December 5, 2023

Jo Mai Asian Culture

Embrace Artistry Here

Crafters share cultural practices, heritage at Lowell Folk Festival

5 min read

LOWELL — Taking time to create something by hand, as one’s ancestors did generations before, breathes life into an object and preserves a tradition.

With the intention of “carrying traditional knowledge forward,” eight groups of apprenticeships featured their artwork at this year’s Folk Craft Area at the Lowell Folk Festival. All featured artists were recipients of a two-year Massachusetts Cultural Council grant, which allows them to pass on pieces of their heritage.

Through the apprenticeships — and sharing their craft with festivalgoers — the artisans showcased their artistic passions and cultural specialties at Lucy Larcom Park.

Growing up in the Santiago, Dominican Republic, Stelvyn Mirabal fostered a love for Carnival, a celebration characterized by colorful costumes, animalistic masks and spirited dances. But his grandparents disapproved, as the custom was believed to be demonic. Nevertheless, Mirabal continued to perform, starting as young as 10.

His son, Leonardo, now carries on that legacy, and the father-son duo perform together with Stelvyn’s nonprofit, Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts, based in Lawrence. Their mission? “Exemplify Dominican culture throughout all of Massachusetts,” Leonardo Mirabal said.

“Although I don’t live in the Dominican Republic, although I wasn’t born there, it is my culture,” he said. “It is where I come from and where my family originates from, so to be able to learn and to be able to experience all of the culture behind it makes me really see my own family differently.”

Creating the mask — or “lechones,” meaning “piglets” — starts with a cement mold and is wrapped with paper about 20 times to ensure it’s durable. The masks also typically feature curved horns, which are similarly made by layering different types of paper until you obtain a solid thickness. The horns are then secured with glue to the mask and papier-machéd. Often, spikes for the tops of the horns are created separately.

The entire process, from the mask to the ornamented suit, can take around a year, Leonardo Mirabal said, but “it’s worth it in the end.”

Learning the practice and joy behind Carnival won’t end with Leonardo — he said they intend to find a facility to support teaching local kids their traditions. And if the festival crowd is any indication of interest, the classes would be a hit, as many gathered to watch Leonardo crack a whip, or “fuete.”

“This is something that we hope to show off and inspire the next generation,” he said. “Our hope is to make this a community-based organization that we can have the kids over … designing masks of their own, designing suits of their own, really having the artistic freedom that they want and being able to tap into the culture of the Dominican Republic.”

While most tourists at the festival weaved through crowded streets in search of a food truck or shady seat, Vincent Crotty was likely looking up at the many business signs along Merrimack Street.

Crotty, a native of Ireland now based in Dorchester, hand-paints old-fashioned, traditional signs in the Celtic design, a common sight in his homeland but much less so in the United States. It’s a practice involving gilding, freehand lettering and painting to capture the spirit and character of a place.

Alongside his apprentice, Lori Greene, Crotty displayed several of their works, many of which incorporated Gaelic symbols, such as the spiral Triskelion, and Gaelic phrases: “ceol na hEireann,” meaning “music of Ireland,” and “Cruinniú na mBád,” meaning “gathering of boats” and also the name of a boating festival in Galway.

Crotty picked up the craft while living in Cork, Ireland, before moving to Boston in the early 1990s. On American shores, having spent decades creating individualized signs, Crotty said there is truly a difference between a vinyl sign and a hand-painted one.

“It’s got a soul, whereas a plastic sign, not so much,” Crotty said on Sunday. “You can really play with color, and it can really help a business.”

To pass on his artistry to Greene, whose parents immigrated from Ireland, with the support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council grant, is “incredible,” he added.

As people passed by her booth, Elizabeth James-Perry shaped and sanded shell beads from the quahog shell, a clam native to local Atlantic ocean waters. It’s a traditional native art that dates back centuries, James-Perry said, and she uses those old techniques to create purple jewelry that connects with her Aquinnah Wampanoag roots.

Within tribal communities in southern Massachusetts, particularly in Mashpee and Martha’s Vineyard, James-Perry recalls watching artists work with the beads, or wampum, occasionally, but the practice has actually grown in popularity since.

To create her bracelets, necklaces, earrings and other pieces, James-Perry spends several hours shaping each individual bead, meaning the pieces containing more than 200 beads are much more time-consuming. Following in the native tradition, she thins and softens fibers of deer tendons to use as the string holding the beads in place.

“Tendons were saved in the course of hunting, you didn’t really waste,” James-Perry said. “And so the shell work really comes out of being from coastal communities that harvest a ton of shellfish for sustenance, and then you’re not wasting a beautiful shell, you’re also finding ways to use that too. Likewise, with deer skin and antler and sinew, you’re using other parts of the animals you’re never harvesting something for one use and then throwing things away.”

Preserving that process, however, has been made more difficult because of pollution — what once were healthy forests and clean waters are now polluted, which James-Perry said makes harvesting raw materials, like clams, a challenge.

But she sees hope in her apprentice, Erin Genia of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, and even her young nephew, who is intrigued by her bead drilling.

“Massachusetts Cultural Council has been great for supporting people’s ability to teach and collaborate, because otherwise it’s quite hard nowadays,” James-Perry said. “There’s so many competing interests, materials are expensive, they’re not always accessible … That changes the ability of sharing culture.”


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