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Voices Fall-Winter 2011:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “A Report from an Embroiderer’ Gathering” by Ellen McHale and Lisa Overholser here.
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Volume 37
Fall-Winter
2011
Voices

A Report from an
Embroiderers' Gathering by Ellen McHale and Lisa Overholser

The New York Folklore Society, with the support of a Mid Atlantic Folk Arts Outreach Project grant, successfully organized an Embroiderers’ Gathering in Ithaca, New York, on November 28–30, 2011, at the History Center of Tompkins County. Over this three-day period, the New York Folklore Society hosted visiting textile artist Vera Nakonechny, as well as visiting folklorist Amy Skillman, in an exchange with local artist Enikö Farkas and host folklorists Ellen McHale and Lisa Overholser. Paul Kawam, Micro-Enterprise Coordinator at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees in nearby Utica, as well as four weavers from the Karen refugee community, were also present as part of the Gathering.

The Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation’s Folk Arts Outreach Program is an initiative designed to strengthen the region’s folk and traditional arts infrastructure, and to make a long-term artistic contribution through the exchange of practice and ideas by traveling folklorists and traditional artists from home locations to host sites in other states or jurisdictions within the mid-Atlantic region. This Folk Arts Outreach Program exchange arranged by the New York Folklore Society was between two master embroiderers from the Mid-Atlantic Region who were both born in Eastern Europe. It was designed to encourage conversations about embroidery skills and styles from two countries, to share experiences and techniques for preserving embroidery traditions, and to explore outreach possibilities for a next generation of artists. Both Vera and Enikö have devoted years to researching and preserving the differing techniques, clothing styles, and regional variants within their respective Eastern European needlework traditions. It was anticipated that an exchange between these two master artists, who had been working in similar ways within their own communities, would encourage them in their own work and might spark inspiration for new ventures.

  Eniko Farkas demonstrating an embroidery stitch for Vera Nakonechny
Enikö Farkas demonstrating an embroidery stitch for Vera Nakonechny. Photo by Sally van de Water. Courtesy of Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

Themes which ran through the entire exchange included the following: preserving the history and variation of textile arts, issues of collecting and preserving textiles, exhibiting work, and the impact of displacement of cultural groups. Of particular value was the discovery of the commonalities of experience between Vera Nakonechny and Enikö Farkas as post-World War II refugees from Soviet Bloc countries, and with the recent refugee experiences of the Karen. Friendships and linkages were made between all of the individuals involved, and plans were made for continued contact in the upcoming year. Besides being able to focus on an important part of women’s folklore, the outreach provided opportunities to plan for a statewide textile program which can reach across ethnic and geographic boundaries. The New York Folklore Society, as a statewide service organization, found two of its mandates to be addressed in this exchange: the work of NYFS as a statewide agent drawing linkages from throughout the state, and the mission of the Society to be a service organization providing support to artists. This outreach project provided an important professional development opportunity and an opportunity for the Society to reach outside its geographic borders to link together like-minded individuals.


Benefits of the Two-State Exchange

The first day of the project was devoted to a direct conversation between Enikö Farkas and Vera Nakonechny. Enikö and Vera were able to show each other some of their work and discuss common techniques, motifs, and issues. The importance of regional differentiation and identity was also discussed, and both artists acknowledged the necessity of identifying regional motifs within their respective national traditions.

Discussions in this first afternoon of exchange also focused on archival techniques and preservation strategies. Vera, with the help of her husband George, had created a wonderful catalog of her items, compiled in a binder with samples of stiches, diagrams completed with specialized graph paper, and step-by-step instructions with illustrations for specific stitches. It was clear that Vera had thought long and hard about how her tradition would be passed on in her absence, and that she had devised a method of preserving what she saw as the tradition, which was very much focused on the items and stitches themselves. She had also clearly marked each stitch with a regional identification. Other points of discussion centered on the use of acid-free materials in storage and ways to publicize their work, particularly in their respective homelands.

Eniko Farkas and Vera Nakonechny study Vera's notebook of embroidery patterns, with folklorists Amy Skillman and Lisa Overholser
Enikö Farkas and Vera Nakonechny study Vera’s notebook of embroidery patterns, with folklorists Amy Skillman and Lisa Overholser. Photo by Sally van de Water. Courtesy of Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

As with every Artist Outreach Project, part of the exchange was designed to be open to a public audience. The public aspect of the outreach program was an exhibition of textiles and a reception on the second day of the exchange. Held at the History Center of Tompkins County, the two embroidery artists mounted an exhibition of their work and developed a participatory aspect to the exhibition by offering hands-on opportunities to try one’s skill at a particular embroidery stitch or to try Ukrainian weaving on Vera’s eight-harness loom. Outreach to the public was made by the History Center of Tompkins County through press releases to local media, and Enikö invited her colleagues within the embroidery community, as well as her embroidery students enrolled in her class at the local community center. Attendance for the afternoon workshops numbered at least 40 persons. This public program provided an opportunity for interested individuals to learn techniques of embroidery and weaving from the artists, and several individuals took the opportunity to do so.

