Author: Zoe van Buren
Since 1989, the North Carolina Heritage Awards have honored artists across the state for their contributions to the cultural life of their communities. The Folklife program of the North Carolina Arts Council has announced that six artists will receive a Heritage Award on May 31, 2023, at a public ceremony in Raleigh. Details and tickets are available on the Heritage Award event page.
The 2023 North Carolina Arts Council Heritage Award recipients are muralist Cornelio Campos, white oak basket maker Neal Thomas, Southern gospel and bluegrass musician Rhonda Gouge, champion old-time fiddler Richard Bowman, and Cherokee white-oak basket maker Louise Goings and her husband, the carver Butch Goings. Recipients are nominated by their communities and selected through a panel process. Learn more about the artists below.
Cornelio Campos, Durham
Cornelio Campos is one of the state’s most celebrated traditional painters and muralists. Hailing from Cherán, Michoacán, Mexico, Campos is a Purepecha, an officially recognized indigenous people with their own language. As a child, Campos absorbed his community’s rich cultural traditions, working as an apprentice with a local artist into his teenage years. Following family and better opportunity to the United States, he developed as an artist while living in Los Angeles, and then settled permanently in North Carolina. For the first 10 years here, Campos labored as a farmworker and was unable to paint. The opportunity to begin a career as an electrician allowed him to paint again, and Campos found new purpose and joy. He drew on both the centuries-old traditions of Michoacán and his new life in the United States to develop his own visual language as a painter and public muralist, becoming part of a long heritage of Mexican American muralism in the United States. Now Campos is celebrated as visual storyteller of the experiences of immigrants in North Carolina.
Two photos: one of Cornelio Campos. The other of his artwork.
Rhonda Gouge, Bakersville
Gospel and Bluegrass
Rhonda Gouge lives in the small community of Ledger, in Mitchell County, where she has been teaching music for more than 50 years. Gouge’s earliest musical mentor was the fiddle and banjo player Oscar “Red” Wilson, her great-uncle by marriage, who received a Heritage Award in 2003. He taught her the traditional fiddle tunes of the area and helped her with her first recording, which was done in his home studio. Gouge worked with Wilson for many years as a recording session musician; as a member of his band, the Toe River Valley Boys; and performing with him as a duo in churches and at community functions. Although Gouge worked full-time at a local factory for almost two decades, she continued to teach an increasing number of students and remained musically active, playing in church and at community events, and recording with and traveling with gospel groups on weekends to events, where she was often a groundbreaking presence as a female musician. Gouge eventually was able to teach music full-time and went on to work with more than 1,000 students, some of whom would travel for miles to learn from her. She has spent her life in Ledger, where she has been both an innovator and tradition-bearer of western North Carolina’s sacred and secular music.
Neal Thomas, Wendell
White Oak Basketmaking
When he was about 20 years old, Neal Thomas and his brothers learned the craft of split white-oak basketmaking from an older man in Johnston County who made and sold baskets. He learned the process one step at a time—first by watching, then by doing. Basketmaking traditions in North Carolina have Native American, European, and African origins, each culture influencing the others, but the sturdy, utilitarian, split-oak baskets that Thomas learned to make have been undervalued because they are the “workhorse” of baskets, used to hold everything from livestock to home goods. White oak grows abundantly in the North Carolina Piedmont, but it is laborious to process and increasingly hard for Thomas to source as land around his Wake County home is clear-cut for development. Making a basket in the traditional way requires the knowledge and the physical stamina to identify a good tree, harvest it, and hand-draw it into splits, all before the weaving can begin. The result is a basket so strong that it can hold the weight of an adult human being. Without glue, written plans, or pre-made forms, Thomas makes baskets that last a lifetime.
Richard Bowman, Mount Airy
Richard was born and raised on the North Carolina/Virginia border in Ararat, Virginia, and now lives in Mount Airy, North Carolina, where he is at the heart of the region’s old-time music and dance community. Bowman learned to play the autoharp from his mother, and later learned from some of the most influential musicians in the area to play the fiddle. He has been a member of several significant local groups: the Pine River Boys with Maybelle Lewis; the Slate Mountain Ramblers; and the Round Peak Band, which was instrumental in popularizing and spreading the “round peak” string-band sound specific to Surry County and its surrounding communities in North Carolina and Virginia. The region has produced many iconic musicians, and the old-time music they play is especially important in the community as dance music. Bowman has played for dancers all his musical life, honing a plain long-bow style that is especially enjoyable to dance to. He has won awards at fiddler’s conventions throughout the region. He continues to play for square dances and community events with the Slate Mountain Ramblers, now a family band that includes his wife Barbara Bowman and daughter Marsha Todd, who are also talented dancers. Bowman is a resource to other musicians, who value him as a luthier, instrument repairer, and teacher in the traditional manner: by ear and demonstration.
Butch and Louise Goings, Cherokee
Wood and Soapstone Carving, White Oak Basketmaking
Butch and Louise Goings are master Cherokee artisans: Louise in basketmaking and Butch in carving, among other crafts. Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, they are known in their community as keepers of many Cherokee traditions and cultural and historical knowledge. They continue to pass that knowledge on both informally and through cultural events, community workshops, and youth programs. Butch was a student of the carver Amanda Crowe, who won a Heritage Award in 2000; Louise learned to harvest white oak and make baskets from her mother, the 1989 Heritage Award recipient Emma Taylor. Working with natural dyes and oak she harvests herself, Louise gained an understanding of the plants, places, and ecosystems of the southern Appalachians that enabled her to be self-sufficient as a basketmaker. Together, the couple are widely known as resources on Cherokee language, dance, cooking, gardening, and the traditional values of mutual support and sharing. For more than 20 years, Butch has participated in the Gadugi Free Labor Group, a group of men who offer free work to families in need. The Goings are also active in the oldest and leading Native American arts and crafts cooperative in the country: the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, for which Butch has served as board president for many years.
Zoe van Buren is the folklife director for the North Carolina Arts Council, where she administers programs that support the practice and transmission of living traditions across the state. She is the co-author of Hanging Tree Guitars (2020).