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.”



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.

Grantee Spotlight: Apogee Journal

Brooklyn Arts Council has been providing Community Arts Grants to Brooklyn’s artists, cultural ambassadors, arts organizations, and communities for almost 40 years, putting city and state cultural dollars directly into the hands of the artists and organizations. In our Grantee Spotlight series, we’re highlighting some of those artists and groups who contribute so much to the cultural vitality of Brooklyn. 

Apogee Issue 10 Cover Art

Credit: Victoria Sin, Film still from Part Four/Cthulhu Through the Looking Glass, 2017.

Organization: Apogee Journal

Apogee is an art and literary journal whose mission is to provide a platform for underrepresented voices, engaging identity politics and activism in works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual art. This spring, Apogee’s Writing Resistance workshop series offered affordable and inclusive classes taught by Apogee editors and contributors, and just last week the journal published its eleventh issue. Read on for more about how Apogee used their BAC grant, challenges they currently face, and where they turn for inspiration. 

What has your BAC grant helped you accomplish?

Apogee Journal is committed to keeping writing relevant and accessible. Our BAC grant helped us to put our beliefs into practice, to grow our literary community, and to provide space, time, and some creative nourishment to NYC writers.

How have you grown from your first BAC grant? In what ways is Apogee a different organization now?

The Writing Resistance workshops have very much changed our organization. Many of the participants from the workshops have joined Apogee’s team, or sent us work during our reading periods. The workshops have expanded Apogee beyond the journal page and into the world of NYC writers. We love the workshops so much that they’ve become a part of our annual programming, which we hope to continue for many years to come.

Continue reading →

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.

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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.

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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: Brooklyn Raga Massive

BAC has been providing community arts grants to Brooklyn’s artists, cultural ambassadors, arts organizations, and communities for almost 40 years, putting city and state cultural dollars directly into the hands of the artists and organizations. In our Grantee Spotlight series, we’re highlighting some of those artists and organizations who contribute so much to the cultural vitality of Brooklyn. 


Photos courtesy of Brooklyn Raga Massive

Organization: Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM)

Brooklyn Raga Massive is a collective of musicians and ensembles interested in exploring Indian and South Asian music while cultivating communities and sounds specific to Brooklyn. BRM puts on weekly jam sessions, concerts, and this week, a 24-hour festival featuring over 60 musicians. Catch the Ragas Live Festival this weekend at Pioneer Works! 

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

We are mainly a musician’s collective focusing on Raga-based traditional and contemporary music. However, we do have multidisciplinary projects now, such as creating more music videos and video documentation, and projects that mix dance (Ragas in Motion) and video (BRM performs a live score to the movie Fantastic Planet).

We are specifically drawn to creating a supportive platform for Raga-based musicians because there is a hub of musicians in Brooklyn and the New York area who are interested in Indian music and who are serious practitioners. The audience is also growing for the particular flavor of music BRM is creating as a melting pot indigenous to Brooklyn.

Continue reading →