The Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program at the Connecticut Historical Society is pleased to announce the 2018-2019 grant recipients for the Southern New England Apprenticeship Program. These grants support skilled traditional artists and craftspeople to intensive teach their expertise to a student apprentice, recognizing that Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island share many ethnic and occupational communities that often cross state boundaries.
These mentor artists and their apprentices help sustain cultural expressions that are important and meaningful to their communities, and they strengthen festivals, arts activities, and events when they bring their work to public audiences. This year’s master-apprentice teams are:
Aldona Saimininkas (CT) and Philitha Stemplys-Cowdrey (CT): Lithuanian straw art
Aldona Saimininkas has been a vital force in the Lithuanian community, giving Lithuanian straw art workshops to Scout groups, Lithuanian gatherings and cultural schools, and adult classes throughout the U.S. and in Canada. She plays a central role in Connecticut’s Lithuanian community as an artist, tradition bearer, and cultural ambassador, she created an official gift to represent the Lithuanian American community as a commemoration of the American celebration of the 600th anniversary of Lithuanian Christianity. One of her straw pictures was given to Pope John Paul II and is in the Vatican’s art collection.
Aldona hand-picks rye straw from farm fields and prepares it to form ribbons which she then cuts into pieces. It is placed onto a dark background in abstract or floral folk art patterns that reflect Lithuanian weaving or embroidery, or to create a scene important in Lithuanian culture. Her apprentice, Philitha Stemplys-Cowdrey, first encountered Aldona’s teaching as a child. Now as an adult, she has been learning how to make the cut-straw designs from Aldona over the past year. Through this apprenticeship Philitha will learn more advanced art forms and learn how to process the straw herself for making the artwork. Both master and apprentice look forward to Philitha continuing Aldona’s work of teaching this art form in the Lithuanian community.
Lakedhen Shingsur (CT) and students of the Tibetan Association of Connecticut: Tibetan folk music and dance
Lakedhen Shingsur grew up in Sikkim, India, a center of Tibetan Buddhist culture, and taught himself to play flute while at the Indo-Tibet Buddhist Cultural Institute in West Bengal. He became a versatile musician, and learned Tibetan songs from elders in Sikkim. He spent ten years as a member of the Sikkim National Performing Arts Troupe, where he learned songs from many different regions of Tibet, and traveled on worldwide tours that included the United States. He moved to Connecticut in 1992, and passes on his talents and knowledge to the Tibetan community here.
Tibetan folk music and dance are performed together in a social, community settings like festivals or family parties. In Connecticut, the Tibetan community has music and dance at many occasions when they come together, especially during Losar (the Tibetan New Year celebration), the Dalai Lama’s birthday, and TibetFest (a public festival held in Goshen). The songs express life, love, and seasonal nature in Tibet, as well as a love of homeland, reverence for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and traditional stories. Instruments like the damyen, drum, or flute generally accompany these social dances, and Lakedhen will accompany the students to provide the tune and rhythm. Lakedhen has been teaching the songs and dances to eight students with the Tibetan Association of Connecticut, and during the apprenticeship period they will learn new music from central, northeastern, and southern Tibet. The songs, dances, and costumes all differ between these regions, and so students will learn dances in line and circle formation, as well as songs that are sung while dancing. The ensemble will perform during the Dalai Lama’s birthday celebration this summer.
Elizabeth James-Perry (MA) and Leah Hopkins (RI): Native American porcupine quillwork
Elizabeth James-Perry is enrolled with the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head-Aquinnah, and is considered an expert in many Northeastern Woodlands Native American arts, including finger weaving, painted and quilled regalia and accessories, and wampum. Elizabeth learned her art forms through family and tribal mentors, and has supplemented her learning through research in museum and archival collections. A regionally and nationally recognized artist, she is deeply involved in conserving Northeastern Woodlands culture.
Porcupine quillwork is an artform primarily practiced by tribal women to embellish clothing and other objects, with dye recipes for the naturally white and black quills passed down through family lines or in Algonquian quillworkers’ guilds. Porcupine quillwork designs can incorporate geometric designs as well as creatures and plants from the natural world. Color, pattern, and style varies greatly, but even substantial amounts of quilled decorations don’t make a garment much heavier, as the quills themselves are very light.
