Virginia Folklife apprenticeships promote the arts of everyday life

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The finer points of blacksmithing are handed down through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. Pat Jarrett The finer points of blacksmithing are handed down through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. Pat Jarrett

In a world of exploding tuitions, shaky job markets, and ubiquitous unpaid internships, the notion of an apprenticeship sounds like an antiquated luxury. In the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, however, the system of master and apprentice is alive and well, not only offering hands-on education but the cultivation of inter-generational connections and preservation of Virginia heritage.

According to the Virginia Folklife Program (VFP), folklife refers to the “arts of everyday life.” In Virginia, this includes traditions like letterpress printing and blacksmithing and dulcimer making, beekeepping and quilting and clawhammer banjo and moonshine storytelling.

If folklife is the local, contemporary craftsman whose habits are guided by the wisdom of past generations, the Folklife Apprenticeship Program is his connection to the future. Every year, approximately twelve master artists are paired with qualified apprentices for a one-on-one, nine-month learning experience in which master and apprentice share past experiences, visions for the future, and traditional practices in their cultural contexts.

Many master-apprentice pairs also share bloodlines. Consider Wayne Henderson, master guitar maker and winner of the National Heritage Fellowship, who now teaches his daughter Jayne to keep the family practice alive. Jessica Canaday Stewart teaches her cousin, Vanessa Adkins, the traditional powwow dances of the Chickahominy tribe (the second largest in Virginia).

Those pairs who don’t share a family tree often reference on the teachings of parents and grandparents, Dudley Biddlecomb, the master oyster farmer, who shows apprentice Peter Hedlund how to identify harvest spots on the shoreline by landmarks familiar to his father and father’s father.  Apprentices are chosen, the VFP said, for their dedication to an art form and their desire to execute in the style of their forebears, to learn “those elusive qualities of the craft that have invested it with such cultural resonance and traditional resilience.”

Staunton-based photographer Pat Jarrett, whose work has been published by The Washington PostThe New York Times, and NPR, spent three years following participants in the Folklife Apprenticeship Program. His shots capture the labor of tradition—a stained apron, a furrowed palm—as well as the intersection of generations—master and apprentice strumming banjos side-by-side, two men examining the same unshod hoof. Education in action, yes, but also so much more. 

The VFP will present its tenth annual Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase, featuring blues, bluegrass, and gospel performances as well as handmade guitars, oyster shucking, and other culinary crafts, on Sunday, September 15 at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. An exhibit of Pat Jarrett’s photography will be on display at The Bridge PAI through September 26.

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