With a resounding "Aloha," a Mardi Gras dance and shake, a swinging polka, some roly-poly Texas blues and a solid statement on the importance of artistic tradition, this year's National Heritage Fellows -- 14 traditional artists recognized for excellence by the National Endowment for the Arts -- rounded up two days of ceremonies and performances yesterday.
In a congressional reception largely and thankfully devoid of hot air and backslapping, the fellows -- ranging from a Louisiana cowboy to a black Indian from New Orleans to a basket maker from New Hampshire -- each received a certificate of excellence and a hearty thank-you from Frank Hodsoll, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. The National Heritage Awards also carry $5,000 grants. "These artists represent our cultural roots," Hodsoll remarked to an audience of about 100 family members and several congressmen in Caucus Room 345 of the Cannon House Office Building.
Those roots are spread far and wide. In a concert and carnival Wednesday night at Lisner Auditorium, the artists and artisans showcased a variety of talents, ranging from Virgin Islands native Sylvester McIntosh's "scratch band" performing traditional Crucian melodies to the colorful carnival masks of Puerto Rican mask maker Juan Alindato, to the rousing spiritual singing of Claude J. Johnson, a minister and black hymnist from Atlanta who, accompanied by members of his family and congregation, rocked the house with black hymn styles that date back hundreds of years.
The evening, well-engineered by the National Council for the Traditional Arts, was hosted by actress and poet Ruby Dee, resplendent in flowing black gown and colorful African-style head wrap. "Art is not an import," Dee said. "It's not something that someone stores in an art center and shares with us." Rather, she noted, it belongs where it was born, in the land of the common man.
Most touching were the words of Genoveva Castellanoz, a Mexican American corona (flower crown) maker from Nyssa, Ore., who told the audience that "just like someone has an accident and is taken to intensive care, traditions are dying and they should be taken to intensive care also.