Celebrating New American Artists
Photographs hanging in the Spotlight Gallery beginning July 10 honor the work of seven groups of artists. Music, dance, and fiber art traditions of Somali, Nepali, Burmese, Burundian, Tibetan, and Bosnian people are represented. There are important through lines. New Americans living in Vermont are making the art. They gather as a part of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program – an initiative of the Vermont Folklife Center. The Apprenticeship Program was one of the many passions of Gregory Sharrow, whose life ended earlier this year. Greg left an impressive legacy; the enduring practices shown in the images give credit to a minute portion his substantial work. Through the continuity of these art forms, Greg’s service to foklife will remain alive in Vermont for generations to come.
Sustaining Cultural Practices
The Vermont Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program seeks to sustain the continuity of cultural practices. Teachers and learners (masters and apprentices) are brought together; each share a commitment to keeping traditional art forms alive, vital and, most importantly, continually relevant to the communities that practice them. The program has supported 330 apprenticeships in 25 years, representing a broad spectrum of expressive culture — from native Abenaki basket making to Somali Bantu embroidery.
It was through the efforts of Greg Sharrow that the Vermont Folklife Center initiated the Apprenticeship Program tto support the living cultural legacies of the state. Historically, the creative forms supported by the program passed from generation to generation, often without the support of classes or public institutions. Over time, factors such as societal change, economic necessity, and immigration — including forced relocation due to conflict — can disrupt this cycle of transmission. Traditional arts are grounded in historical practice and are a visible and expressive aspect of the ongoing processes of change. Through them, communities actively explore — and often debate — the nature of their collective identity in the present.
More About Greg
In her tribute to Greg Sharrow, Vermont Folklife Center Director Kathleen Haughey referenced his collaborative instincts. She called him a pioneer, then described Greg as an “educator above all else.” Her remarks describe his influence on the apprenticeship program, among others: “Greg held titles from folklorist to director of education to co-director. He mentored and nurtured hundreds of interns, aspiring documentarians, and undergraduate and graduate students. He conducted fieldwork, taught workshops, wrote grants, produced video and audio documentaries, and developed exhibits. He saw himself not as an authority on the topics that engaged him — such as farming or traditional arts — but rather as a student who immersed himself directly into the conceptual worlds of the people to whom these practices and experiences belonged. Greg dedicated his professional life to tapping the expertise and authority of others so that he, in some small way, could come to understand how they saw the world.”
In Other Words
The stories are best told by some of the artists.
“I love our culture and to preserve it for the future, for our children, I want to teach. I don’t want them to forget our language and culture. In order to understand the dances, we need to understand the words to the songs. We need to not only preserve our dances, but also preserve our language.
“I’ve danced my whole life, but when I was living in a refugee camp in Nepal there were some elder Nepali people who taught me Nepali folk dances, starting in 2001 when I was 13 years old. There was also a Nepali folk and cultural dance school in the camp where I started learning BSKK Bhutanese Sanskrity Kala Kendra (Bhutanese Cultural Talent Club) in 2002. I had a lot of friends there and I loved learning our cultural dances. I graduated from that school with a diploma in Nepali folk dancing.”
— Master Artist Ishwari Rai
“I learned Tibetan folk dance from the people of my Village, from my family and friends in Tibet. I was crazy about dancing and singing, since childhood. I learned mainly through observation and participation with the dancing groups in the village.
“When I get to do things like this, it really makes me happy. It’s like, I’m paid by the very sight of their smiles and their learning Tibetan traditional dance, songs, and playing Dranyen. That’s a very beautiful feeling for me. That motivates me and keeps me doing things like this for the community.”
— Master Artist Migmar Tsering
Greg grew up in a family of dairy farmers. His firsthand experience of the culture of farm life as both a livelihood and a craft activity remained always a personal touchstone and a focal point for his work. For 30 years, he was a staff member — serving in many roles — at the Vermont Folklife Center. He spent that time conducting field research and working collaboratively to present research materials in media including video, audio, and exhibition. For three summers, Greg traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate as a fieldworker and program interpreter at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife. He served on NEA grant review panels and folk arts review panels throughout New England. Greg held a Bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College, a Master’s degree in education from the University of Vermont, and a doctorate in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn he was appointed Mellon Graduate Fellow. Greg taught at the Braintree School in the Orange Southwest Supervisory Union for twelve years and was named district Outstanding Teacher of the Year in his second year of teaching.
Greg offered these comments when he received the Council’s Arthur Williams Award for Meritorious Service to the Arts in 2017.
— Thank you to the Vermont Folklife Center for providing the materials describing the work of the groups.