Art Works Blog

Heritage By the Numbers 2015

Did you know that since 1982 we have awarded NEA National Heritage Fellowships in approximately 214 artistic traditions? Among them, this year’s class of 11 fellows represent diverse art forms within the fiber arts, music, dance, ceramics, and circus arts. Here are 10 fun facts you might not know from more than three decades of honoring master artists in the folk and traditional arts.

1. Heritage Fellows have the blues—10 different types! We’ve honored musicians who have played in the Chicago, Country, Delta, Louisiana, Piedmont, Texas, St. Louis, Swamp, Urban, and West Coast styles. 2015 honoree Drink Small is known for a style that encompasses not only the Piedmont blues tradition but also includes notes of gospel, rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie, and Delta and Chicago blues.

2. If there’s one thing we know for sure after years of Heritage Fellowships Concert it’s that Heritage Fellows love to dance! To date, we have honored 20 ethnic and cultural dance traditions, including Bharatanatyam, Capoeira, Tap Dancing, and Carolinian Stick Dancing, just to name a few. This year we’re honoring Gertrude Yukie Tsutsumi for her mastery of the centuries-old art of nihon buyo, or Japanese classical dance. Want to learn more about nihon buyo? Visit the blog next week for a primer. 

3. While the enormous talent and dedication required to become a master artist make them a rare breed, as a Cambodian master ceramicist Yary Livan is truly one-of-a kind. He’s one of perhaps three such ceramicists to have survived the Khmer Rouge genocide of the mid-1970s, and the only elder of that tradition to live in the U.S. where he is helping to resurrect the tradition through teaching as well as his own art practice. Visit our Pinterest page to see some of his work.

4. Many folk art forms are associated with religious traditions, such as the unique singing style of 2014 honoree the Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware. We’ve honored approximately 16 of these forms, including Ethiopian religious music performance and composition, Gospel music, Old Regular Baptist singing, Santos carving, Shape note singing, Yoruba Orisha music, and many more.

5. We not only honor musicmakers, like Michael Alpert, a master Yiddish musician and tradition bearer, and Rahim AlHaj, a master oud player and composer, but we also honor the artists who craft the instruments. Perhaps not every Heritage Fellow has built a guitar for Eric Clapton—we’re looking at you Wayne Henderson—but each maker we’ve honored to date has excelled in one of nine traditions, including Apache fiddlemaking, Hammered dulcimer making, and Trinidadian steel drum making.

6. Since 2000, the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship has been awarded to individuals who have “made a significant contribution to the preservation and awareness of cultural heritage.” More than half of these honorees have also been folk and traditional artists themselves, including 2015 honoree Daniel Sheehy who is a founding member of the musical ensemble Mariachi Los Amigos, Washington, DC’s longest existing mariachi ensemble.

7. We have honored nearly 30 distinct traditions in the fiber arts, including Chilkat blanket weaving, Armenian embroidery, Puerto Rican mundillo, and Hawaiian quilting. This year we’re honoring a fiber artist adept at two traditions. Sidonka Wadina is both a Slovak Straw artist and egg decorator, two art forms she learned from her grandmother. Visit our Pinterest page to see more of her work. We’re also honoring a trio of master quilters in the African-American tradition—Mary Lee Bendolph, Lucy Mingo, and Loretta Pettway—who are among the inimitable and world-famous quilters of Gee’s Bend. You can check out some examples of Gee’s Bend quilts on Pinterest.

8. Given the wide number of Native American tribes across the Americas, it’s not surprising that we’ve honored more than 40 distinct tribal artforms across a broad spectrum of disciplines—from basketmaking to weaving to regalia making to storytelling.

9. The circus arts may be new to the list of art forms we’ve honored with a National Heritage Fellowship, but did you know that the art form is roughly 247 years old? It’s even older than the United States itself! One thing’s stayed the same, however--the sense of wonder that circus performers like 2015 National Heritage Fellow and master aerialist Dolly Jacobs evoke when they take to the air.

10. Many of the traditional art forms practiced by NEA National Heritage Fellows originated around the globe. At a very rough (and unscientific) guess, at least 41 countries are represented when looking at the roots of each distinct form. Still the list of more than 200 traditions reveals how much we all actually have in common—from the desire to make music or dance to the desire for practical objects, such as baskets, quilts, and pottery that are also beautiful, to the desire to make ourselves beautiful through regalia or clothing decorated with embroidery or quillwork or lace. And we all have a need to tell and listen to stories, whether they’re told in the African-American, Appalachian, Scottish-American, Lummi, or Cowboy styles. In other words, when we honor the National Heritage Fellows each year, we’re celebrating their mastery of their various art forms, but we’re also thanking them for reminding us we’re more alike than different.

We hope you'll join us on October 2 for the free 2015 National Heritage Fellowships Concert celebration at 8:00 pm ET in Washington, DC at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium or online at  

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