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The Work of a Public Sector Folklorist: Identifying, Documenting, and Promoting Missouri’s “Arts with a Genealogy”

A visit with Lisa Higgins, Director, Missouri Folk Arts Program

By Spencer Melgren
Published: - Topics: Missouri folklore art folk arts traditional art

When we muse about “the arts,” it is often the fine arts that come to mind: famous plays, distinguished sculptures, celebrated paintings, and other aesthetic creations. However, art does not end at museum walls or with the last page of a book—art in many forms is present in ordinary life. For Dr. Lisa Higgins, witnessing the presence of traditional art in Missourians’ lives was an “empowering” experience that, together with her already “pervasive interest” in stories and storytelling, led her to undertake graduate work in folk studies at the University of Missouri. During the early nineties, she interned with the Missouri Folk Arts Program—a joint program of the Missouri Arts Council and MU’s Museum of Art & Archaeology—and gained first-hand experience with public folk art programs working to recognize and support Missouri artists. Working for the Southern Arts Federation (now South Arts) during the late nineties further piqued her interest in public support for the arts, and, with this experience under her belt, she returned in 1999 to her “dream job” as director of the Missouri Folk Arts Program and completed her PhD in Folklore and Rhetoric in 2008.

Dr. Higgins identifies the distinguishing feature of folk and traditional arts as "arts with a genealogy.” They develop and are practiced in an oral tradition, are strongly tied to particular communities, and their lineages can be traced through a chain of artists and pupils. When working with folk artists, Dr. Higgins tells us, “an easy way to understand the legacy is to ask ‘when did you learn?’ and ‘who did you learn from?’” The answers to these questions, she notes, are most likely to be specific people in specific places; folk arts are deeply-rooted in their home communities. Fiddling—one of Missouri’s prominent folk art forms—flourishes in the social and dance traditions of places like Ava, Missouri where master fiddlers perform the energetic music that developed together with Ava-style jig and square dancing. Though folk traditions such as fiddling are often rooted in local history, Dr. Higgins points out that they also travel with individuals and groups. In addition to locally developed art forms, Missouri is also home to the artistic traditions of many communities from around the world that have relocated here.

The three primary goals of the Missouri Folk Arts Program are to identify, document, and present folk and traditional arts in Missouri. The program’s staff, including Folk Arts Specialist Deborah Bailey, graduate interns, and student workers, collaborate with Missouri artists and citizens to accomplish those primary goals: “If it weren’t for the folk, there would be no Missouri Folk Arts Program,” Dr. Higgins says. Missouri folk artists play a decisive role in guiding MFAP activities.

In addition to assisting groups and individuals applying for funding from the Missouri Arts Council, Dr. Higgins focuses on several main projects. The Missouri Folk Arts Program’s largest endeavor is the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. “It was clear to me as an intern, when I was a student and working for the Missouri Folk Arts Program, how key [TAAP] is,” Dr. Higgins remembers. “When I came back, I explicitly said, it’s the hub of our wheel.” The program, which began in 1985, provides an honorarium to master artists who engage an apprentice, passing along his or her expertise and craftsmanship through one-on-one teaching. The Missouri master-apprentice teams are documented by staff members and outside observers who record and photograph their work, and then the teams share their folk arts with audiences around the state in public performances. Under the program’s auspices each year some eight master-apprentice teams spend nine months working together. The diversity of cultures and artistic forms that the program has promoted is a point of pride. Master artists including African American storytellers, gig making blacksmiths, Mexican crochet artists, Kansas City style jazz performers, Iranian percussionists, Sudanese dancers, fiddlers, quilters, and many others have participated in the program, Dr. Higgins notes. Missouri is not the only state that has a Traditional Arts apprenticeship program, but, as it reaches its 30th anniversary, Missouri’s is one of the oldest and most well established. In addition, “Missouri is, I’d say, the most prolific when it comes to the arts apprenticeship program. We have funded more apprenticeship teams than any other state in the country,” Dr. Higgins tells us.

The Community Scholars Workshop, another MFAP initiative, is developing an “advisory network” of local community experts to help MFAP identify new artists. Working with Community Scholars, the Missouri Folk Arts Program is expanding its scope of activities, while remaining located in mid-Missouri. The workshops allow community scholars to document and share local culture. MFAP trains participants in digital recording, archiving, editing, project development, and public presentation. Artists and scholars who complete the program can continue to be involved. Future workshops will seek out new Missouri folk arts venues.

The Missouri Folk Arts Program also promotes the folk arts in schools. Dr. Higgins’ mission is to help children understand that they have “known the arts all their lives,” and that art is not something seen solely in museums. MFAP’s “Tuesdays at the Capital” in Jefferson City invites young Missourians to meet master folk artists and learn about their crafts and traditions. MFAP’s award-winning “Show-Me Traditions” guide, written by folklorist Susan Eleuterio with folk artist collaborators, helps teachers to incorporate folk arts into the classroom. Dr. Higgins and Susan Eleuterio wrote a chapter in the book Through the Schoolhouse Door: Folklore, Community, Curriculum that describes a Colombian dancer’s activities in a rural Missouri school. Both the guide and the book were recognized with the Dorothy Howard Folklore and Education Award at the American Folklore Society.

Dr. Higgins’ work with folk arts helps us to appreciate Missouri’s rich cultural heritage. "Arts with a genealogy” are all around us, from the Ava square dances to A.J. Alejandro’s graffiti mural memorializing the Joplin tornado of 2011. As these examples illustrate, art surrounds us every day, woven into our histories, identities, and communities.