Vol. V, No. 2, Fall 1991


Missouri's Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program and Its Incorporation of Ozarks Craftspeople

By Dana Everts-Boehm



Dana Everts-Boehm is Folk-life Specialist and coordinates the apprenticeship program at the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center.

In 1984 the Missouri Arts Council and the University of Missouri Cultural Heritage Center, with matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts (Folk Arts Program), developed the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. The program is designed to honor traditional artists and help perpetuate the traditional arts in our state by encouraging master artists to pass on their skills to committed apprentices. Through the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, many authentic folk arts that once flourished but have begun to disappear are being enjoyed and practiced by a new generation.

Missouri's Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program is one of the oldest and largest of its kind in the nation. Today our program is regarded as a model by many states. Folklorists from Illinois, Delaware, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and other states have called, written or visited to learn how to initiate or expand an apprenticeship program in their state.

Applications are sent to potential applicants every spring. A panel of experts from around the state reviews the applications in September and selects fifteen from a pool of fifty or sixty. Staff from the Cultural Heritage Center visit the selected teams during their lessons in order to observe the teaching and document their progress. Participants in the program are often asked to perform or demonstrate their skills at special events during the year, such as the "Tuesdays at the Capitol" series in Jefferson city, which is co-sponsored by the Department of Natural Resources State Museum. The goal of such events is to educate the general public about the rich cultural heritage in the state, and the importance of recognizing and cherishing that heritage.

Since its inception, this program has funded approximately seventy-five master artists to teach one hundred and seventy-five apprentices in all parts of the state. About thirty percent of the masters who have participated in the program to date are from the Ozarks region, and they have taught many varieties of folk arts including old-time hoedown fiddling and back-up guitar, Ozarks jig and square dance, shape-note singing, balladry and traditional regional crafts. Forty-one percent of the Ozarks masters have been craftspeople skilled in such arts as violin and mandolin making, white oak basketmaking, leather braiding, spinning, bootmaking, wooden john boat building, wood joinery, and chairmaking. These crafts-people have worked closely with their chosen apprentices over a period of seven to nine months, teaching them not only the necessary skills, but the deeper significance and function of that craft in terms of Ozarks history and culture. This method of teaching guarantees that the broader meaning and function of the art form is carried on in addition to the technique.

Master john boat builder Don Foerster and apprentice David Russell, both of Van Buren, Missouri, 1991. Photo by Dana Everts-Boehm.

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Folk arts are those art forms we grow up with and tend to take for granted. One doesn't automatically think of one's grandmother the quilter or one's cousin the chairmaker as "great artists," or as people who could receive public funds for what they do. Because these folk arts are familiar to us, we sometimes underestimate their complexity, their subtlety, their sophistication. But folk arts are no less difficult to master, no less expressive, than what are generally termed "fine arts"--painting, sculpture, classical music. Often, folk artists themselves are quite humble about their work, crediting an older mentor as being the real master. John boat builder Don Foerster of Van Buren, for example, speaks of his teacher, Bob Shockley, with just such reverence. Yet today's active tradition bearers deserve to be treasured by the rest of us, for they insure that our children will inherit a valuable cultural legacy that otherwise might be lost forever.

Clearly, our staff has only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of representing Ozarks traditions in this program. Financial constraints in this era of budget crunches make it difficult to explore the nooks and crannies of the state for active folk artists, and we often have to depend on local contacts to find new applicants. I warmly encourage anyone who is interested in applying to this program, or who knows someone who may be qualified as an applicant, to contact me, Dana Everts-Boehm, at (314) 882-6296, or to write to me at the University of Missouri Cultural Heritage Center, Conley House, Columbia, Missouri, 64211.

Master chairmaker Alva Bunch of Salem, Missouri, and apprentice John Clark, 1986.
Photo by Howard W. Marshall.
Master wood joiner James Price of Naylor, Missouri.
Photo by Howard W. Marshall.

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