Folk Craft Area

APPRENTICESHIPS: Carrying Traditional Knowledge Forward

Apprenticeships: Carrying Traditional Knowledge Forward

Many traditional craft artists feel duty bound to pass on what they know and the skills they have mastered, keeping alive the memory of mentors who make up their artistic lineage. This year’s Folk Craft area focuses on the role apprenticeships are playing in the ongoing vitality of traditions. Meet artists carrying on Indigenous traditions such as Wampanoag and Dakota adornment and Nipmuc techniques of preparing hides and making wampum, drums, and mishoon paddles. Discover crafts unique to the American experience with Western Boot making and New England ship wheels. Explore crafts that reflect our rich immigrant history with intricate Chinese paper cutting, Irish hand-lettered signs, and Dominican carnival mask making.

Learning a traditional art is more than just acquiring skills and honing techniques. To truly excel, an apprentice needs to be immersed within a tradition’s cultural context, absorbing the tradition’s history, aesthetics, and unspoken rules. This includes being able to identify and acquire appropriate raw materials and becoming proficient in the basics before improvising within the art.

Come meet eight mentor artists and their apprentices, all of whom have benefited from Mass Cultural Council-funded apprenticeships. See how the endangered tradition of ancient Uyghur calligraphy is finding new life here in Massachusetts. Learn about the metalworking and carpentry skills needed to make a ship’s steering wheel. Try your hand at cutting a Chinese papercut design. Enjoy all that our Folk Craft master artisans and apprentices have to offer.

Zhonghe (Elena) Li & Jayson Wang

Chinese Papercutting

When you move your scissors, feel the heron... move yourself as if you are that heron.

Zhonghe (Elena) Li was born in the city of Xi'an, the former ancient Chinese capital, home to the famed Terracotta Warriors. She spent her early childhood in a rural region known for its papercutting tradition. Elena recalls, "Families were extremely poor when I was a child, yet every window was decorated with papercuts during the Spring Festivals." In 2009, the art form was added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Soonafter, Elena returned to her childhood home to learn from master papercut artists.

Chinese papercutting was traditionally done by women using only a pair of scissors. Cutting with scissors allows both hands to move simultaneously, one rotating the paper while the other cuts. "This gives a flowing movement," says Elena. "If you used an X-acto knife, it would be stiff, short movement."

Elena has mentored teenager Jayson Wang for several years now. Papercuts should capture the essence of living things, so spending time in nature is crucial. Elena is training Jayson's ability to observe the movements of birds, insects, and mammals, inspiring him to design and animate his own papercuts. She is also instilling how the art of papercutting incorporates Daoist philosophy, such as achieving Yin-Yang balance in what is cut off and what remains.


Vincent Crotty & Lori Greene

Traditional Signs, Decorative Painting, & Celtic Knot Work

The making of hand painted signs has been handed down from father to son, master to apprentice, for centuries. Yet today, it’s rare to see hand-painted signs in public spaces. The craft requires skill in hand-drawn letters, geometric shapes, handling sign quills (special brushes), gold leaf, and decorative techniques like wood-graining, marbleizing, and faux finishing.

Vincent Crotty learned his craft as a young man in his native Ireland. He was inspired by the painting of Tomás Tuipéir, a master sign painter from Clonakilty, West Cork. Recognizing Vincent’s passion for the trade, Tomás arranged for Vincent to enroll at a trade school in Cork City. His teachers there, Gerry Fitzgibbon and Noel McKenna, shared skills that had been handed down to them through the old-world guild system.

Since emigrating to Boston in 1990, Vincent’s brushwork has been beautifying storefront businesses, pubs, churches, cultural centers, and stage productions. The trade school Vincent attended stopped teaching sign painting eight years ago – which makes his passing the tradition down to his promising apprentice Lori Greene especially significant. Lori Greene has long had an interest in traditional sign painting and Celtic design. In their apprenticeship, she has learned different styles of hand lettering, brushwork, reverse glass painting, and Celtic symbolism. Vincent and Lori are invested in maintaining and revitalizing Boston’s historic look through traditional sign making.


