NEA: Recently, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, collaborated with the USDA Forest Service and the National Endowment for the Arts to produce a traveling exhibition called Inspirations from the Forest. As the name implies, the exhibit focused on artists who were inspired by the forest and the natural world as well as those who used materials from the forest in their artwork. The result was an impressive array of diverse artwork that traveled to sixty-six communities around the country. And the man responsible for bringing the exhibit into being was Smithsonian curator James Deutsch. Jim Deutsch stopped by the NEA Studio to talk to me about Inspirations from the Forest as well as the diversity and unique qualities of folk art. Here’s our conversation.
NEA: We're here to talk about an exhibit called Inspirations from the Forest. Can we begin by you telling us what that is?
Jim Deutsch: Yes. I'll give some of the history. The traveling exhibition Inspirations from the Forest began with a Smithsonian Folklife Festival program in 2005 called Forest Service, Culture, and Community. And this Folklife Festival program happened on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the U.S. Forest Service.
It was founded in 1905 and one hundred years later the Folklife Festival observed that centennial by examining the occupational culture of people who live or work in forest environments. And a large part of that environment is artists who live and work and create works that are inspired by forests or natural resources in general. So the Folklife Festival program invited about 15 artists some of whom were Forest Service employees but most of whom were not Forest Service employees. And we were able to do so with some funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. We brought these 15 artists and this include poets like Wally McRae who is a National Heritage Fellow he's a cattle rancher in eastern Montana and one of the world renowned cowboy poets so he was one of our invited participants at the festival. We also had another National Heritage Fellow, Nathan Jackson from Alaska, Ketchikan, Alaska. He's a Tlingit wood carver and we had musicians and other wood carvers, weavers, cradleboard makers from Arizona.
In any case, this was the Smithsonian Folklife Festival which happened in the summer of 2005, and then following the festival we received some additional money from the National Endowment for the Arts to produce a traveling exhibition based on the artistic component of the Folklife Festival. And the funding from the National Endowment for the Arts allowed us not only to create the exhibition but to travel it.
We ended up going to 66 different venues from 2006 up until early 2009. And in addition to displaying the exhibition we received some money to produce programs featuring artists in conjunction with the exhibition so it might open in California and there would be a weekend event featuring artists who would do demonstrations or conduct a workshop or do a concert that highlighted their involvement with natural resources. The idea was to, you know, create this bond between art and conservation and the environment.
NEA: So the exhibition would remain the same as it traveled from city to city, but the event that perhaps launched it in a particular community might change.
Jim Deutsch: Correct. Yes. So we had two identical sets of the exhibition. They traveled around the country and as it traveled I and my colleague were organizing events to take place at most of the venues. Not all 66 had a special event in conjunction with it but more than half of them did.
NEA: Sometimes would you have artists who actually contributed to the exhibition itself?
Jim Deutsch: Yes. That was one of our goals is that for instance when it traveled to Arizona we would try to invite the artists who had come to the festival who were in the exhibition who were likewise from Arizona like Angie Bulletts who is a cradleboard maker- native American cradleboard maker from Arizona. So in many of the venues we tried to match the artist as best we could with the artists who were at the Folklife Festival. Another example is the exhibition went to Rangeley, Maine, which is up in the Maine woods, northern Maine. And Rodney Richard who is a chainsaw carver who came to the festival who was featured in the exhibition was one of the artists who visited Rangeley, Maine, during the exhibition- while the exhibition was on display in Maine and did a program talking about his art of chainsaw carving.
NEA: There was an emphasis I believe in arts in rural community development in Inspirations from the Forest. Is that correct?
Jim Deutsch: Yes. Even before the Folklife Festival happened in 2005, the National Endowment for the Arts had worked with the Forest Service on a Rural Arts Initiative, and so the idea was to highlight art in rural communities. I don't think it's a secret that the National Endowment for the Arts has a reputation unfair or not of serving primarily urban areas, a more elite audience. That is one of the stereotypes for the NEA and I think this was one of the ways for the NEA to demonstrate in a very strong way that that is not the case. So this exhibition in traveling to 66 different venues went primarily to very rural areas, places where national forests are located. It went to a few urban areas. It went to Portland, Oregon, for instance but primarily it was in places where I think it's safe to say the NEA has not had a very strong presence previously.
NEA: The exhibition focused on artists who worked with materials from the forest as well as those who interpreted the forest. Is that a fair way of putting it?
