Guiding through gourds with Cheryl Thomas

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 blossombecause 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.

Seniors at Phillip Howard Naturally Occurring Retirement Community learn how to make their own beaded shekeres from gourds with Cheryl Thomas 2

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.”

Cheryl e-blast graphic

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 everythingthe activity sheets, the gourd puzzles, the word searches. We’ve had some funny responses but great interaction and inspiration with them.”

FY18_HAZELBROOKS_MUSIC_ST (121) - cropped

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.

Supporting artists like Danielle, all over Brooklyn

Danielle Brown is an artist whose work makes Brooklyn a better place. As a teaching artist, performer, and a Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC) Community Arts Grants recipient,  Danielle works with BAC in a multitude of ways to share her talents with communities across the borough. Read on to find out how Danielle’s multi-faceted artistic approach brings together music, dance, writing, and more.

Danielle e-blast graphic.png

Danielle is a musician and scholar whose work focuses on the music of the Caribbean and the intersection of music, spirituality, and healing. Since 2014, her publishing and production company, My People Tell Stories, has provided workshops, seminars, performances, and resources aimed at encouraging people of color and other historically marginalized groups to share their own stories. Her book, East of Flatbush, North of Love, is an ethnographic memoir about community, music, and growing up in East Flatbush. We recently asked Danielle about her work with BAC and what she has coming down the pipeline.

danielle brown

How did you first get involved with BAC?

I first became involved with BAC after receiving a grant from the Brooklyn Arts Fund to launch my project My Music, My Culture: The Caribbean Diaspora in Brooklyn, a musical adaptation of my book East of Flatbush, North of Love: An Ethnography of Home.

Your work is so multi-faceted, how would you describe your artistic practice?

My artistic practice is essentially about using the arts—whether music, dance, or literature—to educate people about something. Teaching or educating has always been a part of my artistic practice and is an integral function of my work. Directly or indirectly, music can be used to teach an array of topics—from food to psychology—and so I want to use music to get people to think, and to think especially about how they can make themselves and/or the world in which they live better. Continue reading →

Help support artists like Aeilushi

Artists come to BAC with a need – for funding, skill development, employment, networking, and more – and we in turn open countless doors to support and share their work with Brooklynites. From distributing grants, to providing arts education programs, to supporting professional development for artists, to commissioning public artworks, BAC creates avenues for each artist to develop and present art that inspires and reflects residents of all of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods.

One such wide-reaching BAC artist is Aeilushi Mistry. A dancer born and raised in India and trained in Bharatnatyam dance, Aeilushi moved to the United States in 2001. She won her first BAC grant to fund her work in 2013, and we’re proud to say she has been with us ever since – enlivening BAC’s work in myriad ways just in the past year:

Aeilushi e-blast graphic

Aeilushi is just one of thousands of artists whose talents are amplified by BAC’s programs and services. Artists like Aeilushi 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.

Thank you for your continued support, and best wishes for a healthy and joyful holiday season!

Grantee Spotlight: Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

Follow our Grantee Spotlight series as we catch up with previous BAC grantees to learn more about the kind of work this funding can help support, and what these artists and organizations are up to now.

Cover photo of book

The cover of MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora, edited by Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and Adama Delphine Fawundu.

Artist: Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn is a documentary photographer whose work has been published by the New York Times, The Washington Post, the BBC, Vogue, and more. She is the curator of an upcoming exhibition of photographs from the McKinley Collection that focuses on constructions of African womanhood. 

What sector of the arts do you dedicate yourself to and why?

I am mainly a documentary photographer, I am learning video and hope to be more skilled in that medium.

What has your BAC grant helped you accomplish?

The last BAC grant that I received allowed me to publish MFON, which is an anthology featuring the works of women photographers of African descent. It is the first book of its kind since 1986. Continue reading →

Check out some of the art you’ll see at AccessArt 2018!


