Al Head

2012 Bess Lomax Hawes Award Recipient
Al Head
Photo by David Robertson, Jr.

Al Head: When I first got to know Bess, and she taught me a lot, I sat and listened to her on many occasions, but she would emphasize that the folk and traditional arts are not static, they are always evolving and there is a contemporary side to traditional expression but it evolves over time and it needs to continue to evolve and be relevant and speak to young people and speak to individuals of different backgrounds. And so this business of, I mean, we preserve that which has been around a long time but we also nurture it in a way where it can continue to grow and be relevant and be part of an active community experience. And that coming together in a community is so important. We, in our culture, have done a lot of things to separate people into different parts of neighborhoods or a community or whatever. But you need activities, programs and places where people come together and celebrate a sense of community. And the arts do that well. The folk arts do that especially well.

Jo Reed: That's Al Head, the Executive Director of the Alabama State council on the Arts and the recipient of the 2012 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship Award.

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how Art Works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.

As you just heard, it would be difficult to find a more eloquent advocate for folk and traditional arts than Al Head. For forty years, Al has been pivotal in ensuring that folk art would be recognized and honored by state and national arts agencies.  As states arts director in first Florida, then Louisiana and for the past 28 years, Alabama, Al has the unique distinction of creating folk arts programs in each of these three states. Throughout the years, He served on many Folk and traditional arts panels here at the NEA and nominated artists who have gone on to be awarded a National Heritage Fellowship Awards, like Clifton Chenier and the a cappella gospel group the Birmingham Sunlights. Al Head has spent his career demonstrating  and celebrating the importance of folk and traditional arts to the social and economic fabrics of communities, working tirelessly to expand state funding for these art forms, and developing innovative programs that allow the arts grow and reach diverse audiences.

Little wonder then that Al Head would be chosen to receive the 2012 Bess Lomax Hawes Award which recognizes an individual who has made a significant contribution to the preservation and awareness of cultural heritage. I spoke with Al soon after the award was announced. I wanted to know how he first became interested in folk and traditional art.

Al Head: When I was in Florida and I started off in Tallahassee in 1972. And this was in the Panhandle part of the state, and there were rich folk traditions in that area. My hometown, where I grew up and call home, is Troy, Alabama in the Wiregrass part of Alabama. And folk culture was something that was very prevalent there, something I experienced as a young boy. And I just thought it was magical. But when I was in a position professionally to start looking at areas of support, that was something that seemed very obvious and there were artist and folk traditions that were all around us. And, for the most part back in the early ‘70s, in establishing government support for the arts, we were looking at large museums and symphony orchestras and dance companies. And the folk arts were something that were seen as nice, but that's not something that really is a big part of our funding policy.

Jo Reed:  Luckily right now I think we're at a point where we just accept the centrality of folk and traditional arts in American culture, but Bess and you were pioneers in really making that happen.

Al Head:  I think that programming and supporting the folk and traditional arts as a matter of public policy was something that had not been established, certainly not at the state level. But if you're dealing with the arts and culture of a state, I've often said on many occasions that the folk and traditional arts reflect the personality, the soul, the, really, the integrity of the culture of a state better than anything else. And to not have that be a big part of your policy, your program, your goals, your mission, in terms of what you do, is a huge oversight. But that involved a lot of communication with public officials and people who were involved at the time. And, for the most part, it was advocating something that people realized was important but many times overlooked.

Jo Reed:  And I'm curious about how you moved into the arts. You were a star quarterback on a national championship college team.

Al Head:  <laughs> Well, I was a quarterback at what was Troy State University at the time. And I was one of those that really did not know what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do. And football had been a big part of my life in high school and then got a scholarship to play in college. But in terms of studying, having a major, I started off in marine biology and went to business administration and psychology. But all of that time, I was taking courses in art history and aesthetics because I was interested in it and I loved it and it was something that I had maybe a passion for at that time. By the time I was a senior and was looking at graduating, I realized that art history was what was really kind of ringing my bell at that point. And I know that, from a standpoint of playing football, guys on the team would kind of look sideways at me saying, "What is it you're doing here?"

Jo Reed:  <laughs>

Al Head:  <laughs> But it was something that, again, I enjoyed and have ever since.

