When Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim left oppression in her native Palestine for a life of freedom in a new country, she wanted to take a piece of her culture with her. So she took her traditional embroidery skills and taught them to the next two generations, including her daughters and grandchildren.
Kelly Church of the Anishinaabe Gun Lake Band also wanted to preserve an endangered tradition: making baskets from the bark of the Black Ash tree, which is under attack by the Emerald Ash borer, a pest that destroys the trees and renders them useless for the time honored craft.
The two women, along with seven other musical acts, artists and craftspeople, made up the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2018 class of National Heritage Fellows, who were honored during a Sept. 26 ceremony at the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium. A concert featuring the honorees was held two days later at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall in Northwest.
Others shared the annual recognition this year range from musicians to quilters and beyond.
Quilter Marion Coleman came to the art late in life, although she was the granddaughter of a quilter.
”My grandmother taught me to quilt as a youngster, and I am from a family of quilters, but I really didn’t start to quilt until about 30 years ago,” Coleman said. “When African fabrics became available on the American market, I just loved the color and vibrancy. So I began by making traditional patchwork quilts.”
The California resident didn’t stay with the traditional quilting long before she segued into her own unique style of “narrative quilts.” Her work looks less like a quilt than a painting, but they tell stories in more direct ways than the encoded language of traditional African-American quilts.
”My mother turned 70, and I had seen what they call ‘memory quilts’ and I started to do that,” Coleman said. “Memory quilts are when I took old family photos and scanned them and told the stories through photographs and whatever I knew about my mother.
“That got me going and the next thing I did to move my quilting forward was to answer the call from the American Quilting Society to make quilts about the Lewis and Clark expedition,” she said. “I knew that York, an African American, was on that expedition. So I made a quilt and submitted it to a jury. It was selected, and that opened in a show in Nashville. Thereafter, I continued to hone my craft.”
Coleman also engages her Bay Area community in quilt-making, drawing on the historical social setting of the quilting bee, but with the underprivileged members of the community who may not have had exposure to or the materials for quilting.
”We let people take the fabric and use it, appreciate it, and hopefully in the future, take it further,” she said.
R&B guitarist Barbara Lynn’s story took another trajectory, as her work was known more than her name. Hailing from Beaumont, Texas, Lynn played with the R&B greats before her name was well known. But her music, including the 1962 hit song “If You Lose Me You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” went to number one on the R&B charts (#8 on the pop charts), was on the lips of Americans around the country.
Known as “The Empress of Gulf Coast Soul,” Lynn traveled the nation backing up big names such as Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson and Ike and Tina Turner. She was recognized by the NEA for her musical talents as well as her writing skills.
”I’ve been singing since I was a very young girl,” Lynn said. “I am a singer, a songwriter and a left-handed guitarist. I started writing songs from an early age. I would write the words then set them to music.”
She started her career writing and performing her songs, but she made a name for herself in her small community of Beaumont when the great R&B acts would come to town. Once they heard her play, she was added to the tour and for decades backed singers such as Marvin Gaye and Patti LaBelle.
”I’ve written quite a few songs, quite a few,” Lynn said. “I would say I have written at least 30 well-known R&B songs. In fact, I covered some Elvis Presley, who influenced me. I even started a girls’ group called Bobbi Lynn and her Idols.”
Also included in the 2018 National Heritage Fellows were costume maker Manuel Cuevas, who started out sewing prom dresses and later dressed music greats such as Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton.
Ofelia Esparza brought her mother’s tradition of altar-making for the Mexican holiday of Dias de las Muertos (Day of the Dead) from Mexico when she relocated to Los Angeles. Like the other honorees, she put her own signature on the altars, which are a familiar site in Southern California, and also brought her children into the craft.
Appalachian fiddler Eddie Bond, Franco-American musicians Don and Cindy Roy, and traditional music and dance advocate Ethel Raim rounded out the honorees.
Raim also received the Bess Lomax Hawes NEA National Heritage Fellowship for her contribution to the preservation and awareness of cultural heritage.