Jim Deutsch: Yes. The exhibition did highlight artists who had been inspired by forests and natural resources more generally speaking. For example, Sidne Teske who is a plein air painter Sidne, female Sidne. Sidne Teske is a plein air painter from Tuscarora, Nevada. There are forests in Nevada but she draws her inspiration from this old mining town, a ghost town, Tuscarora, and it's just a beautiful, those the landscape of gray or brown rock mountains, you know, not forested mountains, so artists who take their inspiration from forests, from rangelands, from natural areas as well as artists who work in forests and derive their materials, who carve wood like Rodney Richard does in the woods of Maine he derives his materials from those forests or we had basket weavers who collect materials from national forests and use that to create their baskets.
NEA: You were the curator of this.
Jim Deutsch: Yes. I served as the curator for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival program as well as the curator for the traveling exhibition.
NEA: Okay. Here is the age-old question that people who are not in the know want to know. What does a curator do?
Jim Deutsch: Well, there are two types of curators at least in my experience. There are program curators and there are exhibition curators, and maybe add a third category which is a curator of collections. So I've served two of those roles. I've served as a curator of programs and a curator of exhibitions. So when I say I curate programs, every year at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival we produce programs that are open to the public for ten days. We attract one million visitors during those ten days, and it's the curator's job to create the content for the program, to decide which participants to invite, that is which bearers of tradition do we want at the Folklife Festival, to decide how many from a certain tradition to invite and how many musicians, how many artists, how many storytellers, how many weavers, how many dancers, and to figure out how they will interact and how they will present themselves to the public. So that is a curator's job for a Folklife Festival program, program curator. Now an exhibition curator -- I mean as the term suggests, you essentially create an exhibition. You have an idea as to what type of exhibition you would like to create so, to use our example of Inspirations from the Forest, I knew I wanted to communicate the idea of the arts and natural resources and this idea of inspirations. It's really a wonderful word 'cause it can be interpreted on several different levels so a similar process. You decide which people you want to highlight, which historical and cultural trends you want to develop, and then you find a way to present this to the public in a way that the public will be able to understand, enjoy, appreciate, want to learn more. So that's the curator's job, and then the curator works very closely with, you know, technical staff and design staff and production staff to kind of help make the curator's ideas come to life.
NEA: I always think of folk art as being more interactive with its audience than perhaps fine arts, and I'm using inverted commas here. Would you agree with that?
Jim Deutsch: Interesting you should ask because I feel the term "folk art" is often misinterpreted. If you go even to one of our Smithsonian museums, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, you will find a collection of folk art that features works of art that are highly idiosyncratic. These are one of a kind. Nobody else in the world does something like James Hampton's Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly.
This to me is one of the finest pieces of art in Washington, D.C. It's a work that James Hampton created over 15 or 20 years of objects wrapped in silver and gold foil to create a religious work of art. He had a vision and he created this work of art. Now it's often termed folk art, which I feel is a complete misnomer because folk art comes out of a community; it comes out of a community aesthetic. So to answer your question, yes, it is very interactive because the artist is always working within a community and the artist cannot violate the aesthetics of that community. So a quilt is a good example. Every community has its own type of quilts that are made by the quilt maker. Now the quilt maker can be creative of course but always has to work within the community aesthetic of whether your quilt is geometric in pattern or is not geometric. That is the community aesthetic in which the artist is working. So folk art always comes out of the community whether you're making a chair, a pot, a quilt, carving a cane, painting furniture. Whatever you're doing it comes out of that community so yes, it is very strongly interactive but it is not, at least for a folklorist, it is not this type of idiosyncratic visionary art -- I think that's a better word for it.
NEA: Well, while we're talking about this, talk about folk art and folk artist as really the keeper and the perpetuators of history?
