Portraits of Tradition

Below is Dr. Robert “Roby” Cogswell’s original exhibit statement from this 1994 presentation:

Photography from the TAC Folk Arts Program

Since coming to the Tennessee Arts Commission to establish the Folk Arts Program in 1984, I’ve been a jack of all trades, involved in diverse duties and projects. Though I don’t specialize in it, photography has been one of the most valuable and rewarding parts of my job.

Being the only government folklorist for a state as large and culturally rich as Tennessee is a daunting task. I’ve tried to balance my efforts between documentation, informational and technical services, and active public programming. In all these areas, photography has proven essential. Our folk arts and folklife are living, ephemeral resources, and building a lasting visual record of them is very important. So is putting that record to use in beneficial ways, as I try to do through slide lectures, publications, and exhibitry.

I shoot outmoded manual equipment and usually rely on existing light. While I also take color slides, I prefer the textures and simplicity of black-and-white film. I like the challenges of photographing people, trying to come up with shots that really capture their identities. And I’m convinced that social skills are as important as artistic and technical ones in doing that. Handling a camera in people’s faces, without making them feel imposed upon, requires trust and finesse. That carries through to giving them copies of the photos, a detail which too many photographers ignore.

In these images, I’ve selected folk artists from across the state and photographic work from various projects over the past decade. Some were taken in fieldwork, others for or during special events. My strategies usually revolve around very straightforward poses, at-work portraits, and spur-of-the-moment context shots. When the results are good, fine subjects and chance timing usually have a hand in it.

Robert Cogswell
Director of Folk Arts
Tennessee Arts Commission

The Fairfield Four - Nashville, 1987

Rev. Willie "Preacher" Richardson, characteristically posturing up front at Tennessee Grassroots Days. In 1989, this version of the group was the first ensemble ever honored as recipients of the National Heritage Fellowship. Leader Rev. Samuel McCrary (holding banner pole at rear), died in 1991, and Richardson in 1993. Other members are (left to right) Robert Hamlett, Wilson ”Lit” Waters, James Hill, and Isaac “Dickie” Freeman.

Bessie Harvey - Alcoa, 1988

A self-taught and spiritually inspired sculptor, Harvey created flamboyantly decorated figures from natural wood formations. She became on of the most popular "outsider" artists in the country prior to her death in 1994, weeks before she was to be honored with the Governor’s Award in the Arts.

Betty Todd Tanner & husband - Centertown (Warren County), 1986

Another master from the important women's craft community in the Short Mountain area. Like many of her senior peers there, Tanner has not gained adequate acclaim, but because of demand for her fine work among buyers, completed baskets have rarely been kept very long around her house.

Vannoy Streeter - Shelbyville, 1985

Known as "Wireman," Streeter is renowned for his inventive sculptures fashioned from coat-hanger wire. His Tennessee Walking Horses are familiar local icons in the home of this breed.

Robert Spicer - Clarksville, 1989

A master buckdancer and buckdance teacher from Dickson, Spicer received the National Heritage Fellowship in 1990. Here he presides over the steps of a young charge by keeping rhythm on spoons at an impromptu session in the lobby during the state fiddle contest.

Margaret Spence & the Voices of Love - Montgomery County, 1993

One of the most respected veterans in Nashville's African-American gospel scene, Spence always serves up spirited performances, even before smaller audiences such as the one the Voices blessed this night at rural Cabin Row Missionary Baptist Church.

Jerry Lee "Smoochy" Smith - Washington, D.C., 1986

In the Tennessee program of the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, ninety of the state's traditional artists held forth for two weeks on the Mall in the nation's capital. The Original Sun Rhythm Band, from Memphis, was one of the crowd-pleasers, thanks in part to Smith’s rockabilly piano antics.

Enloe Smith & wife - Grand Junction (Hardeman County), 1987

The making of split oak cotton and feed baskets is no longer a common part of rural African-American life in West Tennessee, but it has remained one of the seasonal routines in the Smith household. The throat from a fishtrap basket is being repaired in the foreground.

