Short FeaturesHeart of New Hampshire
Smithsonian exhibit gives the state a chance to shine
By Mark Dagostina '92
The rustle of tall pines swaying in a warm spring breeze. The early morning churn of lobster boats in the harbor. The intermingling of fiddles and feet at an old-fashioned town hall contradance. The brick-bound echoes of yesterday's millworkers. Is one sound more indicative of New Hampshire than another?
Political rallies on the bumpy road to the quadrennial first-in-the-nation primary. A family gathering 'round the hearth for a traditional French-Canadian meal. Hordes of tourists peering from buses at flame-colored leaves come autumn. Which gathering best describes the true heartbeat of the Granite State?
The boat builder. The logger. The woodcarver. The skier. The furniture maker. The gunsmith. The basketmaker. The farmer. All carry threads of history and tradition that make up the fabric of New Hampshire. So who would best represent the state to an international audience in Washington, D.C.?
Those are questions the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, in cooperation with the non-profit organization called Celebrate New Hampshire Culture, has been struggling with for the last 18 months as the state prepares for its chance to shine in the 1999 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
For two weeks this summer—from June 23 through June 27, and June 30 through July 4—New Hampshire will share the spotlight with South Africa and Romania in this annual living exhibition of cultural heritage on the National Mall. In concerts, workshops, panel discussions and demonstrations, workers in a variety of occupations as well as musicians, cooks, artisans and storytellers will demonstrate their creative talents and speak about their uniquely New Hampshire experiences to more than one million expected visitors.
"About as many people will visit this exhibit as actually live in New Hampshire," says Burt Feintuch, director and professor of folklore and English at UNH's Center for the Humanities, who was invited to sit on the Celebrate New Hampshire Culture board.
Feintuch was one of many UNH specialists on New Hampshire heritage who were asked to assist in the task of preparing the exhibit. Feintuch and David Watters, UNH English professor, researched and wrote articles for the exhibition catalog, for example. Gary Samson, manager of UNH Photographic Services, served on the selection committee that chose which artists would participate.
Organizers say the Smithsonian exhibit evolved from the 1997 "Deeply Rooted" exhibition at the UNH Art Gallery which showcased decoy carvers, basket makers, boat builders, snowshoe makers and other artisans who make their living at the turn of the millenium using techniques that took generations to shape.
There was a lot of pressure on organizers to see that the state is represented properly to such a large audience, Feintuch says. And organizers are rising to the occasion, putting forth the most ambitious project any state has ever proposed in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival's 33-year history.
A delegation of 140 performers, traditional craftspeople and occupational specialists will travel to the nation's capitol this summer, along with a staff of 15 presenters to oversee the whole event. There they will help re-create New Hampshire in a giant outdoor setting filled with every feature imaginable: from stone walls and granite slabs, to barns and front porches; from ski lifts and covered bridges, to mill building bricks and wrought iron gates.
"It's all based on a pretty striking research effort that's happened in the last year," Feintuch says, one in which contracted documentarians went to every corner of the state to search out the personality and the living heritage of the state's communities.
Finding the integral parts of the New Hampshire story that aren't always noticed proved to be quite a challenge, says Lynn Martin, traditional arts coordinator for the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and the Smithsonian Festival's co-curator. "We aren't just looking at maritime traditions or forestry traditions or domestic crafts or political traditions or the ski industry. We're looking at everything. We needed to listen to everything. This festival is really an outdoor exhibit, which instead of focusing on things, is focusing on the knowledge and skills and artistry of people."
It was no small honor to be asked to participate in such an event. Fred Dolan '71, a decoy carver in Center Barnstead, N.H., who has raised his functional New Hampshire tradition to high art in a rustic barn workshop beside his home, was ecstatic when he got the call. "I had tears in my eyes," he recalls.
Dolan was one of a number of New Hampshire woodcrafters who participated in the "Deeply Rooted" exhibit. Like modern basket makers or boat builders in the state who make a living carrying on a traditional craft, Dolan's art has a long history. Decoys were used to lure ducks as a method of food gathering in the early 1800s. After the Industrial Revolution, people used decoys in towns such as Seabrook, N.H., to hunt ducks in large quantities for market. In 1918, with the number of ducks dwindling and the passage of legislation that outlawed the sale of migratory game, decoy carvers turned to the needs of sportsmen. Carving improved, competitions developed, and carvers started selling to the decorative market, which continues today.
Even the northern white cedar Dolan uses in his decoys has cultural roots that most people wouldn't discover without the kind of interaction expected at this festival. The cedar comes from old discarded telegraph poles, which decoy carvers gathered for their resistance to rot. The fact that they were already round saved a heck of a lot of carving time, to put it in traditional Yankee-ingenuity terms.
"It's important to preserve these understandings, these bits of wisdom," Martin says.
The event won't end with the July 4th fireworks. This entire project will be re-staged, perhaps on a larger scale, at the Hopkinton Fairgrounds in the summer of 2000. New Hampshire Public Television is preparing a documentary video of the event and its participants. And organizers are also developing a Folklife program for schools and communities that could help give students and residents a new appreciation for the heritage that pulses all around them.
"This event will really showcase the living social fabric of the state," Feintuch says. "It's not an antiques show."
He hopes visitors—even those born and bred here—are surprised and awakened by the diversity and culture of this state: a place that was once the most industrialized state in the nation, but which is also Dixville Notch and Mt. Washington and Portsmouth Harbor.
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