Jim Deutsch: Yes. Well folklore and folk art and folklife is a word we use at the Smithsonian because I work at the Smithsonian Center for Folk Life and Cultural Heritage, folk life is a more inclusive term which would include folklore, which is primarily narratives, you know, folk tales, legends and myths. So it includes folklore, it includes folk art, includes folk music, it includes food ways which are part of traditional culture, so all of this comes under the umbrella term of folk life. It's really a way of living along traditional means. So back to your question: Does folklore, folk life, reflect the essence of the community? Absolutely. I mean I -- That's -- That's why I love studying folklore as a cultural historian. I think that folk life is a ideal way for understanding the broader components of culture. You know, one way of looking at this is to talk about the different types of culture because culture is a very broad term in itself, but you can talk about what is sometimes called academic or elite culture, which is the works of great music, you know, Ludwig van Beethoven, Bach, Aaron Copland. They are academic musicians. They've studied music in the academy, you know, likewise for the painters who have studied at the École des Beaux-Arts or the Rhode Island School of Design. They are academic -- That's academic culture. Then you have popular culture, which is what you find in movies, television, commercial radio, and then you have folk culture which comes directly from the people. Folk culture, unlike the other two forms of culture, is never mediated. It doesn't come to us through television networks or publishing companies or movie studios. It comes directly from the folk, and because it is unmediated and direct I feel that it's a much better indicator of the underlying culture. I mean a good example I think is Emily Dickinson, a great poet, no doubt about it a great poet, but to say that Emily Dickinson's poems represent the culture of the mid- nineteenth century in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she was living, I think is not entirely true because she led a very sheltered life. Nobody read her poetry during her lifetime. It was only afterwards that they discovered her poems. So I think the relationship of her poems and the culture of-, you know, of nineteenth-century America there's not much of a connection, but if you look at the folklore and the folk art and the folk music of that time I think you'll get a much better understanding of what American culture was like in the mid nineteenth century.
NEA: It seems that were gaining a broader appreciation sort of in the Zeitgeist for folk culture, folk life as you say. What do you think accounts for that? Well, A, do you think that's true? And B, what do you think accounts for that?
Jim Deutsch: Well, I think it is true that for many years folklore or folk culture was seen as the remnants of a dying culture that was primarily rural, you know, living up in the hollers of West Virginia or eastern Kentucky, and that it was fading away, dying out, as we were advancing to a higher level of civilization. That certainly was the case in the mid to late nineteenth century when organizations like the American Folklore Society were founded to document and preserve as best they could this fastly disappearing culture. Now it turns out that that was never the case. Folklore is still very much alive, thank you very much, even in urban areas. There is -- You may have heard about so-called urban legends which, definitely are a form of folk culture. So I think that first of all that notion that folklore was the province of old-timey rural culture was mistaken and people understood that, and I think as folk culture has been more widely disseminated people understand that hey, this is my culture because everybody is a member simultaneously of several different folk groups. You remember of course of a folk group based on region. You and I are native New Yorkers. Native New Yorkers have their own distinctive culture and we can even further subdivide it into, you know, people from Brooklyn talk differently from people from Manhattan, you know, "Dere were these toidy poiple boids sittin' on the coib, boipin' and choiping an' eatin' doity woims." <laughter> That's, you know, Brooklyn culture. I might have to translate that, "There were these 30 purple birds sitting on the curb, burping and chirping and eating dirty worms." That's New York culture, just a certain attitude that is New York culture. Anyway, everybody comes from a regional group whether you're from New York or San Francisco or Yazoo City, Mississippi, where I used to live, or Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I also used to live.
So every regional area has its own distinctive culture. Similarly, there are folk groups based on religion. We could talk about, you know, Jewish folklore or folklore from the Mormon church, LDS. You also have folk groups that are based upon race or ethnicity. I mean Polish Americans have a very different folk culture than Irish Americans. There are folk groups based on occupation, which is something I've studied a great deal, you know, the folk culture of students, the folk culture of smoke jumpers working for the U.S. Forest Service, the folk culture of NASA engineers, which we did at our Folklife Festival in 2008. And then we can talk about folk groups that are based upon gender, folk groups based upon age, and folk groups based upon family. Every family has its own elements of folk culture, how you have your Thanksgiving meal. That's a family tradition and every family does it differently. All that -- It's shared by members of your family and passed down from one generation to the next.
So my point is that everybody is a member of several folk groups simultaneously, family, age, gender, occupation, religion, race, ethnicity and region, and so that's one reason why I think folk culture speaks to many of us because we understand it, that this is our culture. And when organizations like the Smithsonian or the National Endowment for the Arts celebrate folk culture I think it has a great deal of meaning; it helps validate their identity. And that's really what almost everybody is looking for, some validation of who they are. Twenty-first century -- It's a big world out there and it's easy for someone to get lost amidst all the kind of the technological change and the social change. Things are changing rapidly and for people my age you can you can see the change that has occurred over the past 60 or so years. And because folk culture is relatively unchanging over time it provides a sense of continuity but also a sense of reassurance.