Jo Reed:  I read, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but an early NEA program called Project Impact actually did have an impact on you.

Al Head:  The year after I graduated from Troy State, I taught at the high school and I was also a coach, an assistant coach, in Pike County. Pike County was designated as-- a term then was culturally deprived. And the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Office of Education had a national program. And Pike County was one of five counties nationally that was part of this Project Impact. And at that time, there was a real infusion of artist and artist residence programs and performing arts, visual arts. And when I was teaching at the high school, I was exposed to a number of these artists that would come into my classroom, come into the school. And they were doing work with students, and it was really phenomenal opportunities. But at that time, this was 1971, '72, just having graduated from college, I mean, I had never heard of the National Endowment for the Arts. And then I started to realize that there were some really important, significant, exciting programs going on and that there was this federal agency that was really initiating this in a rural area of Alabama. And so I started connecting the dots and realizing that there was a much larger world of support out there for these kind of activities than I had realized. But that exposed me to a lot of artists, to a lot of programming, a lot of interest at the federal level in the rural areas, in this case, of Alabama.

Jo Reed: I'm going to blow your horn since I don't think you're about to, you are the person who created three different state arts programs, in Florida, the Florida Folklife Program, in Louisiana, the Louisiana Folk Arts Program and then, in Alabama, the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture. So, first of all, congratulations and we all thank you for that.

Al Head:  Well, thank you. It was the thing-- it needed to be done. And it was a pleasure for me to be part of opening that door to allow a lot of really top-notch professionals start doing some great work.

Jo Reed:  Here's a question I have for you, Al. And that is one thing that strikes me about folk and traditional art is that even though it certainly speaks with a universal language it's very specific I think to a locality and I'm wondering how the different emphases in the arts between Florida, Louisiana and Alabama...

Al Head:  Well, I think that, there are some things that are shared and in common. And then there are some things that are very indigenous to a state, to a region, in some cases, to a community. And there is Southern culture that we talk about a lot like it is one thing, but obviously it is not. I mean, there are many cultures in the South. And Southern culture is about as diverse as any location that you would ever want to find, but there is commonality. But going to somewhere like Louisiana and experiencing the Cajun culture, the Acadian culture there, I mean, you realize that is something that is very unique to Louisiana. You come to a place like Alabama and you realize that, the roots of African-American gospel music in and around the Birmingham area, that that's very indigenous to Alabama in that part of the state. So you want to make people aware of that, appreciate that and celebrate that. And, in most all cases, you don't have large institutions, arts institutions, that are programming in these areas. In the folk arts, these are things that happen in the community. They happen in the church. They happen in a variety of different venues but don't have this, again, tradition of being part of that nonprofit sector that we use to fund the arts. I mean, traditionally that's where our grants have gone. And in the folk arts, that was a little more complicated and a little bit more difficult.

Jo Reed: You've been at the head of the state arts council at Alabama for over 25 years. What is it, 28 now?

Al Head:  Twenty-seven and a half, yeah, something like that.

Jo Reed:  Twenty-seven and a half?

Al Head:  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  Let's talk about the changes that you've seen in both the public's response and the government's response to the arts and the arts' place in the community over that time.

Al Head:  Well, let me say, when I came to Alabama, in 1985, from Louisiana, there had been good work that had been going on here for quite some time. But in terms of the size and scope of the commitment, it was not as large as it could be and should be. And when I came, after having been in Louisiana for eight years, I was of the feeling that, this, the folk arts, that's one of the richest cultural resources that the state has and that we need to support that more, celebrate that more, make people more appreciative. And we developed a structure. We developed an organizational structure for maximizing what we could do in this area. And we started off with actually a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which was pretty unique, to start a folklife center in a state, for the endowment to be providing a challenge grant for that. And I had been on NEA folklife panels for a number of years, and I was aware of the kind of applications that came in in general. But I put together this challenge grant, and it was funded and really was the springboard for us starting the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, which is a more program-oriented entity than the state council is normally. We're primarily administering a grants program and have a number of special projects. But the center engaged in fieldwork, in programs, radio programs and we had folklife festivals for a number of years. And so that was just part of moving this kind of cultural expression front and center within the state where it very much deserved to be.

