Interview: FOLKfabulous Festival Brings Woodworkers, Other Folk Traditions to USC's Horseshoe

Saturday at the McKissick Museum

This Saturday, the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum will host its fourth FOLKfabulous Festival, an annual showcase of the roots-oriented artists and artisans that are the venerable art institution's raison d'être. This year's theme, A Compass to Guide: South Carolina Cabinet Makers Today, means that the green commons of the Horseshoe will be loaded down with woodworkers — Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award recipient Ike Carpenter, Mary May, Michael McDunn, Thomas Williams, and the Palmetto Woodturners, among others, will present their works and wares. There will also be an indoor narrative stage where members of the woodworking community can present their work and talk about their traditional processes. The festival's theme is complemented by one of the museum's current exhibits, also titled A Compass to Guide, which showcases the broad diversity of woodworking traditions still used by South Carolina furniture makers.

As usual, the festival will also feature some South Carolina folk music treasures, including recent National Heritage Fellow Drink Small, the extraordinary Palmetto State bluesman who is a fixture at the festival, and his fellow Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award recipient Freddie Vanderford and Mill Billy Blues, both of whom will likely play crowd-pleasing and family-friendly sets. Also on hand will be Wilson Banjo Co., the El Shaddai Ambassadors, Grupo Frenesi Digital, Ricky McDuffie & Family, and USC Woodwinds.

Free Times caught up with Amanda Belue, McKissick's communications manager, to discuss this year's festival.

What: FOLKfabulous Festival

Where: McKissick Museum, 816 Bull St.

When: Saturday, Sept. 24, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Price: Free



Parking is available at the garage at the corner of Pendleton and Bull.

Give me a general overview of the festival. How did it start? How has it evolved over time?

FOLKFabulous is in its fourth year here at McKissick. Beginning in 2013, the festival has been a large part of the public programming efforts for the museum’s Diverse Voices exhibition series. This Diverse Voices series explores deeply rooted traditions that help create and maintain the cultural landscape of South Carolina and the surrounding region. Themes have included traditional arts, Native American influences, music, and the current theme of South Carolina woodworking traditions.

Tell me a little bit about this year's theme. How did you select it? How do they fit into our state's folk traditions?

A Compass to Guide: South Carolina Cabinet Makers Today was curated by McKissick’s chief curator of folklife and fieldwork, Saddler Taylor, who curates an annual folklife exhibition in our Diverse Voices Gallery. This is an exhibition that Saddler has wanted to do for a long time. In preparation for the show, he traveled all over the state, visiting cabinet makers in their workshops and interviewing them. He was amazed to discover the number and diversity of cabinet makers out there! All of the artists featured in the exhibit do this work full-time. The exhibit features 24 artists from around the state. Some have been at this work for 40 or more years, while others are newer to the field. Some have studied particular styles or time periods and do work that is influenced accordingly, or even reproductions. Others do very contemporary work. Many work on commission, collaborating with architects, private clients, and businesses. They all have a passion for the materials and techniques — some using period hand tools, others using electrical tools. In addition to pieces by these living artists, we also have several pieces by the late Archie Hunter of Florence, whose family is well known especially for their chairs. And we have a Governor’s Chair in the exhibition.

The diversity of styles and influences highlights the dynamic nature of folk art, how it varies in the hands of individual artists, even while having a connection to longstanding traditions. Cabinet making is a venerable South Carolina tradition that has been an important part of life from the state’s earliest days, when artisans were providing furniture for residents. Huguenot woodworkers in Charleston were among the state’s earliest furniture makers. Over time, other cultural and stylistic influences have come and gone. Today, when so much of our furniture is made from particleboard and factory-made, it is exciting to see so many passionate cabinet makers at work in South Carolina today. It is an art form that is flourishing in the hands of contemporary folk artists.

I noticed there's an emphasis on "today" in the theme title. How do you combat the notion that folk traditions are something that existed in the past rather than the present?

We do try to push back at that idea, that folk traditions are always of the past. While they have deep roots in our cultural heritage or other markers of our identity (occupational, spiritual, geographic, family, among others), they only survive as they remain relevant to our lives today. So in our programming, we present living traditions, traditions that people can understand as part of their day-to-day lives. Ultimately, we hope that people realize how much a part of their lives folklife and traditional arts are. We present exhibitions and public programs that invite people to explore this idea — a mirror in which people might see themselves and others, from multiple perspectives.

We also feel that folk and traditional arts can be a barometer of contemporary issues, as artists respond to what is going on around them. So change and innovation are woven in among the threads of continuity as traditions move through the hands of new generations.

You're bringing Drink Small back again this year, and he's earned a lot of notoriety and distinctions over the last few years. What makes him such a great performer for FOLKFabulous?

We do feel that we have a special and longstanding friendship with Drink Small, who is both a Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award recipient, and more recently a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Heritage Fellowship — the highest honor awarded to a folk artist in the United States. Over the years, he has been involved in many of our programs, both with McKissick and the South Carolina Arts Commission, our community partner in our Folklife & Traditional Arts Program. Drink’s deep roots in South Carolina, and his long career, evolving over time, embody this message of folk art reflecting both our heritage and the times in which we live. Drink’s “Drinkisms,” as he describes them, or “the way Drink thinks,” are chunks of wisdom he shares, such as “It’s never too late to do right. But it’s always too soon to do wrong.” His music and lyrics, which he continues to compose, keep up with the times. We are honored to present Drink again this year.

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