Do you have your tickets to BAC’s annual affordable art sale? AccessArt is taking place on Thursday, October 25th this year at Usagi NY in DUMBO and you don’t want to miss out on your chance to add some affordable art to your collection! Read on to hear from a handful of this year’s artists about their contributed works:

Continue reading →

Grantee Spotlight: Toni Blackman (The Cypher Workshop)

The September 20th deadline for our current cycle of Community Arts Grants is only one week away! Keep following our Grantee Spotlight series as we catch up with previous BAC grantees to learn more about the kind of work this funding can help support, and what these artists and organizations are up to now.

Photo of Toni against yellow wall

Credit: Jamel Love

Artist: Toni Blackman

Toni Blackman is a multidisciplinary artist and hip hop activist who uses workshops, collectives, podcasts, and performances to encourage others to share their own work. Her Cypher Workshop, a bi-weekly freestyle rap, encourages participants to open up and gain confidence in their creativity. Rhyme Like a Girl, a collective for established and aspiring female MCs, promotes positive images of women in hip hop. 

Why do you make art?

I’m most dedicated to music, but also dabble in theater, writing, dance, and poetry. I’ve always been an artist. I’m one of those creatives that would suffocate without art. It is not a choice for me. I must create art, so I have multi-disciplinary projects, collaborations, and endeavors that help me to breathe freely: inhale creativity, exhale creativity.

What has your BAC grant helped you accomplish?

I partnered with a hot new venue for my granted public event, and the success of our event led to a long term relationship that has brought so much life to all of my work as an artist!

Continue reading →

Grantee Spotlight: Sarah Nicholls

We’re two weeks away from the application deadline for our current cycle of Community Arts Grants, due September 20th! Follow our Grantee Spotlight series as we catch up with previous BAC grantees to learn more about the kind of work this funding can help support, and what these artists and organizations are up to now.

Artist's book Lavender and evil things

Pages from the pamphlet Lavender and Evil Things, 2016

Artist: Sarah Nicholls

Sarah Nicholls makes artist books, illustrations, and prints, often with letterpress and linoleum block printing. The scope of her work also includes guided walks at Dead Horse Bay, research for informational pamphlets, and more. Her limited edition artist books are in the collections of institutions including the Brooklyn Museum, Stanford, UCLA, and the University of Pennsylvania.

What sector of the arts do you dedicate yourself to and why?

I make artist books. I enjoy bookmaking because it is both visual and verbal. I enjoy that books are sculptural objects that ask you to touch and manipulate them; that they combine time, narrative, and formal qualities, all in a portable format.

What has your BAC grant helped you accomplish?

Funding allowed me to publish three pamphlets about Jamaica Bay, hold an artist talk, lead a walk in Dead Horse Bay, and an exhibition in Jamaica Bay of the entire cycle of work. Continue reading →

Meet the Artist: Abdul Badi

Here we interview Abdul Badi, an East New York-based painter, about his work over the last 50 years.

Abdul Badi

Abdul Badi

Where are you from? How long have you lived in Brooklyn?
I’m actually born in Washington DC, and wound up in Brooklyn back in 1964. East New York – I’ve been out here since 1988. I’ve lived out here, but I hadn’t met a lot of other artists out here until Catherine opened up Arts East NY, and then I was surprised to see how many other artists actually lived out here. I participated in [the Go Brooklyn Arts Gallery] competition 2 years ago, where they visited everybody’s studio, and in East New York, I was the only artist out here. The other sections – Bed-Stuy, Greenpoint, Williamsburg were chock full of artists, but East New York? Up until then I didn’t really see much on the arts scene. Everything I did was outside of East New York.

Continue reading →


Our featured artist this month is Ian Lyn, an East New York based photographer.
Where are you from? How long have you lived in Brooklyn?
I’m originally from Brooklyn, and I’ve been a resident of East New York since 1997.

How long have you been a photographer?
On the level that I’m on now, about 2 years.

Who or what influenced your decision to become an artist?
The fact that people need to document their lives, the daily things that go on around them. Also I find art makes people happy, and that’s one thing that I do, I like to see people happy.

What else or who else inspires you artistically?
Really, my family, friends, other photographers, other artists. I’m new and I’m kind of learning my contemporaries. But as far as looking back to the past – of course there’s Gordon Parks, several painters, and my peers around me who push each other to do art or photography projects. I also credit God, my wife, and my children.
Continue reading →