NEA: Comment on the quilt that we're looking at, that was part of the exhibition Inspirations from the Forest. Tell us about that quilt.
Jim Deutsch: Yes. Well, the traveling exhibition Inspirations from the Forest featured two quilts. We had two simultaneous exhibitions. This is the one by Teresa Trulock who was with the Forest Service in Wyoming, and Teresa Trulock coordinated the stitching together of a quilt to honor the centennial of the U.S. Forest Service in the year 2005. So if you look closely at this quilt you can see different elements that speak to Forest Service history, Forest Service culture, kind of the work of the Forest Service. This photograph was taken in Bottineau, North Dakota. I took the photograph when the exhibition was in Bottineau, which is where the North Dakota Forest Service is located and also the university, which has a forestry program. We brought several artists to demonstrate. There were some native American storytelling and native American crafts, but I should say that people love quilts and quilts are a very good example of authentic folk art because most folk art is not only beautiful and nice to look at but it also serves a function. The quilt keeps you warm at night at the same time it's a beautiful work of art that represents the culture out of which it comes. So folklorists love talking about quilts almost everybody has encountered a quilt at some point in their life, and this particular quilt as I said speaks to the history and culture of the Forest Service. It was stitched together by volunteers primarily in the state of Wyoming, coordinated by Teresa Trulock, in commemoration of the U.S. Forest Service's centennial.
NEA: Here is another picture. Tell us what we're looking at.
Jim Deutsch: Well, this is Nathan Jackson, a totem pole carver from Ketchikan, Alaska, a member of the Tlingit tribe and a National Heritage Fellow, which is the highest honor for the folk and traditional arts given by the National Endowment for the Arts. And he's here at the Wenatchee Salmon River Festival in Wenatchee, Washington, and he's standing in front of the exhibition panel that features him as well as Teresa Trulock who I just was talking about, a picture of Nathan doing some carving and close-ups or details of Nathan's totem pole carving and a close-up of Teresa's quilt showing hands joined together. Nathan came to the Folklife Festival. Actually, he's come to the Folklife Festival on several different occasions but most recently in the year 2005 with his wife, Dorica, who is also an artist. So Nathan's a wonderful example of the folk and traditional arts, and this particular panel was talking about how to tell stories through art, and every totem pole that Nathan carves is different and each tells a different story but they all come out of this tradition of totem pole carving this tradition of totem pole carving which Nathan has learned this tradition of totem pole carving that Nathan grew up with and has become a master, sharing his skills and traditions with many younger people who will then carry on this long-standing tradition of totem pole carving in southeastern Alaska.
NEA: You speak about this exhibit with a lot of excitement and a lot of enthusiasm but tell me what was the most rewarding part for you of putting this exhibition together?
Jim Deutsch: For me the most rewarding part of putting the exhibition together was working with the different local communities who were I think delighted to have an exhibition that was curated by the Smithsonian Institution and delighted to have additional funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to produce programs featuring artists from the local community or artists from the state and really to help educate members of the community about the arts that come out of their area and to produce programs in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service and the NEA and the Smithsonian. That was a great I think honor for many of this community so that's I think what I enjoyed most was I would telephone each of the venues, talk with them, sort of get a sense as to what type of program would they like. Would they like to have a musical performance, would they like to have workshops and demonstrations, would they like to have lectures, and then working with them to identify the artists who would be most appropriate for their community and the type of event, the type of artist, and then helping to produce these events. And I was able to attend many of the events myself.
NEA: Now Jim, the exhibition has stopped traveling. Is that true? But it has a life on the web site.
Jim Deutsch: It does have a life on the web site of the Smithsonian Center for Folk Life and Cultural Heritage, which is www.folklife.si.edu. You'll find links to the exhibition. So it has stopped traveling. We actually had three sets. Two were traveling. We had one set as a backup. One set has gone to the Cradle of Forestry which is located in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina. Another set has gone to the Grey Towers National Historic Site, which was the home of Gifford Pinchot, founder of the Forest Service in Pennsylvania, and a third set is at the Chippewa National Forest in Norway Beach, Minnesota.
NEA: That's wonderful. Jim, thank you so much. I appreciate you giving me your time and it was really a pleasure. Thank you.
Jim Deutsch: Likewise for me too.
NEA: That was Jim Deutsch curator for the Smithsonian center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage talking about the exhibit Inspirations from the Forest. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.