Leah Hopkins is a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribal Nation, which shares Algonquian traditions with the Wampanoag. She has been learning quillwork with Elizabeth off and on since 2010. During the apprenticeship, she will learn various stitches for quillwork, including applique, overwrap, zigzag, circles, plaiting, and weaving, as well as edge stitches on deerskin. Leah plans to complete appliqued moccasins and a bandolier bag for personal, cultural, and ceremonial uses.
Mary King (RI) and Elaine Killough (MA): Celtic harp
Mary King grew up in an Irish family that immersed her in Irish music, dance, and culture. She founded the Celebrating Ireland program in 1999 to invigorate and teach Irish culture and music in the region. Already well-versed in fiddle and vocal performance, it was in Celebrating Ireland that she came into contact with a Celtic harp mentor. She added the harp to her instrumental repertoire and honed her skills over the following fifteen years. She performs widely, teaches, and continues to offer educational programs on Irish culture and music with other musicians.
Elaine Killough also shares Irish heritage through her family, and had been teaching herself the harp by ear when she met Mary, who began giving her occasional lessons. They are eager to continue their partnership more formally, and look forward to reaching new heights in fingering techniques, musical interpretation, and a deeper sense of shared cultural heritage. By the end of the apprenticeship, Elaine hopes to be able to play some of the iconic Irish songs by harpist Turlough O’Carolan.
Patricia James-Perry (MA) and Jonathan James-Perry (RI): Wampanoag scrimshaw
Patricia James-Perry, part of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, grew up in a household with a long Native and commercial history of whaling. Her family told stories about specific places with their ships, storms, crews, and whales, even though nobody in the family was whaling anymore. Her family also preserved the knowledge of how to make Aquinnah Wampanoag scrimshaw, or fine designs carved into polished materials like baleen, whale bone, and whale ivory teeth, with the design set in with a darker substance like charcoal or India ink. Patricia’s family had kept scrimshaw pieces in ivory and bone, as well as the tools for making it and the knowledge of how to do it. Although scrimshaw-making was usually done by men while at sea or during downtime at home, Patricia making began learning the craft under their direction in her twenties, and continued to refine her skill in the following decades.
Her apprentice is Jonathan James-Perry, her son. She has been teaching him intensively over the past year, giving him a background in the raw materials, scale, the etching within negative space, composition, placement, and space filling. This year, Jonathan will learn how to work on larger pieces, and how to add the hand-processed Wampanoag scrimshaw color palette of yellows and reds in addition to black pigments, as well as how to do shading, depth of field, polishing and setting the piece as jewelry. Patricia and Jonathan will travel to museums to research their historical scrimshaw holdings, broadening their inspiration to include Native traditional tattoo designs as sources of scrimshaw inspiration. They plan to show their work and demonstrate scrimshanding at the Wampanoag Cultural Festival in May.
Torrin Ryan (MA) and Christopher Ryan (RI), Steve Bliven (MA), Vasily Kondrashov (RI), and Barry Wenskowicz (RI): Irish session etiquette and repertoire
Torrin Ryan is an accomplished player of Uilleann bagpipes and Irish whistle. He mastered these skills through meeting Irish musicians during traditional music sessions, events where musicians gather at a friend’s house or local pub to play tunes together and learn from one another. At a session, musicians play the same tunes on different instruments, learn new tunes by ear, and gain a sense of what music fits well with each instrument, different styles of playing the same tunes, as well as different musicians’ personal styles and preferences.
Christopher Ryan (fiddle), Steve Bliven (Irish flute and whistle), Vasily Kondrashov (button accordion), and Barry Wenskowicz (bouzouki) bring a variety of different experiences as well as instruments to the apprenticeship. Over the past year, they have worked with Torrin to learn the specific techniques and cultural expertise of how Irish music is taught, demonstrated, and led by musicians in the session context, as well as introducing a core of tunes, arrangements, and sets that are common among session players. This work will continue this year, and the apprentices will learn a broader variety of tunes, as well as some uncommon tunes, and start to practice solo work. They will join in a full-fledged Providence, RI, session next summer to demonstrate their skills.
The Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program at the CHS manages the Southern New England Apprentice Program in collaboration with the Folk Arts Program at the Massachusetts Cultural Council and independent Rhode Island folklorist Winifred Lambrecht. Primary funding for the program comes from the National Endowment for the Arts.