Elizabeth James-Perry & Erin Genia

Wampanoag and Dakota Adornment

Native artist Elizabeth James-Perry creates rich purple wampum jewelry, textiles, and maritime art directly tied to her Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal heritage. Using handspun milkweed, she weaves wampum belts, gauntlet cuffs, and alliance collars and has revived natural dye techniques for finger-woven textiles. She was honored this year with a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Multidisciplinary artist, educator, and community organizer Erin Genia is an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota. Erin was interested in incorporating pipestone -the red stone sacred to the Dakota people -- into the making of wampum. Their apprenticeship focused on creating Northeastern wampum by hand from the Atlantic Quahog shell, a heavy bivalve clam used for delicious chowder and other foods, sturdy tools, and purple and white wampumpeak (beads) with carved pendants. Elizabeth also mentored Erin in spinning cordage from local indigenous plants such as milkweed and basswood bark, as well as from animal sources.

Watch as they shape and detail pieces with stone, sand, and water, using files and a pump drill to create storied pieces of jewelry inspired by ancient coastal and inland traditions. See how they use organic plant dyes, like madder root and Osage orange, to dye cordage. Ask them about their respective traditions and how some of these unique materials were exchanged from the Eastern Coast to the Great Lakes and Canada.


Andre Strongbearheart Gaines, Jr., Nazario Tall Hair Red Deer Garate & Miguel Wandering Turtle Garate

Nipmuc Traditions: Wampum, Paddles, Drums, & Hide Tanning

Andre Strongbearheart Gaines, Jr., citizen of the Nipmuc tribe, is a craftsman, traditional dancer, carpenter, and cultural steward for his Tribe. He is knowledgeable and skilled in sustainably harvesting resources, fleshing and brain-tanning hides, building mishoons (canoes) and wetus (traditional housing), and making paddles, water drums, and wampum. Dating back thousands of years, these cultural practices are at risk of being lost as living traditions because of colonization, forced assimilation, and cultural erasure.

Mentoring Indigenous youth is important to Andre. Included in that cohort are his nephews Nazario and Miguel Garate. Since apprenticing with their uncle, Nazario and Miguel have gained experience in the burning out of large logs to create mishoons and smaller ones to make water drums. They have sustainably harvested cedar poles and bark needed to construct wetus, shaped quahogs into wampum jewelry, and made paddles and drums.

Essential to passing on these craft skills is sharing the reasons for continuing them and stories and songs associated with them. “It’s healing medicine for the spirit,” says Nazario. The work we do is part of our way of life as Indigenous people: walking the red road. This is the Native idea that everything you do should be in pursuit of a healthy spiritual life, balance, and peace for yourself and your community.”


Sarah Madeleine T. Guerin & Diana Wagner

Western Side-Seam Bootmaking

One can study footwear design in school, but learning how to build boots is another matter. “There’s no other way to truly acquire that knowledge than having somebody pass it on to you,” says bespoke bootmaker Sarah Guerin.

Although once common in Massachusetts, making footwear by hand is practiced by very few people today. Its survival relies on knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques being passed on directly through one-on-one mentorships. It took Sarah years to find a master bootmaker willing to teach her. She persevered in becoming a bootmaker and is passing on the tradition to Diana Wagner, a fellow RISD graduate.

The Western cowboy boot has remained largely unchanged over the past 160 years, perhaps due to its perfection in balancing function and style. The sole and heel construction are designed for repeated repair, making the boots sustainable. Stitching needed to hold component parts together evolved into a canvas for decorative patterns and elaborate designs.

Sarah and Diana are living proof of the value of skills acquired through hands-on making. During their two-year apprenticeship, Diana created a custom pair of side-seam western boots. She also produced a detailed manual from the perspective of one learning the craft.


