Thursday, November 14, 2013

Folklife Center Update

There's been a longish gap since my last post, without any new entries in several months.  The hiatus is mainly because the fieldwork component of this project has predominated, leaving little time for other pursuits. And of course, fieldwork continues to preoccupy us at the Folklife Center.  Readers of this blog will know that I've been spending time in various places throughout the project region, such as Roebling in Burlington County, and in Camden City and County among other places.  Roebling is a fascinating town, and I mean to revisit it in future posts.  And of course, Camden City and County are vitally important to the overall mission of the Folklife Center too.

Speaking of Camden, I've done fieldwork there for more than ten years, have spoken and passed the time with many residents of the city neighborhoods, visiting them in their homes and shops, dropping in on informal gatherings as well as organized events, especially in North Camden and parts of East Camden. That work continues whenever I can schedule time there, along with time spent in other parts of the project region. As many people know, Camden is a troubled and deeply scarred place.  But it is a dynamic place.  It has a vibrant history and diverse neighborhoods, and its people embody the full array of human possibility. What's lacking are the opportunities and means to realize the potential that continues to percolate there. Achieving that would require thoughtful planning for structural change -- and the political will to follow through -- not temporary fixes, however well-intended.  Which is to say that the underlying problems are complex, and do not originate with the people themselves.  I'll write more about Camden in future posts.

I opened this post intending to report on new developments of the Perkins Folklife Project, rather than report on fieldwork per se.  Without doubt I'll continue doing fieldwork, because fieldwork is the lifeblood of the folklife center concept.  But we've reached a point in our work where time has to be allocated in other ways as well.  Having done four years of fieldwork for Perkins, we have a grasp of the extraordinary amount of cultural energy circulating in communities and neighborhoods of this region. We also appreciate that there is ample opportunity, not yet fully explored, to support, sustain, and channel that abundance into cultural programming not only at the two Perkins facilities, but at venues and sites throughout the region, working, as always, in close partnership with community members.

Members of "Quilting Divas" and quilt display, Willingboro

Let me provide one or two brief examples of the cultural abundance I have in mind.  The "Quilting Divas", who meet in Willingboro to sew quilts and socialize, sometimes set up a magnificent display of quilts sewn by members of the group, as pictured above.  The quilts feature interesting designs and betray expert skill, produced out of a sort of collaborative activity among the Divas.  Members develop their own quilt concept and spend time at meetings working on their own quilts, while helping other members with their quilts.  The meeting site, located in Willingboro's Kennedy Center, is advantageous in other ways well -- the location makes it possible for seniors who attend programs and obtain services there to wander in and view the quilts.

There is a remarkable range of cultural activity in the Willingboro area.  Within the African American community, for example, there are quilters, doll makers, artisans, writers, actors, musicians, and many other cultural producers. The dolls displayed in the photograph below were all  made by Karmaya Lewis of Willingboro.  Many, many dolls have issued from Lewis's rich imagination and deft handiwork, portraying characters and themes from African American history and from contemporary life.  Of course, a similar abundance is found among other cultural groups in the area, with the various African communities, the Caribbean communities, and others in that area forming a rich cultural tableau.  This pattern is repeated throughout the project region.

There are many other localized sites of dynamic cultural activity throughout the region, often aggregating into notable clusters, such as Pemberton-Browns Mills, Roebling-Florence, Cherry Hill, the Black Horse Pike corridor, and the Paulsboro-Repaupo area, among others.  Not to mention the river corridor, and the many tributary creeks! And of course there are the urban zones such as Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Woodbury, and Glassboro, which contribute substantially to the overall mix.   

Dolls created and sewn by Karmaya Lewis

And so beginning this fiscal year (FY2014) the Folklife Center at Perkins will devote time and energy to program and exhibit development, participation in artist residency programs in local schools, and resource development in support of special programs and services -- in addition to fieldwork.  This diversification should position the Folklife Center more strongly with its various constituencies. I've already suggested that the communities we work with are culturally rich and diverse.  I want to add that Perkins staff are also diversely talented, and have amassed a substantial record delivering arts-related programming and services to communities throughout the region.  The Folklife Center exists at the intersection of these many diverse cultural communities, and Perkins itself.  It is dedicated to meeting the needs of the region's cultural communities, and to assisting Perkins staff in extending their already productive relationships with the people of South Jersey.