NEA Arts Magazine

Nancy Sweezy

(2006 bess lomax hawes award) Advocate, scholar, presenter, and preservationist, Lexington, Massachusetts

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Nancy Sweezy

Photo by Sam Sweezy

The long list of seminal events in Nancy Sweezys extensive career includes the founding of the crafts organization Country Roads, the revival of North Carolinas historic Jugtown Pottery, and the creation of the Refugee Arts Group for immigrant folk artists. Her advocacy work also has included creating markets for traditional artwork, developing apprenticeship programs, and writing authoritative texts on U.S. and international folk pottery.

Her interest in craft began with pottery lessons in her native New England in the 1950s. That eventually led to an association with Ralph Rinzler, who was then working with the Newport Folk Festival Foundation. Collaborating with Rinzler, she established a craft program and sales operation within the Newport Folk Festival. That started her on a career championing the folk arts.

In this interview excerpt, Sweezy spoke with the NEA about how she became involved in the folk arts and some of her accomplishments in the field.

NEA: What attracted you to traditional craft work?

NANCY SWEEZY: My earliest hook was seeing some pottery in a shop. I can't even remember where. I had never seen pottery before -- I had seen china and porcelain, but never pottery. And I was very attracted...I liked them because they were strong and sturdy and honest.

NEA: How did you become involved with refugees from Southeast Asia?

SWEEZY: In the mid '80s, there was an enormous influx of refugees from Southeast Asia into the region, particularly in Lowell, Massachusetts, and in Boston as well. The International Institute of Boston was trying to figure out ways to help these people adjust. They were teaching them how to use banks and grocery stores and what not, but nothing to do with culture. The state wasn't doing anything with that nor were any of the organizations working with them. I thought these people really ought to be reconnecting to their own cultural work. We got a grant from the NEA and did a big survey of the cultural activities they had done at home in Cambodia and Laos and Vietnam.

NEA: You've had such a full and rich career in this work. What are the accomplishments youre most proud of?

SWEEZY: I'm very proud of the exhibition and book, The Potters Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina Pottery. I worked with people in North Carolina to bring out a book about the work of contemporary potters and the influences on their work. What I'm concerned with is how the great traditional arts can be made relevant today. Thats what these contemporary potters are doing in North Carolina. I think it's fabulous. The work that we did in The Potters Eye exhibition sums up my philosophy of what ought to happen in the pottery field.