Jo Reed:  Well, Al, you've also been very eloquent about one shift that you've seen, over your time in Alabama, is that the arts are now not just seen as a lovely addition to add on, like the decorations on a cake, when times are good and there's money, but it really is rather something essential and it really has a tremendous social and economic impact on the community.

Al Head:  Well, the arts in general and the folk arts in particular, as I said earlier, represent the heart and soul of a state. And, as you are trying to promote a state and promote the quality of life within a state, how do you do that?  And you can do that very, very well and very effectively through the arts. And, more and more people, as far as corporations and CEOs and executives deciding where they're going to move a company or make an investment, they have choices about where they want to live, where they want to bring their families, where they want their children to grow up. And quality of life is increasingly important. And when we can put what I think is our best foot forward regarding the work of artist and arts organizations, we're constantly pleasantly surprised by people that visit Alabama. They come in and they said, "We had no idea that all of this was here. We had no idea about what a rich cultural landscape Alabama is."  And the folk arts are a very big part of that, but also in Alabama we've got a wide range of contemporary art and artist. And great work is taking place.  Got fine museums, fine symphony orchestras. And it's all part of a package. And as a matter of public policy and as a matter of planning a strategy within a state on how you move a state forward, we very much need to have officials, public officials and others, that are aware of the arts and see this as a tool, as another part of how you attract interest and how you get people excited about coming to a state.

Jo Reed:  And I would think that folk and traditional arts really is a centerpiece in that, because it is so reflective of the state itself.

Al Head:  Well, it is. And it's hard to find someone who does not have a family connection, a community connection, a personal connection with somebody back home where, when they were growing up, they experienced a musician or a woodcarver or a potter or a storyteller. And it goes back to, again, the roots of who we are and where we come from. And in this day and time of high technology, when we're in front of monitors and we're using all of these different sophisticated means of communication, the term has been used before about high tech but then the need for high touch and the arts and particularly the folk arts provide us with that high-touch experience, where we're going back to something real and going back to something authentic and something that we know where we've come from and we value these things in a variety of ways. And maybe you don't realize it when you're 16 years old or 25 years old. But the older you get and the more you kind of appreciate your culture, you realize these things have to be saved and preserved and celebrated and that's what the folk arts are all about. And I say celebrated. Celebrating diversity as opposed to being confused and intimidated by diversity. The folk arts are the best way in the world to celebrate diversity of people, diversity of cultural expression. And so we enjoy being able to do that.

Jo Reed:  Well, I'd like to actually just have you discuss briefly, if you don't mind, something, a program, that you shepherded in Louisiana. That was documenting the Vietnamese resettlement there, which seemed to me to be a perfect expression of what can happen or how folk art can work. Because here are new people coming to our shores and the traditions that they'll bring that now, how long ago was that, 30 years down the road, become a part of their own folk and traditional art and part of the bigger picture of Louisiana.

Al Head:  Well, that was a new population. It was a growing population. And I really have to give a lot of credit to Nick Spitzer who I hired in Louisiana in the fall of '77, and Nick had so much sensitivity toward this new population and realized that there were cultural expressions there that were important but very foreign to the state of Louisiana at that time. But to provide an outlet, to provide an avenue and a vehicle for these new immigrants, to maintain and celebrate a big part of their culture was a huge part of the infusion of that population in the state. And people tend to know what they like and like what they know. And, something that...

Jo Reed:  <laughs>

Al Head: foreign to them, they tend to be a little alienated or confused or, some cases, intimidated by it. But the more you get to know something, the more you appreciate it and the more you want to be a part of it. And that was the case with the Vietnamese population in Louisiana. The more you got to know about it, the more you enjoyed it, the more, I mean, that you realized how rich it was. We have a Cambodian fishing community down in the Bayou La Batre area of Alabama, and it's the same there. This is a source of great pride for these people. And for us to recognize that and give them opportunities to show this part of their culture off is an important thing for us to be able to do.

Jo Reed:  And you've also begun a cultural exchange program. Tell us about that.

