This blog post is courtesy of Mathilde (Tilly) Frances Lind. Director of Programs and Research at Traditional Arts of Upstate New York. Tilly is a PhD candidate in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University Bloomington and a fiber artist who teaches spinning and weaving. Her research utilizes practice-led and multispecies methodologies. She will defend her dissertation, Entangled Wool: Handwork, Heritage, and Ecology in Estonia this spring.
At the beginning of August, I moved to Northern New York from Estonia, a small country in northeastern Europe where I had been doing PhD research on wool production for traditional crafts. I came to New York to start work as the Director of Programs and Research at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY) – a dream job for me! As a folklorist, my favorite methods of teaching and learning involve hands-on creative practice, and I had been searching for a position as a public folklorist that would allow me to apply my artistic skills along with my passion for public arts education and research. TAUNY was the perfect match. Even better, it was in exactly the kind of place where I was hoping to live: a northern rural area with lots of wide-open spaces and access to rivers, forests, and mountains. In 2018, I attended weaving school in Marshfield, Vermont and fell in love with the region, so Vermont and New York were on my short list of places where I’d like to live. European friends thought I was going to live in the heart of Manhattan (New York is only the city to them!), but the North Country is not so different from Estonia with its cold winters and low population density. It’s a great place to follow my research interests about the entanglement of ecology and traditional crafts through how people produce and process materials for making, but it also gives me the opportunity to engage with the full range of traditional arts and rural skills.
What I have found so far is a place in transition, much like other rural communities where I’ve lived and worked. The rural economy is hard for families, just as it is all over the US and in other parts of the world. Some traditional skills are waning as practitioners age out and are not replaced by the younger generation. Local people are acutely aware of the situation, and in our conversations, they have been welcoming and encouraging of my interest in finding ways to support these skills through educational opportunities and to think about what impact our programs will have in a year, five years, or for the next generation. I frequently have community members tell me that they are thinking the same way and asking themselves how they can create fertile ground for the future of traditional arts in our area. Through TAUNY, I have started a series of programs related to fiber arts, my personal passion as an artist and an area that local artists have identified as declining. As the workshops fill up with enthusiastic learners, experienced textile makers and sheep growers have contacted me to tell me about what they do and to offer supplies, ideas, and support. One of the best connections to come out of the fiber arts workshops is with a local farmer who raises Icelandic sheep and who hosted me for a farm visit where I got to meet her very friendly animals, talk to her about her work and art, and check out her beautiful wool. My understanding of the fiber arts community in this area is still in its early stages, but I hope that this effort leads me to more and deeper relationships in it and more opportunities to connect learners with experienced makers.
Perhaps my favorite event so far has been our community dance in mid-January. The winters are long in the North Country, and live old-time music and dance are traditional forms of entertainment that still feel relevant. However, there are far fewer community dances and instrumental jams than there used to be, especially after the massive disruption of the first couple of years of the pandemic. I have been hearing from people since I started work at TAUNY that there is a lot of enthusiasm in the community to get these activities going again. Starting in the fall, I hatched a plan with Dan Duggan, one of the artists we employ through Creatives Rebuild New York, to create a “Cabin Fever” series of concerts and a dance to help people socialize and enjoy some music in the dark of winter. We had the band High on the Hog provide old-time string band music, and Dan called the dances. We didn’t know how many people would show up, but The TAUNY Center was packed with people ranging from toddlers all the way to elders in the 80s. Farm families came with all their kids, and many people said that it was their first time at a TAUNY event. Several of my fiber arts students showed up as well! We also ran four workshops that day, and all in all, our small traditional arts center hosted about 100 people throughout the day to dance, learn, make, and play.
I love how traditional arts programs create opportunities for people to meet each other, recognize each other’s work, gain direct (preferably, hands-on) experience with creative skills and practices, and develop stronger connections with the natural and cultural environments in which they live. All this relies on facilitating sociability and learning. At TAUNY, I get to build relationships, identify where and what kinds of support can help the vitality of the arts by listening to the concerns of local folk, and provide a place where people can come together and understand each other’s lives and work a bit better. As the winter gives way to spring, our prime season for events will end, and I will get out into the field much more to explore the many connections I have made through our programs and find new ones. I am looking forward to spending more time exploring the rich landscape and traditions of Northern New York!