The Gift of Heritage

By Fallon Coster

The heritage that is passed on from generation to generation is what keeps traditions from being forgotten. The “Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts” exhibit in Lexington’s National Heritage Museum is a virtual cornucopia of expressive art from Massachusetts that symbolizes the importance tradition plays in everyday life.

The “Fruit Cocktail Costume” that was used for Boston’s thirty-fourth annual Caribbean Carnival in 2007 is a colorful and fun piece that symbolizes the Caribbean culture. Entering the exhibit, the visitor immediately encounters this eye-catching and vibrant costume made of colorful feathers, gold trimming, sequins, and margarita glasses. The piece reflects the delightful and outgoing nature of the festival and its connection to Mardi Gras festivities. Errol A. Phillip and Noel Audain of the Trinidad and Tobago Social Club designed this immense outfit, using welding, gluing, and sewing to construct not only a unique design but also one that could withstand the wearer’s dancing and body movement without breaking. These designers specialize in nontextile apparel and do so in an impressive manner.

Speaking of welding, if you thought that The Wizard of Oz’s tin man costume was a masterful nontextile garment, take a look at the “Tin Men” of Richard Clark, Daniel Hardy, Glenn Walker, and William Walsh. The art reflected here follows a centuries-old metalsmithing tradition that may have inspired the creation of the Tin Man character in The Wizard of Oz. Crafted of copper, galvanized steel, and stainless steel and using impeccable craftsmanship to construct welded joints and a well-shaped body, each tin man’s construction took more than fifty hours. The retired sheet metal workers from the Local 17 Sheet Metal Association who made these figures are journeymen of their trade and drew on technical skills such as layout, scribing, cutting, folding, rolling, bending, riveting, soldering, and filling to construct these tin men. The art forms were created to reflect Irish ethnic and union pride for the 2007 Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in Dorchester, Massachusetts, as well as to advertise the trade of metal work as a teaching tool for apprentices.

Another spectacular costume that symbolizes Irish tradition is Ann Horkan’s Irish dance costume. Horkan is an immigrant from the Irish Aran Islands who migrated to Boston as a young woman in 1954. The dress she designed was made for her young daughter. It is a circular flounced-style dress with lace-cuffed long sleeves and a flat lace collar and is cut from burgundy cotton-and-polyester fabric, with crocheted lace, rhinestone detailing, and intricate embroidery patterning. The embroidery pattern was based on designs in the Book of Kells, a decorative handwritten text that contains the four Gospels of the New Testament along with other works written by Celtic monks. This inspiration rings true in the design of the embroidery, reminiscent of Celtic patterning that has been used in Celtic dress, household items, and artwork throughout the years. Horkan explains why the tradition of making the costumes for Irish dance contests is so important to her, stating that these days, costumes “are all store boughten and they are wicked expensive. I think we need to hold on to old things.” She wants to retain her culture’s traditions by producing these costumes herself, so that the garment is a true symbol of her beliefs and heritage.

The “Spirit House,” by Yary Livan of Lowell, Massachusetts, is another example of a handcrafted piece that stands for the religious practices of a culture. This immense stoneware, clay, and glaze construction reflects the tradition of the Cambodian Buddhist daily prayer. Not only does it hold symbolic value, but it is also a detailed and beautiful piece. The base of the temple is decoratively carved to give the structure texture with floral designs. The railings of the structure that surround the house bear a resemblance to the dragon, a symbol of the gods. There is much gold detailing throughout the designs in a pointed rod that could be symbolic of pointing to the gods. These houses were made for the owner’s yard as a representation of a temple, because the temples were located far from the small villages where most people lived. The artist explained the use of this piece, stating that “Cambodian people usually put a picture or a statue of Buddha, a glass of water, a pot of flowers and a pot for incense inside a spirit house. [They] believe that their messages will be brought up to the Buddha or to the angels by the smoke of the incense they light.”

The “God May His Glory Be Glorified” exhibit, with marbling by Güliz Pamukoglu and calligraphy credited to Mehmet Tahir Efendil, was completed entirely and beautifully by hand. This paper-and-water-based pigment work of art combines warm and cool colors in an eye-catching manner, using oranges that contrast with the different shades of blue and purple. The central calligraphy in white, along with the diamond-shaped designs above and below, gives an aesthetically pleasing

balance between positive and negative space. Surrounding the calligraphy are intricate designs and patterning using several different color shades that make this piece a very interesting composition. A piece with such detail could never be duplicated or reproduced, which is what makes this piece so special.

The life of Harold A Burnham and his work at sea have resulted in a very special Gloucester harbor landmark, the Thomas E. Lannon ship. Burnham, of Essex, Massachusetts, represents the eleventh generation of boat builders in a family of Essex natives that extends back to 1635. The half hull model displayed in the “Keepers of Tradition” exhibit aided Burnham in designing the Thomas E. Lannon. The half hull is painted country red and green with a black stripe at the very top. Burnham launched the Lannon the old-fashioned way, using wedges, grease, and gravity. To make such spectacular wooden vessels, he must call on his skills as a logger, sawyer, shipwright, mechanic, sail maker, rigger, and most essentially, mariner, using a shipwright’s tools dating from the 1800s. The Lannon was the first saw-frame vessel fastened with wooden pegs and built along the Essex River bank in fifty years, and it was under sail at the Gloucester School Race in 1997. To sum up how large the role of the sea plays in everyday life in Massachusetts, Burnham states, “It is hard to imagine a place on earth where shipbuilding is more deeply embroidered into the fabric of the community.”

These works are only a few of over one-hundred pieces created by seventy Massachusetts artists and artisans. These people’s works are tangible representations of their individual heritages and traditions. Other pieces include the “Maggie Bell” weather vane made by Anthony Holand from Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts; the “Lamp” with mica shade made by Carl Close Junior from Concord, Massachusetts; the “Winter Scene” made from traditional rug hooking by Jeanne Fallier from Westford; and the “Jug” made using the sgraffito (Italian for ‘scratched’) technique by Michael L. Burry from Plymouth, Massachusetts. Every work of art in the “Keepers of Tradition” exhibit tells a story about the religion, daily life, culture, and values of the artist, making each piece unique and significant to the overall heritage of Massachusetts.

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