the scorper, the drawing knife--are under exhibition glass in the Museum of American Art. Alex Stewart, a 92-year-old master cooper from Hancock County, Tennessee, rests nearby in a wheelchair, thinking about the thousands of vessels--buckets, barrels, churns, piggins--he has made over the decades.

"I gave 'em away, never got a penny," he says. "I just love to make it. People needed it and weren't able to buy it. If it was good, it would last two or three generations."

"It" is not just a Stewart-built vessel, of course, but a vibrant metaphor for the carrying of folk culture and tradition in America. It has been good and it has lasted generations. Making practical vessels was an essential craft in the isolated agrarian community where Stewart was born and raised, and where he still lives surrounded by family.

Stewart and 15 other master traditional artists and artisans are in Washington to receive National Heritage Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. The awards of $5,000 each were begun last year to identify and honor outstanding folk artists who have contributed to the artistic heritage and cultural diversity of the nation. Many of the artists are advanced in years and the fellowships are validation of their roles as carriers and shapers of tradition, as well as of the traditions themselves.

Ada Thomas, 59, who is a member of Louisiana's Chitimacha Indians, is the only surviving maker of colorful and intricately double-weave baskets. Ironically, she learned the craft as a child from her grandmother, but abandoned it for more than two decades to raise her family. About eight years ago, "somebody told me that I didn't know how, gave me the cane to show that I couldn't do it; two days later I brought him a basket, and that's how I got started again. It had almost gotten down to a point, almost where people were ashamed to say they knew how to do traditional folk arts ."

Simon St. Pierre left Canada more than a quarter-century ago for Aroostook County in northern Maine. He is wondrously healthy; the broad shoulders and hard body define his work as a lumberjack. As a child, St. Pierre learned tunes from his father, four fiddling brothers and others encountered in the logging camps of Canada, where music was a favorite time-passer during long winter nights. The musicians were never professionals, but the commitment was pure. "They're not the best," he admits, "but it's right off the heart."

St. Pierre adds, in classic French-English, that the fellowship is "the biggesse theeng I ever haf in my life. It meen to me so much, it hard for me to 'splain. It be here," and he taps his chest over his heart, "just as long as I gonna live. When I leff Canada, I couldn't speak word of English, it was pure strangers when I come down here, and I had to go inch by inch and make my living and learn language." Now, he is a vibrant part of the culture, celebrated for his art as well as his hard work.

Ray and Stanley Hicks are second cousins and their family roots reach deep into Beech Mountain, in North Carolina's Watauga County.

Ray is a storyteller, a rural Ray Bolger in coveralls and cap, close to seven feet when he stands to talk. His arms are scarecrow-in-the-wind active, his body bent toward a listener, his face a panoply of uninhibited expressions. Hicks' Jack tales and ghost stories mesmerize. Endlessly spun phrases are the gossamer strands of a web, the story itself a spider, the listener a fly. He could tell the alphabet and make it fascinating; the spoken narrative tradition he represents so well is as old as the hills, and it's the hills that have kept it alive, as they have so many other traditions.

Stanley Hicks, 72, lives on the top of one of the most remote Southern Appalachian peaks. He also tells stories, but mostly he builds fine traditional instruments, the fifth generation in his family to do so.

"I feel good, I couldn't tell you how good I do feel, ain't no way I could tell you," Stanley Hicks says. "I really feel good. This is the onliest thing that I ever received. Some things you just can't hardly believe. My mother and dad played fiddle and that's how I learned to make instruments. I built my mother a nice dulcimer but she don't play it anymore, she's 96, you know. I'm still working, I'm going long as I can. You get wore out, but I'll keep dragging as long as I can. You don't want to give up."

The fellowships represent an important turnaround that's taken place in the last decade. America traditionally has defined itself as a melting-pot, but what has begun to emerge is less homogenization than a cultural mosaic in which artists can celebrate family, community and ethnic arts distant from the mass cultural mainstream.

"We're really honoring traditions," says Bess Lomax Hawes, director of NEA's Folk Arts Program. "These individuals are the people who've been pushed up by the traditions, they're the lightning rods that we grab onto. It's extremely important for the psychic health and well-being of Americans to maintain all of these little regional distinctions, to establish a cultural pluralism. It's like my brother folklorist Alan Lomax wrote one time: if the cultural gray-out continues around the world, pretty soon there will be no place worth visiting . . . and no particular reason to stay home, either."

The cash awards may be modest; it's the recognition that is invaluable. Sister Mildred Barker, 87 and the principal conservator of the Shaker hymn tradition, says "I'm just an ordinary singer. I never had a big training, mine is just the spirit, that's all. I didn't realize for a very long time how important it was, it was a feeling that I got myself from the old songs, the music. It suddenly came upon me that I was keeping the tradition alive, which meant everything to me. We're just a small group, but it's something that the world needs and I'm sure it's going to pass right down through many centuries. I don't believe that it will be lost. We can use all the strength and all the faith that we have and keep it alive and pass it to those who come within our reach. It's God's work and he will sustain it."

These are people who would do what they do no matter what, which is why the traditions are able to live on, transmitted from generation to generation, sometimes with a skip.

Alex Stewart had six sons, none of whom showed any interest in carrying on the coopering tradition. Which may be why Stewart delights in the strength and craft of his 23-year-old grandson, Ricky, who says: "He was tickled to death that somebody was keeping it going. We've got tools that's been in our family for hundreds of years."

The awards ceremony, which will include performances by musician-recipients, will be tonight in the Departmental Auditorium (it's open to the public and will be taped by WETA-FM for broadcast next week). A number of the recipients are participating in the Festival of American Folklife currently in progress on the Mall, and an exhibition devoted to their work will continue at the Museum of American History through the summer.

RECIPIENTS OF THE 1983 NATIONAL HERITAGE FELLOWSHIPS

Sister Mildred Barker, Poland Springs, Maine: Shaker singer.

Rafael Cepeda, Santurce, Puerto Rico: bomba and plena musician-dancer.

Ray Hicks, Banner Elk, N.C.: Appalachian storyteller.

Stanley Hicks, Vilas, N.C.: Appalachian instrument maker, storyteller-musician.

John Lee Hooker, San Carlos, Calif.: blues guitarist-singer.

Papa Mike Manteo, Staten Island, N.Y.: Italian-American puppeteer.

Narciso Martinez, San Benito, Tex.: Texas-Mexican accordionist.

Lanier Meaders, Cleveland, Ga.: potter.

Almeda Riddle, Greers Ferry, Ark.: Anglo-American ballad singer.

Simon St. Pierre, Smyrna Mills, Maine: French-American fiddler.

Joe Shannon, Chicago: Irish-American Uielleann piper.

Alex Stewart,Sneedville, Tenn.: cooper-woodworker. Ada Thomas, Charenton, La.: Chitimacha Indian basketmaker.

Lucinda Toomer, Columbus, Ga.: Afro-American quiltmaker.

Lem Ward, Crisfield, Md.: decoy carver.

Dewey Williams, Ozark, Ala.: shape note singer.