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Late July is the culmination of months of identifying, documenting, and writing about the traditional craft artists featured in the Folklife area of the Lowell Folk Festival. Since 2007, Mass Cultural Council’s Folk Arts & Heritage Program has been curating this line-up of craft artisans who demonstrate their work in tents along Lucy Larcom Park.
We learn of these craft artists through folklore fieldwork and through applications to our Artist Fellowships in the Traditional Arts and Traditional Arts Apprenticeships. In addition, we communicate with folklorists throughout New England for promising leads from other states. We have also been a pipeline for Massachusetts traditional musicians and dancers who perform on festival stages.
The Foodways stage is programmed by my folklore colleague Millie Rahn. Home cooks from ethnic communities in the region prepare beloved recipes as they share ingredients, demonstrate techniques, and tell stories about the role of foodways in their culture.
This year, of course, is different. The festival, like so many other live performance events around the Commonwealth, has been cancelled due to the pandemic. Festival organizers, however, wanted to maintain the event’s 30-plus year history with some kind of virtual celebration. They asked if I would put together a video that would give a sense of what takes place in the festival’s folklife area. To do this meant gathering images from past festivals – an effort that filled me with nostalgia for all the outstanding craft artists we’ve brought to the festival over the years.
Much like the music and dance performed on festival stages, these craft traditions have been handed down through families, ethnic communities, occupations, or apprenticeships. Craft traditions may be tied to a trade like blacksmithing, fishing, or shoemaking. Or they’re rooted in seasonal celebration like the costumes of Caribbean Carnival, the floral head garlands of Midsummer, or the Crazy Hat Ladies of Saint Peter’s Fiesta. Some crafts are sacred, like the making of religious garments for worship, the art of Eastern European pysanki, or icon writing.
Over the years, the folk craft area has had many themes: maritime New England, folk beauty such as African American hair braiding and Asian Indian body art.
Textile Traditions brought rug hookers, spinners, weavers, and quilters. Sometimes, we focus on a single medium.
Paper highlighted the craft of Mexican pinata making, Puerto Rican mask making, Polish papercutting, paper marbling, and children’s paper lore. Other times, it’s all about a technique, like carving, where visitors met exquisite craftspeople who carve letterforms in stone, Puerto Rican santos in wood, Japanese Buddhist sculpture, Chinese seals, and even the decorative carving of fruit.
Looking back at the variety of highly skilled craft artists and home cooks presented in the festival’s folklife area over the years is a reminder of our region’s rich diversity and common humanity.
We look forward to having you join us in Lucy Larcom Park for a taste of tradition and to experience our 2021 theme — Crafting Sound: Musical Instrument Makers – where you’ll meet craftspeople whose expertise includes fine woodworking, metal work, and an understanding of how sound resonates and travels. See you in 2021, when we are all hoping it will be safe to gather once again at the Lowell Folk Festival.
In the meantime, watch our video from the 2020 virtual Lowell Folk Festival: