November 20, 2018

FOLK/Demos American Indian traditional arts

For generations, the Wabanaki of Maine – the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot people – have kept alive their heritage in the form of basketry and woodcarving. Traditional artists specialize in crafting baskets from native flora such as brown ash, sweet grass and birch. Finding these materials requires an intimate knowledge of the landscape.


Clara Neptune Keezer, Perry, Maine

Master Passamaquoddy basket maker Clara Neptune Keezer recently was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Keezer is known nationally for her artistry and is best known for her fruit and vegetable baskets, which feature dyed ash splints and sweet grass woven into corn, strawberries and blueberries.

Sylvia Gabriel, Princeton, Maine

Master Passamaquoddy basket maker Sylvia Gabriel learned basket making from her grandmother and her mother, Mary Mitchell Gabriel, a National Heritage Fellowship recipient. She then taught the intricate craft to a young Passamaquoddy woman, Gal Frey. Frey, in turn, taught her two sons, Jeremy and Gabriel Frey. Jeremy Frey makes fancy ash splint baskets, which include porcupine-weave baskets, while his brother produces market-style baskets.


Stan Neptune and Joe Dana, Old Town, Maine

Stan Neptune and his son Joe Dana are members of the Penobscot Nation and are traditional carvers of ceremonial root clubs from Indian Island, Maine. They also make walking sticks. Root clubs were used originally as weapons. Traditionally, Penobscot carvers collect the root burl of the gray birch tree and remove the bark. The roots are shaped into points and decorated with spiritual, human and animal faces. The clubs originally were carried as symbols of status in the tribe.

Neptune is one of only a few carvers carrying on the tradition. He learned the craft from medicine man and artist Senabeth Francis, who showed him how to “find his tree” and shape the birch.

Instrument makers

Around 1800, a violin was manufactured for the first time in Bangor. Today, instrument makers abound in Maine. Artisans craft violins, violin bows,

guitars, mandolins, drums and harps.

Bob Childs, stringed instruments, Cambridge, Mass.

Bob Childs has been making violins and violas for 23 years. His clients include jazz and folk fiddlers, but primarily classical musicians. During the 1970s, Childs worked as a furniture maker in Amherst, Maine, where he took his violin to be repaired by instrument maker Ivy Mann in 1975. He wound up studying with Mann from 1976 to 1977 before moving on to other teachers. He also is a musician who has performed in more than 30 states with the Moosetones.

Joel Eckhaus, ukuleles, mandolins and banjos, South Portland, Maine

Joel Eckhaus has been playing, teaching, designing, building and repairing stringed instruments since opening his own shop, Earnest Uncommon Musical Instruments, in 1976. He began building instruments in 1973 while studying woodworking at the Shelburne Craft School and at Rochester Institute of Technology with noted cabinetmaker James Krenov. He apprenticed at the Tourin Musica in Duxbury, Vt., with harpsichord and viol maker Peter Tourin. Eckhaus now teaches woodworking and instrument making at Maine College of Art. He plays the mandolin, tenor guitar, banjo, ukulele and musical saw. He has performed with numerous ensemble groups, including Arm and Hammer String Band, Pinetones and his own band, Ukulele Eck and the Fabulous Lacklusters. Further information about Joel Eckhaus can be found on his Web site, Earnest.html.

Nathan Slobodkin, violins and cellos, Bangor, Maine

Nathan Slobodkin is a highly respected violin maker. Originally from Ann Arbor, Mich., He has more than 25 years’ experience in the musical instrument field, including an internship at the Smithsonian Institution. He spent five years building violas and cellos in the W.H. Lee Workshop in Chicago and two years as a restorer at Jacques Francais Rare Violins in New York. He divides his time between making new instruments and servicing and repairing instruments in the local musical community. He also holds workshops on the care and maintenance of violins through the Maine Fiddle Camp program in Montville, Maine.

Jonathan Cooper, violins, violas and cellos, Gorham, Maine

Jonathan Cooper grew up in New York. He taught himself to play the fiddle when he was 20 years old, but became more interested in violin restoration. He studied the art form at the University of New Hampshire, apprenticed in Italy and worked in Germany before moving to Maine in the early 1980s. He makes and repairs violins, violas and cellos at his Gorham shop.

William Halsey, violin and viola bows, Brooklin, Maine

William Halsey makes violin and viola bows from Pernambuco wood or “Hamilton” wood. His bows are also inlaid with precious metals such as silver. During the late 1960s, Halsey was involved in the folk music movement, both playing music and attending festivals. He eventually learned to repair mandolins, guitars and violins. He uses both traditional and innovative techniques to create and repair bows. In recent years, his bows were exhibited in a moving show in England called “Take a Bow.”

Jay Witcher, harps, Houlton, Maine

Jay Witcher has made harps for more than 30 years. An aerospace engineer by profession, he became interested in the mathematical theories involved in acoustics. In the 1970s, he produced a portable minstrel’s harp and has been making harps ever since. He eventually moved to Maine, in part, to be close to a source of good wood such as maple that is excellent for harp making. He has striven to preserve the tradition of harps around the world, including Ireland, Scandinavia and the Middle East. In the 1980s, he worked with Granagh Yeats, granddaughter-in-law of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, in tracking down old harps in Ireland.

Kwabena Owusu, drums of Ghana, Augusta, Maine

Kwabena Owusu makes the traditional drums of Ghana, West Africa, which include the sogo, chilivo, skiddy and cagoun. In Ghana, drumming is accompanied by bells and rattles. Owusu learned how to play and make drums from elders in Ghana. He has lived in the United States since 1984. Over the years, he has taught drumming to preschool, secondary and college students in Maine. He also has performed at festivals in California, Texas and Tokyo. He is the founding leader of the Voudou Jazz ensemble.

Ron Pinkham, Woodsound Studio, Glen Cove, Maine

Ron Pinkham owns and is shop master of Woodsound Studio. He began his musical career playing the violin. In his early teens, he had a stint on bongos before switching to the nylon-string guitar. Discovering the Flamenco-style instrument, his musical tastes shifted to classical music and classical guitar. He studied with Manuel Ramos in Mexico City and attended the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 1975, he returned to Maine, settling in his hometown of Lincolnville, and started teaching guitar as well as building and restoring stringed instruments.

John Blodgett, Woodsound’s head orchestral restorer, attended Boston University’s historical instrument program.

Saint John Valley traditional crafts

The heart of Maine’s Acadian culture is the St. John Valley in the northern corner of the state. Settled in 1785, it is home to a vibrant French-speaking population that traces its roots to Quebec and New Brunswick. Drawn by the fertile soil bordering the St. John River, the early settlers established a network of family farms. Many of their descendants still live in communities such as Madawaska, Lille, Daigle and Van Buren.

St. John Valley residents are deeply rooted in their language, family life and the Catholic Church. They have a strong sense of place and a deep attachment to the Valley with its surrounding farms and woodlands. Those ties are reflected in the region’s architecture. It is present in the warming smell of ployes – traditional buckwheat pancakes – cooking on a farmhouse stove, and in the haunting sound of a “complainte” sung in French.

Edmond and Brian Theriault, snowshoe makers, Fort Kent Mills, Maine

Edmond and Brian Theriault have been making snowshoes for 25 years. The father and son are keeping alive a tradition begun by American Indians centuries ago. Their snowshoes are made from black ash and are designed for blazing through the snowy Maine woods. The ash is cut and then shaped to form the shoe frame. The frame is laced with rawhide and the cowhide harness is attached.

Aurelle Collin, woodcarver, Lille, Maine

Aurelle Collin firmly believes that “every village has the talent of the world.” His village is no exception. He and his wife, Bernadette, possess many skills rooted in their love of the land and woods. A farmer, Collin makes miniature models of sleds, wagons, horses and tools he has seen all his life. He also makes handles for garden implements. The Collin family has lived off the land, farming and gardening according to the phases of the moon. In the St. John Valley, a common belief is that plants growing aboveground should be planted during the waxing moon, while root crops should be planted during the waning moon.

Bertha Voisine, rug maker, Fort Kent, Maine

Recycling clothes is an old tradition in the St. John Valley. Worn socks, shirts and sweaters were unraveled, cut up, carded and respun for knitting or weaving. Nothing was wasted. Coats and pants were cut into thick strips and braided into handsome floor coverings. Thriftiness is an important Acadian value, especially with large families to feed and clothe.

For more than 60 years, Bertha Voisine has practiced this tradition. Her brightly colored rugs are solidly sewn, durable and perfectly shaped. Made of carefully chosen wool strips, her rugs are a testament to her resourcefulness and creativity.

Nicole LeBrun-LaPointe, weaver, Van Buren

Spinning and hand-weaving were once vibrant arts in the St. John Valley. Almost every farm raised sheep, which provided a family with enough wool for clothing, bedding and floor coverings. Worn-out garments often were reused by cutting them into strips, rolling the fabric into balls and weaving the material into bed coverlets and floor runners called catalognes.

Weaving also was a vigorous commercial industry, employing many cottage weavers. The best-known business was Les Tisserands Madawaska (Madawaska Weavers), located in neighboring New Brunswick.

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