In some grade-school hallways, she’s known as The Gourd Lady.
“It really warms me that I’ve made such an impression on these kids through gourds,” says BAC teaching artist Cheryl Thomas. For years, Cheryl could be found working in schools and libraries throughout New York City, teaching the art of making shekere instruments from gourds to students of all ages. An expert at both playing and making the instrument, Cheryl carefully talks students through the process: washing gourds that she obtains straight from the farms, cutting them, hollowing them out, and stringing and beading them for embellishment.
“I’ve seen so many children and adults blossom—because it’s something they don’t think they can do at first. But I’m here to work with them step by step.”
Cheryl emphasizes walking participants through her entire process for full engagement, so the learning can be shared with family and friends. Cheryl’s artistic practice, which spans nearly four decades, goes far beyond the classroom.
Cheryl demonstrating gourd beading technique. Photo by Christopher Mulé.
Over the span of 40 years, Cheryl has made 100,000 shekere instruments. A frequent supplier to music, dance, and theatrical companies, Cheryl is an impressive one-woman assembly line, accustomed to filling her living room wall-to-wall with gourds during high-demand seasons.
An established traditional folk artist working in Brooklyn, Cheryl’s entrée into her art form could be described as untraditional at best. After the birth of her daughter in her 20s, she attended a Gil Scott-Heron concert in Brooklyn where she first heard the shekere as part of the soul and funk musician’s ensemble, and knew, that it was meant to be her instrument.
From there, Cheryl connected with local musicians and folklorists working with shekeres, eventually coming under the mentorship of James Hawthorne “Chief Bey,” the accomplished jazz percussionist and African folklorist (who passed in 2004). By participating and performing in African American cultural celebrations, Cheryl honed her skills of both performance and craft.
Through her growing artists network, Cheryl first encountered Brooklyn Arts Council in the 1980s while it was still BACA, the Brooklyn Arts and Cultural Association. Here, she met Dr. Kay Turner, who first founded BAC’s Folk Arts department. Cheryl’s initial involvement with BAC was primarily through public performances and events throughout the borough. After taking a pause from her artistic practice to attend to her family, Cheryl reconnected with BAC again in 2014 through current Folk Arts Director Christopher Mulé. A regular attendee at his Folk Arts Society meetings, Cheryl joined an organizing team of folk artists whose voices help contribute to real programming and decision making—from which a support network of artists has emerged. This past summer, Cheryl led gourd workshops at the The Art & History of J’Ouvert and was on the organizing team of the Brooklyn Roots Festival as part of BAC Folk Arts’ Tradition as Resistance series.
“It gave me more of a sense of worth and purpose as a folk artist to see other traditional artists in their forms, and see that they could relate to me,” said Cheryl. “I have more of a sense of inclusion as a folk artist now.”
In addition to supporting programs through BAC’s Folk Arts department, Cheryl works with senior citizens throughout Brooklyn as a teaching artist for our SU-CASA creative aging residencies. Most recently, Cheryl worked at the Hazel Brooks Senior Center in Flatbush leading a Guide to Gourd residency, a comprehensive exploration of the history and craft behind gourd instruments.
“As I’ve gotten older myself, I’ve been fascinated working with older adults. It’s a different experience but I use the same process of teaching,” said Cheryl. “The seniors are really tickled by everything—the activity sheets, the gourd puzzles, the word searches. We’ve had some funny responses but great interaction and inspiration with them.”
Cheryl and residency participants at the Hazel Brooks Senior Center. Photo by Sydney Toon.
Many of the seniors Cheryl has encountered have immigrant backgrounds and are oftentimes familiar with gourds in their own traditions, providing an opportunity for more storytelling and cultural exploration. While working in the school system, Cheryl has also observed an increase in more diverse student populations over the years, bringing more cultural backgrounds into the room. Here, children become “Cultural Gourd Detectives,” using the gourd as an object of inquiry to interview family members, asking them what significance gourds might have in their home countries. Opportunities like these help foster cultural pride while bringing generations of a family closer together.
“Everyone’s learning without realizing that they’re learning,” says Cheryl. “It’s fun, different, and unique.”
BAC is proud to work with Cheryl as just one of countless artists whose talents are amplified by BAC’s programs and services. Artists like Cheryl need BAC’s services to thrive, but we can’t do our work alone.
During this season of giving, we hope we can count on your generosity so we can continue to sustain Brooklyn’s artists where they live and work. We know that when artists succeed, Brooklyn’s communities flourish. You can be a part of that effort today.
Between now and December 31, 2018, your donation to Brooklyn Arts Council will be matched dollar for dollar by BAC’s Board of directors – doubling the impact of your giving. If you can, please consider making a gift here.