ARTS AND CRAFTS, AFRICAN AMERICAN
Although they are concepts, "folk arts and crafts" are typically defined as arts and crafts specific to a cultural group; as utilitarian objects with aesthetic form; and as arts or crafts made by one who is not influenced or constrained by academic standards of art/craft production. Quilting, pottery, blacksmithing, basket making, painting, drawing, and wood carving are just some of the genres within the realm of folk art and craft.
A point of departure for a brief account of the historical presence of arts and crafts among African American Oklahomans is the period of slavery. Slave narratives serve as a significant source of information. Lucinda Vann, born on the Cherokee plantation of Jim Vann, recollects slaves sitting in the shade during hot summer evenings and carving wooden utensils from maple. Henry Clay, who spent part of his life on a Creek plantation, reminisces about making clay pots and marbles for other slaves and for the plantation owners.
Folk arts continued to be significant during the post Civil War period. In her oral history of contemporary African American Tulsans, author (and doll collector) Eddie Fay Gates mentions a prairie string doll which was not only used as a child's toy, but also to symbolize a safe place for wagons to rest when traveling to Oklahoma during the mass African American migration there. Both the Oklahoma Territorial Museum and the Oklahoma Historical Society have examples of quilts made during the period of reconstruction. A triple sunflower pattern quilt and a circle-saw pattern quilt were made by Marry Scott Bass in the 1860s and are in the Oklahoma Historical Society collection. A snowball quilt made by Mary Black during the 1890s is housed at the Oklahoma Territorial Museum.
Contemporary folk artists create new visions from past traditions and experiences of their forebears. Quilting by hand and by sewing machine is done by Ogelia Hogan of Tatums, Vonya Johnson of Muskogee, Beatrice Grant of Vernon, Alberta Townsell of Red Bird, sisters Clemontine Butler and Della Hathorn of Guthrie, and Debbie Cotton and Vickie Fields of Tulsa. These women fill their quilts with family memories and African American history. Linda Wilson of Tulsa and Marjorie Ray of Haskell practice another textile craft, the making of rag dolls. Like the prairie string doll mentioned above, these dolls serve multiple purposes, for instance, showing African American children a positive reflection of themselves or communicating a symbolic message.
Other contemporary African American artists and crafts people include Primus Moore of McAlester, who carries on the tradition of wood carving and is known for his walking sticks depicting the history of African American enslavement. Robert Walker of Nowata makes spears, tomahawks, shields, and dream catchers that reflect a blending of American Indian and African artistic practices and are a tribute to his Cherokee freedman heritage. Don Traylor of Arcadia captures Western heritage and rodeo culture in pen and ink. Francine Campbell of Tulsa uses watercolors to convey political messages, interpret dreams, or process emotions. Tulsa's Eunice Miller's ceramic masks symbolize her life's transformation into becoming an artist.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: T. Lindsay Baker and Julie P. Baker, eds., WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999). Eddie Faye Gates, They Came Searching: How Blacks Sought the Promised Land in Tulsa (Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1997). Jamie Johnson, "Contemporary African American Folk Art and Performance in Oklahoma [manuscript]," Gilcrease Museum, 1999.
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