Al Head:  Well, our cultural exchange program started a number of years ago. And it was primarily and initially centered around the resource of marble, in Alabama, in Sylacauga. And the marble industry has evolved to the point where most of the marble, 90 percent of it, is being ground up and used, for filler, for toothpaste and paint and cosmetics. And in Sylacauga, there was only one quarry that was bringing out chunks and blocks of marble that could be used for sculpting. So we were trying to rejuvenate and refocus interest on this fine marble that is from Alabama. To make a really long story short, we started visiting, in Italy, Pietrasanta in particular. And we were wanting to bring some Italian sculptors, master sculptors, and artists to Alabama to work with the Sylacauga marble and to engage in demonstrations and rejuvenate some interest and bring in sculptors from different parts of Alabama and really around the country to work with the sculptors. And the tradition of marble sculpting in Italy is-- I don't have to say a whole lot about that. But the excitement that that has stimulated in Sylacauga-- they now have a Sylacauga Marble Festival. And the tradition of marble sculpting goes way back there, but it had all been forgotten. And so that was a big part of the emphasis and focus for the cultural exchange. And it spread into other areas, including music and literature. And, I mean, we took our African-American a cappella gospel group, the Birmingham Sunlights, who were recipients of the Heritage award several years ago, to perform over in Pietrasanta, Italy. And they performed on the piazza there and started off with a crowd of a couple of hundred. And within 10 or 15 minutes, there were 2,000 people there. They couldn't believe what they were hearing...

Music up and hot... the Birmingham Sunlights see that sort of cultural bridge of how this Italian population was responding to the Birmingham Sunlights was really pretty amazing and quite a thrill actually.

Jo Reed: This kind of dovetails into the Alabama Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program, doesn't it?  That began 22 years ago?

Al Head:  Well, that's been going on for a long time, yeah, 22-plus years. And this is a program that the endowment has been funding for a number of years. And then we have, over time, continued to put more and more state money into that program. But, to provide support for master artists to teach their craft or their tradition or their expression to a younger generation, that's very, very important. And Bess Hawes was very emphatic about the importance of teaching the younger folks these traditions and making sure that they, again, could carry on. And you like what you know and you know what you like. And, in some communities, there's a tendency for the young folks to go in different directions and even to the point of some alienation there regarding different artistic expressions. But when, invariably, when you get them together with a master artist, there's an incredible amount of interest and respect and engagement there that happens through the apprenticeship program that I don't know where and how it happens anywhere else. We need to do more and more of that, and these model programs really help us to introduce important work to the younger generation but also to celebrate and recognize the work of these master artists whether it's in quilting or woodcarving or pottery or music, absolutely. And it's an incredibly successful program.

Jo Reed:  And here we are at the dawn of the 21st century, Al Head. Where do you think folk and traditional arts are right now at the cusp of a new century?

Al Head: Again, I go back to that high tech, high touch. I think that as we move forward with all of this technology, we still have this in our bones and in our genes where we don't want to lose touch with where we came from. We want the pride of our culture, of our ancestors to kind of live on. As we deal with government and public policy, we talk about the size of government and reducing the size of government and what are essential functions of government and to what extent do we support the arts and to what extent is this something that needs to expand or grow in a time of difficult economy. But when we're talking to legislators here in Alabama, you can throw out all kind of fancy facts and figures and impact studies and this, that and the other. But you let an artist speak and do what artists do, invariably that touches people in a way where they will say I get it. And they will be proud of that person. They're proud that they're from their community, from their state. And I've heard cowboy poets do it. I've heard Cajun musicians do it. I've heard a cappella gospel groups in Alabama do that. I mean, and no one argues with the fact that this is important. And, again, we dissect things in trying to determine what kind of funding is appropriate or those kind of things that make us a great state, a great community, a great country.  And when you have artists perform and do what artists do, it is the strongest statement that you can make about this is a big part of who we are as a country and what we need to be about. I can't help but think as humans we realize that this is the highest form of human expression and there's got to be a kind of avenue of support for keeping that alive and well.

Jo Reed:  Al Head, thank you so much and, again, many, many congratulations.

Al Head:  A real pleasure talking with you.

Jo Reed: That's Al Head, the Executive Director of the Alabama State council on the Arts and the recipient of the 2012 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship Award.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

The music composed and performed by Pat Donahue and Clint Hoover.

"It's Gonna Rain" sung by the 2009 National Heritage Fellows, The Birmingham Sunlights.

You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. 

Next week, a conversation with author Margot Livesey.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Arts Advocate Al Head discusses the profound impact of traditional arts on communities. [28:50]