By Zoe van Buren
South Arts recently awarded its third round of “In These Mountains” Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowships to 15 Appalachian culture-bearers from North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. This fellowship program is a part of an initiative of the Atlanta-based regional arts organization that supports folk and traditional arts in the central Appalachian Mountains.
Five artists from North Carolina received the fellowship: Ashleigh Shanti (Asheville), Betty Maney (Cherokee), Mary W. Thompson (Cherokee), Mary Greene (Boone), and Theresa Gloster (Lenoir).
The Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship recognizes the commitments of Appalachian artists who steward the traditional arts and practices of their communities. The fellowship provides these artists with resources to grow into advanced stages of their careers.
Chef and recipe-bearer Ashleigh Shanti will research African and Appalachian foodways of the post-Jim Crow era through interviews, recipe documentation, and participation in foraging traditions. The resulting “Green Book” guide to Appalachian foodways will be a resource for emerging Black culinarians whom Shanti says will “be ushered into mentorship through new connections uncovered in a little-known food world, gain an intimate look at exactly who we were then, and, finally, be confidently guided by the Black voices of Appalachian past.”
Cherokee basket maker, potter, bead worker, and clothing maker Betty Maney will build an outdoor studio for teaching and demonstrations and pursue her life’s work of learning the techniques and histories of Cherokee craft. Maney says: “As long as other artists and crafters are willing to teach, I will be there to learn when possible.”
Mountain-dulcimer player and singer of folk songs, ballads, and shape-note gospel, Mary Greene will visit archives of Appalachian music; meet and study with ballad singers, dulcimer players, and shape-note singers at gatherings throughout the South; and develop her educational offerings. “The tradition must have teachers available to train the singers,” says Green.
A maker of double-weave river-cane baskets and traditional Cherokee stamped pottery, Mary W. Thompson will develop a studio and gallery space to be used as a classroom where she can host artists and share knowledge. It will be “a space where I can teach and learn,” Thompson says. “I would like to have the time and freedom to create and show my work. This would be my place to continue a tradition of passing our Cherokee art and culture from one family member to the next, and from one generation to the next.”
Storyteller and memory painter Theresa Gloster will expand her workspace for her artwork, which will allow her to welcome visitors from the Blue Ridge Craft Trails, on which she will be listed as a studio site. "I really just need a little room, where I could do all of my art," says Gloster.
The 2021 fellowship recipients represent both the diversity of Appalachia and the ways in which everyday people in the mountains have built creative outlets for their experiences and ways of knowing. Those expressions have been nurtured over generations into traditions to pass down and build from, each generation arising to use these cultural tools in new eras.
North Carolina’s recipients demonstrate that there are many ways to inherit one’s culture and many ways to share it. Traditional arts may be learned informally, through the day-to-day business of living, or they might be sought out with intention to recover and revitalize a culture. They may be made alone or together, in jam circles or studios, in homes or in the kitchens of award-winning restaurants. Traditions may be defined by the keeping of materials and techniques, such as foraged food or river cane harvested from the land. The traditions may be expressed through the messages contained in songs and images as their medium changes from artist to artist.
No matter their form, all traditional arts are vessels that deliver crucial information from generation to generation: how we play, how we worship, how we provide, and how we get by. They speak to the importance of the individual artist inside of the bigger story of we. The recipients of the Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship were selected not only for the excellence of their work but also for the ways in which they have committed their lives to cultivating traditions that belong to entire communities of Appalachians. Recognizing these artists illuminates the lives of others: neighbors, ancestors, and those who will follow in their footsteps.
Learn more about this year’s recipients of the fellowships in all three states and those who received the grants in years past here.