VIRGINIA SIEGEL will be the first to tell you that she wouldn’t be in the position she’s in now without the work of those who came before her. After all, honoring the efforts and traditions of our forbears is what her job as the state’s folk-arts coordinator is all about. You should know, she says, that back in 1977, Bess Lomax Hawes—of the famed Lomax family of folklorists—launched an effort as director of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Folk Arts Program to create state-based folk-arts programs across the nation. Such statewide programs have existed at places like arts councils and universities in Arkansas on and off since about that time, but the last time we had a state folklorist was in 2015.
Now, thanks to the University of Arkansas Libraries and a recent grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Virginia is working to pick up where things left off. Her multipronged mission, she says, will be documenting and presenting folk arts and traditional arts—everything from quiltmaking to secret recipes—throughout the state, while also providing resources so that Arkansans can sustain those traditions. Ultimately, though, it’s about relationship-building, about community.
“A significant part of my job is meeting with individuals and hearing their life stories, she says. “The folk arts that people practice—because it’s part of their relationship to the community that they live and work in—you can’t really document a folk-art tradition without learning about that person, the community they live in, their larger life history.”
Is there a difference between folk arts and folklore?
That’s a really good question. Folk arts would be a component of folklore. So for instance, we all have folklore—it doesn’t mean that we’re concerned with whether or not we’re doing something artfully or with any kind of skill involved. I think, historically, some folklorists would argue that folk arts too often tend to be material culture, like tangible products or things like storytelling, something performance-based. Folklore then is broader than that because it’s sayings, it’s proverbs, it’s the memes that we pass along on the internet. It’s a lot broader than folk art. However, I puzzle over that question a little bit because I think that there’s a lot of gray area because there are a lot of things that we do with art and skill, but we don’t necessarily recognize it as that.
How did you develop an interest in folk arts?
I would say a lot of folklorists stumble their way there. You don’t grow up recognizing that you can grow up to be a folklorist. When I was little, I never dreamed that was something I could be. But I studied historic preservation as an undergrad, so I was interested in historic architecture and ways to preserve the architecture, as well as the communities in which you find architecture. I was an AmeriCorps service member, upon graduating, for two years with a nonprofit that did preservation-minded repairs for low-income homeowners in Paducah, Kentucky. So we had to develop really intimate relationships with our community members, and we would be helping them repair their homes, but we would be hearing their life stories while we were doing it. I really became attracted to the idea that it isn’t the buildings themselves that are more important; it’s the individual’s relationship to the built environment. Why are these buildings important? Who are they important to? How are people using these buildings? What is home, really? I became more interested in the individuals themselves rather than the architecture. So since I was in Paducah, Kentucky, I did some close-range digging and found out that Western Kentucky University, just a stone’s throw from where I was living, is actually one of the preeminent folklore academic programs in the country. So it was completely fortuitous and accidental.
Coming from out of state, what excites you most about getting to delve into Arkansas folklife?
Honestly, three things come to mind. First, geographically speaking, I love that the state is so diverse. You’ve got your Ozarks, the Delta, the Texarkana region—each of the four corners of the state is very different. And I am really excited to explore the actual range of diversity throughout the state.
Also with that, [secondly], we have newcomer communities here. We have the very large Marshallese population in the [Northwest Arkansas] area. Those stories need to be told, too.
Even related to that, this is my third point: Working in Kentucky, I was always very aware that there are a lot of stereotypes imposed on Kentucky that its community members are trying to push back against, and I think Arkansas is in a similar situation. All of those are interrelated. The thing I’m excited about is that the longer I’m here, the more I realize how rich and diverse the state is. I think the programming that we do, the documentation that we can do, can really strive to tell that complete story and push back on these sort of one-sided, 2-D depictions of what it looks like to be an Arkansan and live and work in Arkansas.