Through a special initiative by the New York Folklore Society, a group of weavers from the Karen community in Utica had been invited to participate in the exchange. This group of weavers from Myanmar (formerly Burma) is sponsored by the Mohawk Valley Center for Refugees’ micro-enterprise program and is working to develop a weaving cooperative in Utica. Attending the workshop were Master weaver Ah Mu, her daughter Ta Be Than, and two other weavers, Wah Mu and Paeray Htoo. Upon their arrival, they set up a traditional back-strap loom which is worked in a seated position, and both demonstrated and offered the opportunity to others to try their traditional weaving. The Utica-based weavers also brought samples of their work which they added to the exhibition of textiles.

Sharing textiles. Vera Nakonechny and Eniko Farkas
Sharing textiles. Vera Nakonechny and Enikö Farkas. Photo by Sally van de Water. Courtesy of Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

As the afternoon progressed, the numerous needle artists and the general public had many opportunities to interact on several levels: for example, Vera demonstrated weaving techniques on her eight-harness loom and worked with the Karen weavers to show them techniques of working on this type of loom; a young woman tried on clothing designed by the Karen women and modeled them for her friends; and Eniko conducted an embroidery lesson with a half dozen participants of all ages. The atmosphere was congenial and celebratory as friends, family, and colleagues stayed for an extended period of time.


Benefit to All Partners

This outreach project was successful on several levels. Vera Nakonechny and Enikö Farkas, two senior master artists were able to connect and share like experiences. The two women soon also found commonalities within their personal experiences, exploring these experiences informally over several shared meals during the two-day exchange. These two accomplished needle artists have taken their passion to a higher level to become collectors of historic textiles and techniques. Both have returned to their countries of birth to seek out patterns, clothing variations, and textile techniques. That they were able to connect on the level of both artist and collector was an important aspect to this exchange.

The Karen weavers benefited through finding common ground with other textile artists and especially with Vera and Enikö, who had also experienced refugee status. As newly arrived residents of Utica, they were pleased to learn of American interest in their Karen cultural traditions, and Vera and Enikö clearly expressed to them the importance of preserving and maintaining traditional arts and culture even when faced with the difficult task of adjusting to life in America. As spokesperson for the group, Paul Kawam expressed that the four Karen weavers were thrilled to participate and experienced renewed purpose towards their own micro-enterprise endeavor. The Karen sold several of their woven items during the public presentation portion of the exchange, providing an opportunity for them to see that their weaving might be attractive to an American market.

Group photo from the Embroiderers’ Exchange. Pictured here are Ta Be Than, Eniko Farkas, Paeray Htoo, Micro-Enterprise Coordinator Paul Kawam, Ah Mu, Vera Nakonechny, and Wah Mu.
Group photo from the Embroiderers’ Exchange. Pictured here are Ta Be Than, Enikö Farkas, Paeray Htoo, Micro-Enterprise Coordinator Paul Kawam, Ah Mu, Vera Nakonechny, and Wah Mu. Photo by Sally van de Water. Courtesy of Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

The New York Folklore Society learned of strategies and programming directions and about other statewide programs. NYFS has been planning for increased work with refugee populations, and this exchange provided both models for future programs and an opportunity to reach out to the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees. In the final session, folklorist Amy Skillman’s description of her work on statewide exhibitions in Pennsylvania provided an important model for similar work in New York. Based on their experiences at the gathering, all of the artists were able to engage in planning for future collaborations of a regional or statewide nature.

This exchange reinforced the knowledge of the importance of artist-to-artist mentoring as a professional development opportunity. During this outreach program, the power of the shared artistic experience became perceptible and transformative.


 









Ellen McHale is the executive director of the New York Folklore Society.

Lisa Overholser is the New York Folklore Society’s staff folklorist.



This Folk Arts Outreach Program exchange arranged by the New York Folklore Society was between two master embroiderers from the Mid-Atlantic Region who were both born in Eastern Europe. It was designed to encourage conversations about embroidery skills and styles from two countries, to share experiences and techniques for preserving embroidery traditions, and to explore outreach possibilities for a next generation of artists.




This article appeared in Voices Vol. 37, Fall-Winter 2011. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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