NEA Honors for Roland Freeman

Detail of a photographic self-portrait of Roland L. Freeman, who has documented the folklore and everyday life of black America.
Detail of a photographic self-portrait of Roland L. Freeman, who has documented the folklore and everyday life of black America. (By Roland Freeman)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 30, 2007

R oland L. Freeman, a longtime Washington photographer who specializes in documenting the folklore of black America, has been named by the National Endowment for the Arts as one of this year's National Heritage Fellows. The arts agency said Freeman, 70, also will receive the 2007 Bess Lomax Hawes Award.

This year's heritage awards, given to 12 practitioners of unique American styles, are one of three honors the NEA can give to individual artists, a holdover from when Congress eliminated most support of solo artists in the mid-1990s. The Heritage Fellows each receive $20,000.

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia was scheduled to announce the fellows at a concert on the Mall last night, an evening with former fellows celebrating the 25th anniversary of the honors. "Creativity and talent so often take a profound level of dedication to develop into art that is, as in these cases, worthy of national recognition," Gioia said in prepared remarks.

Freeman has photographed myriad aspects of everyday black life, from the "arabbers" (vendors with horse-drawn carts) in his native Baltimore to the quilters and musicians of the South. He has been associated with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for 35 years. During the past 40 years his work has appeared in major magazines, museums and books.

"When I picked up the camera, I knew why I wanted to pick up the camera -- I wanted to document the people," said Freeman, recalling the long road for recognition for himself as well as the unsung artists who caught his eye. He gained a foothold in the field in the 1970s when folklore was gaining respectability in academic circles. His work on the Mississippi Folklife Project highlighted juke-joint guitar players and front-porch basketmakers, and established Freeman as a "photo-historian." One of his exhibits, "Southern Roads/City Pavements," traveled the museum circuit from 1981 to 1989.

The Hawes Award, given in appreciation to those who promote traditional arts "through teaching, collecting, advocacy and preservation work," is named after the first director of the folk and traditional arts program at the NEA. Hawes is the sister of Alan Lomax, the noted folklorist and musicologist, and Freeman worked with both.

The heritage fellows provide a sampler of American arts.

The other winners are Nicholas Benson, a third-generation stone carver from Newport, R.I.; Sidiki Conde, a Guinean dancer and musician from New York; Violet de Cristoforo, a haiku poet from Salinas, Calif.; Pat Courtney Gold, a weaver from Scappoose, Ore.; Eddie Kamae, a ukulele player and filmmaker from Honolulu; Agustin Lira, a Chicano singer from Fresno, Calif.; Julia Parker, a basketmaker from Midpines, Calif.; Mary Jane Queen, an Appalachian musician from Cullowhee, N.C.; Joe Thompson, an African American string band musician from Mebane, N.C.; Irvin L. Trujillo, a weaver from Chimayo, N.M.; and Elaine Hoffman Watts, a third-generation musician who plays drums with a klezmer band in Havertown, Pa.

To view Roland Freeman's photographs, visit http://tgcd.org .


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