Ambitious Dreaming: What Folk & Traditional Arts are Doing and Can Do for the Field

I love traditional and folk art for its intimacy. My most treasured art, the only ones I have in my home, are a pair of Oaxacan tapestries I bought from a family of Indigenous weavers in the village of Teotitlan del Valle. We sat together in their home—which was also their workroom with wooden looms and stone mortars and pestles for grinding indigo and cochineal dyes—and spoke of the symbolic meanings of designs representing the elements of earth, water, fire and water, and the cycle of birth and death. In house after house in this village, Zapotec families maintain their way of life and sustain their local economy with weaving and selling their art.

Years later, these tapestries adorn my altar and are beloved companions of my spiritual practice. They are an intimate, daily reminder of the connective power of cultural and traditional arts. As Maribel Alvarez said, these are “practices, rituals, and ordinary overlooked aesthetics that have to do at the end of the day with living in beauty.”

The panelists in this workshop posed a question for the audience: What are the centers of creativity that you are privileging? Folk and traditional arts have long existed in the context of family, community, and marketplace, often passed down from one generation to the next. It is the largest sector of arts, yet the least visible and the least resourced, according to Dr. Alvarez, who is the dean of Community Engagement at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Folklife Alliance.

Lori Pourier (Oglala Lakota) of the First Peoples Fund described traditional arts as “supporting collective spirit, that which makes each of us stand up or extend a spirit of generosity.” First Peoples Fund directs resources and support for Native artists and culture bearers to carry forward ancestral knowledge, art forms and traditions that sustain and lift up everyone in their communities.

Kuma Hula Vicky Holt Takamine shared her journey of becoming a master teacher of Hawaiian dance and founding Pa’i, a school to preserve and pass on Native Hawaiian arts and traditions for future generations. Along the way, that journey included having to learn how to operate in the world of big foundations and arts institutions, which is complicated for Native and community-based artists trying to navigate and to challenge those Western models and systems.

Thankfully, emerging efforts are coming together to support and advance the traditional and folk arts sector, such as the National Folklife Network and the Taproot Initiative. Amy Kitchener, executive director of Alliance for California Traditional Arts, described the initiative as a national research and planning project focused on traditional artists and culture bearers as the “catalysts for group care and repair from harm.” Interviews and research is underway with 24 key informants across the nation, with a publication forthcoming in February 2022.