Artists pass down folk art to apprentices
An older Black storyteller stands before an audience, gesturing as she recounts an African parable. Every few minutes, she pauses so her companion, a 15-year-old girl, can speak.
The girl continues the story, stretching her arms wide and widening her eyes during dramatic moments. At the end of the tale, the teenager, Naomi Reid, delivers the kicker: “A man is not really dead until he is forgotten,” she says, as her fellow storyteller, Janice Curtis Greene, 75, smiles.
Greene and Reid are among hundreds of intergenerational teams that have been awarded grants by the Maryland State Arts Council’s (MSAC) Folklife Apprenticeship program.
Every August, the program awards $5,000 grants to 15 artist pairs: a master artist and an apprentice. The state announced the 2023-24 grants on Aug. 9.
The 20-year-old program is designed to preserve folklife traditions “by specifically supporting one master artist to work with one apprentice artist for up to one year,” explained MSAC Folklife Specialist Ryan Koons. It supports “community based, living cultural tradition handed down by example or word of mouth.”
Here’s how it works: The state gives $5,000 to a master artist, usually an older adult, to work one-on-one with an up-and-coming artist for one full year.
Although there’s no hourly time commitment, grantees are required to report how they spent the money. Sometimes the state sends a photographer or videographer, paid by the state, to record a team at work.
The Black storytelling tradition
Greene and Reid were awarded a grant in 2021. Greene, a Windsor Mill resident, is also the state Griot (pronounced gree’-oh, a West African word for traveling oral historian).
The two met in a program called the Growing Griot Literacy Learning Program of Baltimore, which teaches young people the oral African tradition of storytelling.
Reid, who is homeschooled, wanted to take part in the Folklife Apprenticeship program to continue working with Greene.
“She is a professional storyteller,” Reid said of Greene, “and she helped me improve my skills in the tradition of African Black storytelling.”
Reid plans to use her skills in a future career as an elementary school teacher. “Storytelling is definitely something that helps younger people learn things,” she noted.
Greene was thrilled to share her 40-plus years of storytelling experience with Reid, who, she said, “was born to be a storyteller.” During their year together, Greene taught her apprentice to project her voice, smile and gesture while she talks, and mime the actions of the characters in the story.
“That’s what the apprenticeship is all about — passing on what I do to somebody younger,” Greene said. “So that when I’m too old to perform…the skill and the performance will never die.”
Keeping Bulgarian music alive
Preserving Bulgarian folk music is what led Towson University music professor Kalin Kirilov and his son Stanley, 14, to apply for a Folklife Apprenticeship grant.
The Bulgarian-born resident of Phoenix, Maryland, said the apprenticeship helped his American-born son learn more about Bulgarian folk music.
“We established a learning routine of two lessons per week, which significantly advanced Stanley’s performer skills,” Kirilov said. They were also able to buy new professional instruments.
Kirilov, 48, said the program “gave us the time to have this more in-depth, immersive experience in the apprenticeship, which I had myself when I was learning the tradition back in Bulgaria.”
Stanley, who is homeschooled, said the apprenticeship program has made him a better musician. It’s also given him a chance to perform Bulgarian music with his family.
“Dad will usually be playing the accordion; I’ll usually go for percussion. And my sister will usually sing,” said the young musician.
His father said that musicians who know how to play Bulgarian folk music are getting harder to find. “Everybody’s hope…is that more people of Stanley’s age will start learning the tradition.”
The art of Indian printmaking
American printmaking was the focus of master artist Trisha Gupta, a Burtonsville resident, and apprentice Daria Parsa, 24, of Laurel, Maryland.
Gupta first became interested in printmaking during a visit to her ancestral home in India. When she discovered that her parents’ family had operated a textile production company, she became intrigued about the traditional dyeing process — which, she said, “was very different from what it looks like now.”
Gupta, who took lessons from a master artist in New York, describes her artwork as “a type of American printmaking called viscosity printmaking.”
Gupta and Parsa met at the Sandy Spring Museum, which hosted a show of Gupta’s work. Parsa, who has a degree in studio art and art history, was the museum’s exhibition manager. She later became Gupta’s studio assistant for a few months.
Parsa had taken a few printmaking courses in college and wanted to learn more about the Indian tradition.
“I was always thinking about if I wanted to take more classes or just try to teach myself things. Or how I could get more involved with that form? So, this has been a great opportunity for that,” Parsa said.
Parsa found the apprenticeship a good way to hone new skills. “You’re getting one-on-one time [and] you have the funding, too — you can get any supplies you need,” Parsa said.
Gupta believes participating in the Arts Council program is a perfect way to pass down the arts.
“It’s bringing back the apprenticeship tradition, which is age-old,” Gupta said.
To learn more about the Maryland State Arts Council’s Folklife Apprenticeship program, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (410) 767-6555.
Correction: The print version of this article referred to Daria Parsa’s apprenticeship in Indian printmaking. In fact, the apprenticeship focused on American printmaking. We regret the error.