Bob Fuller & Christina Fuller

Hand-Built Wooden Steering Wheels for Ships, South Shore Boatworks

Bob Fuller apprenticed under his father and grandfather and has been building steering wheels for yachts and ships since 1977. This highly specialized marine craft involves pattern making, metal working, marine joinery, and fine woodworking. A ship’s steering wheel needs to stand up to rigorous conditions. It also needs to feel right to the captain and complement the look of the cockpit and helm station. In Bob’s experience, it takes several years in a busy shop to become proficient in the designing and building of wooden steering wheels.

Growing up in her father’s wood shop, Christina Fuller showed an early interest in woodworking. After learning basic woodworking skills, she went on to build rocking boats, assemble wheel rims, and assist at wheel-building demonstrations at maritime festivals. A two-year apprenticeship grant is allowing Bob to dedicate the time to teach Christina wheel building while offsetting the cost of purchasing expensive materials, such as teak, ebony, and bronze castings for the center hubs.

During their apprenticeship, Christina designed and built three wooden ships’ steering wheels. Her next wheel will steer the Sylvina W. Beal, a 110-year-old fishing vessel being completely rehabilitated by shipwright Harold A. Burnham. On maintaining the family tradition of crafting wooden ship’s wheels, Christina says, “For me, it would be an honor to be half the artisan that my father is.”


Stelvyn Mirabal & Leonardo Mirabal

Dominican Carnaval Traditions

You may have seen the Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts opening the festival several years back. The group is led by Stelvyn Mirabal who in the early 2000s saw the need to preserve Dominican folklore in Lawrence, where there is a sizable Dominican community. His comparsa (group) now numbers 75 masqueraders who take part in Lawrence’s annual Dominican Parade.

Stelvyn’s home city of Santiago is known for its traditional masks called lechones (piglets), which feature a duck-like bill and tall horns, accompanied by a whip to crack. Suits from the city of La Vega are larger and more elaborate and are referred to as diablos cojuelos (limping devils). Spanish, African, and Catholic influences helped shape the Dominican tradition of elaborately costumed masqueraders during Carnaval.

It was Stelvyn’s uncle who taught him the carnaval traditions of mask making and processioning during pre-Lenten Carnaval celebrations. Stelvyn is passing this tradition on to his son Leornardo who has learned how to fill out the la morcilla (sausage), fix the fuete (whip), and repair and paint broken horns of the mask. In late February, the pair took their learning to the Dominican Republic where Leonardo met with the group’s costume designer and masqueraded with several lechone legends on Las Carreras, the main Carnaval street in Santiago.

Today, the imaginative costumes and narratives of carnaval flourish throughout the Dominican diaspora.


Ablikim Emet & Munawwar Abdullah

Uyghur Calligraphy

At the age of 18, Ablikim Emet found a mentor in Niyaz Kerim, a well-known calligrapher among Uyghurs in northwest China. The mostly Muslim population of Uyghurs speak their own language and see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations. Their ancient form of calligraphic script is valued both as an art and a key to knowledge.

By the time Ablikim emigrated to the US in 2019, his work had appeared regularly in newspapers, magazines, books, and banners. His calligraphy is helping keep alive the language of the Uyghur people.

Munawwar Abdullah was born and raised in a Uyghur household in Australia. Her drive to learn more about Uyghur culture led her to Ablikim Emet, the only professional Uyghur calligrapher in the U.S. today. Since the start of their apprenticeship, Ablikim has mentored her in how to hold and use the pen correctly, including pen pressure, angles, shapes, and unique formations. In place of the more traditional reed stylus, they use large calligraphic markers. Each week, Ablikim introduces a new phrase using the Uyghur Arabic alphabet, which was reintroduced in 1983 and is now the official Uyghur writing system. Munawwar practices copying his script, while he watches and offers criticism. There are 12 styles of Uyghur calligraphy. Ask them how they differ and what each style conveys.