Alabama Folkways Articles

February, 1997

HONORING ALABAMA'S FOLK ARTISTS

By AimeƩ Schmidt

This spring at the Governor's Arts Awards the Alabama State Council on the Arts (ASCA) will honor a select group of Alabamians who have contributed to the promotion and preservation of the arts. Among these honors is the Alabama Folk Heritage Award. Inspired by the National Heritage Fellowship, which is administered by the National Endowment for the Arts, this award was established to recognize master folk artists who have made outstanding contributions to their particular artistic tradition.

The award is intended to honor long-term achievement within art forms that are rooted in the traditional or ethnic culture of Alabama. Since its creation in 1988, seven Alabamians have received the Folk Heritage award based upon their artistic excellence, their significance within the tradition, and their role in preserving the art form within a community context. Past recipients include:

Japheth Jackson, (1988) a shape-note singer from Ozark. Jackson, whose father authored The Colored Sacred Harp in 1934,remains a dominant figure in this tradition. At the age of 80, Jackson continues to teach singing schools and perform on radio and television shows.

Johnny Shines, (1989) a blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist who lived in Tuscaloosa almost 30 years. When he died in 1992, Shines left a creative musical legacy to numerous blues artists, many in Alabama.

Nora Ezell, (1990) a quilter from Tuscaloosa. Ezell's earliest works were pieced and appliqued quilts. Her more recent creations of story and pictorial quilts have challenged conventional expectations of this traditional art form.

Noah Lacy, (1991) a fiddler and Sacred Harp singer from Sand Mountain. Lacy grew up in a musical family that enjoyed both shape-note singing and old-time country. He played music with his son Chester for more than 40 years, and before his death in 1993, Lacy participated in a project to document Alabama fiddlers.

Gail Thrower, (1992) pine needle basketmaker, herbalist, and authority of American Indian foodways. Thrower, the granddaughter of the last tribal medicine man, is the tribal historian of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Escambia County.

Lomia Nunn, (1993) a white-oak basketmaker now living in Birmingham. Nunn was born in 1918, in Wedowee, daughter of Bud Roundtree, a farmer and basketmaker. From her father Nunn learned to make an assortment of styles and sizes of baskets. She, in turn, passed on those skills to her children and grandchildren.

Bettye Kimbrell, (1994) a quilter from Mount Olive. Kimbrell learned to quilt from her grandmother who made tops from fabric scraps with feed and fertilizer sacks for backing. She has spent years learning and mastering new skills. Ornate designs and intricate needlework have become her artistic signature.

Later this month a panel of folk art experts will select an artist to receive this honor. To nominate a traditional artist for this award, please contact Joey Brackner, Folk Arts Program Manager, at the Alabama State Council on the Arts at 334/242/3601 ext. 225. Brackner speaks fervently about the need to appreciate and honor the tradition bearers of our state.

"In Alabama, we have a rich heritage of folk traditions that is often overlooked, taken for granted and misunderstood. The unique folk expressions of Alabama identify and symbolize the many communities and cultures that have originated and nurtured them. They define what it is to be an Alabamian. Given the diversity and wealth of Alabama's folklife traditions, we should strive to broaden understanding of our diverse community-based traditions so that all Alabamians can be proud of this shared experience."