected with the apprenticeship program, she said she tried to teach herself because there were no resources in Vermont. Her grandmother, who had been a prolific basket maker, had passed on, and Brink could not find qualified teachers.
“I really needed help,” she said with a laugh. “I was weaving backwards and working with the wood soaking wet, and the wood contracts and becomes loose when it dries. I didn’t know why my baskets all came loose. I had to work with my teacher to unlearn all the wrong things I had taught myself.”
The program allowed Brink to travel monthly to a Canadian Abenaki reservation to learn from a teacher over a two-year period, and the teacher spent three weeks each summer with her in Vermont, a process that completed about 16 years ago.
Since then, she has taken a total of 26 apprentices of her own here in Vermont. Her students are all Abenaki, following a promise she made to her teacher to keep the art form pure and unmixed with other cultures and traditions.
“It’s not about basket making, but about the traditions that are involved,” Brink explained. “I learned about baskets, but I also learned about culture, my teacher’s life, and how basket making was a part of her life and our culture.”
When selecting applicants like Brink for the program, the Folklife Center focuses on the community benefit of the project, the commitment of the learner and the quality of the work of the master artist. As each project is self-driven, the apprentice must be motivated and the master qualified to carry the project.  
“We try to focus on art forms where the money would really make a difference,” Sharrow explained. “Where, if the program didn’t exist, the art form might not exist.”
   THESE ABENAKI BASKETS were made by Jeanne Brink, who honed her craft and continues to teach it through the Folklife Center’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.
Many of these endangered arts, such as Brink’s Abenaki basket weaving and Somali Bantu drumming, are part of minority communities in Vermont. The communities would not otherwise have the resources to continue their art forms, according to Sharrow.
Because the Folklife Center focuses on preserving these voices and traditions, other application guidelines, such as the type of traditional art or even the age of the applicant, are flexible.
Ada Schenk of East Calais was only 12 when the apprenticeship program accepted her hand weaving project. Schenk grew up on a farm, and although she holds a strong interest in all sorts of traditional arts including fiddle playing, knitting and ballet, she became fascinated in hand weaving wool from the sheep that surrounded her.
“We have Icelandic sheep, and the wool is very interesting to work with,” Schenk said. “We used the wool to spin, knit and weave with, and I became interested in working with the loom.”
She was part of the program for three years, the longest period for which the program will support a project. Toward the beginning of her apprenticeship, Schenk wove hand towels and blankets; recently, she has begun designing and weaving her own skirts and jackets.
“I love how there’s no age limit to apply (to the Apprenticeship Program),” she said. “I have learned a lot, but there will always be more to learn about this traditional art of hand weaving. Having the funding from the (Folklife Center) made a big difference, and I hope to continue with this for the future.”

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