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.”

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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.”

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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.”

 

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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.

Coming Soon: Folk Feet’s 10th Anniversary!

We are looking forward to the Spring and Summer season, not just for the weather, but for the celebration of Folk Feet’s 10th Anniversary. From May through July, BAC’s Folk Arts program will look back in order to move forward.  Through a series of public programs, we will fuse past Folk Feet participants of (i.e. Tiny Love) with new vernacular dance forms gaining traction in Brooklyn (i.e. Flex). We will also be guiding you through our Folk Feet archival materials (freshly digitized) to celebrate the fieldwork of the Folk Feet foundersf, Dr. Kay Turner and Nicole Macotsis.

Cultural Youth Incorporated Inc., The Brooklyn Jumbies, 2004.

Cultural Youth Incorporated Inc., The Brooklyn Jumbies, 2004.

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Folk Arts Meet Up: Mentoring and Professional Development Awards (March 12@7pm)

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Dr. Eileen Condon is a Folklorist and Project Director at the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. In addition, she is an excellent person, a personal friend, and someone that you can trust.

Calling all folk artists and folk arts professionals:  New York Folklore Society Mentoring and Professional Development monetary awards are there for you—all year round on a rolling deadline.  Come to Brooklyn Arts Council (55 Washington Street, Suite 218) and meet the NYC representative for NYFS, Eileen Condon on March 12th at 7pm.

The New York Folklore Society (www.nyfolklore.org) offers many forms of service to traditional artists in New York State, but one of the most immediately gratifying opportunities is its longstanding Mentoring and Professional Development awards program.  M&PD awards are the fast track for folk artists to get the funding to take their own artistic practices to the next level by working with a mentor.  Whatever genre of folk art you practice—textiles, dance, instrumental music, drumming, singing, farming—you name it, New York Folklore Society can support your passing this art form to a serious student, or learning more yourself from an esteemed elder / mentor in your tradition.  And since half of what runs the vehicle we call folk arts is administrative skill—artists practicing the best self-management strategies, and nonprofit arts workers building better business know-how—that half is covered as well.  Decide what you need to learn in folk arts or folk arts management—who will teach you?  What conference would benefit you the most?—then tell NYFS about it in a very concise grant application, and NYFS will help make it happen within a very short turnaround (typically 1 or 2 months from application date).
 Please contact your Folk Arts director, Christopher Mulé for more details (cmule@brooklynartscouncil.org).

Folk Arts Meetup: (March 3): Navigating Arts in Education as a Traditional Artist

Thanks to the work of my predecessor, Dr. Kay Turner, BAC’s Folk Arts program has built a wonderful relationship with our Arts in Education department. In order to continue to strengthen that relationship, please come and meet the Arts in Education staff at the Brooklyn Arts Council to learn about Arts in Education opportunities.  We will have a meet and greet opportunity for you to ask questions on Tuesday, March 3 at 4:30pm – 5:30pm.  Please contact Christopher Mulé if you have any questions or concerns.

 

Top 10 Reasons to attend the 4th Annual Brooklyn Folk Arts Day

Top 10 Reasons to attend the 4th Annual Brooklyn Folk Arts Day
Thursday, October 23 @ 7pm, Actors Fund Arts Center (160 Schermerhorn Street) 

  1. MINGLE with fellow traditional artists and advocates.
  2. CLAP to live blues with Beareather Reddy and Alexis P. Suter.
  3. EAT free food and drink.
  4. ASK “Who owns culture? with Folk Arts Program Director (NYSCA), Robert Baron.
  5. WITNESS the keepers of the Alan Lomax Archive (Association for Cultural Equity) explain how they work to bring cultural materials “home” to source communities.
  6. BUILD a borough that grows from its roots, not from its developers.
  7. LEARN about cultural preservation initiatives directly from Ghanaian royalty and part time Bronx resident, Nana Rokoto.
  8. IMAGINE a future where we use recorded materials to engage the WHOLE of our communities to celebrate the fruits of innovation and success.
  9. DISCUSS all of the above while eating free food and drink.
  10. SHARE your upcoming events and initiatives-bring flyers!

Join us at the 4th annual Brooklyn Folk Arts Day (Thursday, Oct 23 @ 7pm)

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On Thursday, October 23 at 7pm, the Brooklyn Arts Council will celebrate the 4th annual Brooklyn Folk Arts Day. This year, BAC’s Folk Arts program will present a gathering of traditional arts leaders for “Bring it on Home: Folk Arts in the Digital Domain” at the Actors Fund Arts Center. Through a discussion led by scholars, archivists, and traditional cultural specialists, “Bring it on Home” will host an important cultural conversation about the importance of giving communities access to and use of their own cultural heritage materials—such as audio, video, and photographic records of music, dance, and other cultural traditions—for the benefit of future generations. This gathering of folk and traditional arts communities will explore the importance of sharing digital materials that document traditions of diverse communities with members of the same communities, and when culturally relevant, with the general public.

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The Folk Arts Way

Join BAC Folk Arts Director Christopher Mulé, as he speaks at The Way Station’s “Art Talks Brooklyn” on July 22 at 7:30pm.  He’ll be discussing how Folk life fits into the mix and some future plans for BAC’s Folk Arts program.  Other participants will include Shoe String Press and Launchpad.  See below for the Art Talks Brooklyn overview and click here to learn more about The Way Station. 

TUESDAY 7/22
NEW! 7:30pm- Art Talks Brooklyn
683 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11238

A new speaker series highlighting Brooklyn Arts initiatives and programs. Monthly, we will invite three speakers, each allotted 15 minutes, to share how they are impacting our community through the arts.

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Shoe String Press- Lane Sell, Crown Heights

 

Founded in 2011, Shoestring Press serves artists in Crown Heights with work space, technical expertise, gallery exhibitions, critical engagement, and intellectual community. We’ve built a community of 25 working member artists and wider range of performers, workshop participants, exhibitors, and friends on the premise proving that making art should be an open process, one that is visible to the community and affordable to anyone who wants to participate in visual culture.

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