Willie Scott - Nashville, 1985

A prolific master of tatting, an intricate form of shuttle lace-making, Scott often decorated whole Christmas trees with her handwork. She was among the artists documented for the TAC Gallery exhibit Folk Arts/Full Lives: Seven Midstate Seniors. Originally from Franklin County, she passed away in 1986.

Maggie Lee Sayre - Nashville, 1987

A resident of Parsons, Sayre was born deaf to a houseboat family on the Tennessee River and took up photography as a girl. Her pictures, which systematically documented a now vanished way of maritime folklife, are the subject of an upcoming book. Here she explains her work during an exhibit opening at Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Gallery.

The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers - Washington, D.C., 1986

The Carter County old-time music of the Hilltoppers was especially popular during evening dance parties at the 1986 Festival of American Folklife. Performing (left to right) are Bill Birchfield, his father Joe Birchfield, and his uncle Creede Birchfield.

Audey Ratliff - Church Hill (Hawkins County), 1994

Among nine Tennessee makers of fretted instruments included in the 1994 Hunter Museum exhibit, Dixie Frets: Luthiers of the Southeast, Ratliff has been at the craft for almost twenty years. Primarily a mandolin maker, here he buffs out the finish of a custom guitar.

Dallas Newberry - Jennings Creek (Jackson County), 1986

The fourth-generation Tennessee chairmaker, who started in his father's shop in 1908 and was active until his death in 1990, contemplating one of his more innovative forms, a corner chair.

Regina McCrary & the CBS Singers - Nashville, 1988

The 1988 Gospel Arts Day Program in Nashville paid tribute to the Fairfield Four and their local gospel legacy. It included performances by younger singers in the family of Fairfield Four leader Rev. Sam McCrary. Here, in program rehearsals at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, his daughter Regina leads the group, whose name stands for “Cousins, Brothers, and Sisters.”

Sisouphanh Kounlavong - Nashville, 1990

Known as "Bob" to his American friends, Kounlavong plays the ranat ek, a wooden xylophone which serves as lead instrument in the Laotian mahori ensemble. He and his brother Eckeo, the musical leader of the Royal Lao musical group, both began instruction in dontrii lao deum music as children in the Lao court community.

Alvin Jarrett - Rockvale (Rutherford County), 1985

A beloved local carver and raconteur who passed away in 1993, Jarrett liked to work in cedar timbers from old slave-built houses. The associations tied his art closely to African-American themes and to his surroundings in the Middle Tennessee cedar glades.

Bill Howard - Washington, D.C., 1986

A West Tennessee barbeque master brought up for the 1986 Festival of American Folklife, Howard was locally honored by having his gravel road renamed after him when he returned home to Chester County from the festival.

Homer Green - Coffee County, 1989

Interest in Green's large chainsaw-sculpted and brightly painted "critters" have made his Robinson's Ridge home an avant garde visitors' stop. Along with Bessie Harvey, he was the subject of the 1988 TAC Gallery exhibit, Personal Visions.

Vacie Thomas - Washington, D.C., 1986

A highly-respected Chattanooga quilter, Thomas was among the demonstrators in the craft tents at the 1986 Festival of American Folklife.

O.E. Wallace - Decatur County, 1987

A maker of oak-slat fishtraps along the Tennessee River, Wallace supplies traditional equipment to commercial fishermen in a number of surrounding states.

Jean Horner - Westel (Cumberland County), 1986

Tennessee's premier fiddlemaker, once dubbed by Helen Bullard as "the Stradivarius of the Cumberlands."

The Fairfield Four - Nashville, 1988

The honorees at the 1988 Gospel Arts Day Program perform for an appreciative crowd in the Fisk University Chapel. Documentation assembled by Doug Seroff for this local tribute to the Fairfield Four laid the groundwork for the group's subsequent National Heritage Fellowship award.

Hoyt "Jake" Davis - Cannon County, 1993

One of five chairmaking sons of locally renowned chair craftsman George Washington Davis, Jake Davis runs one of over thirty active chair shops in this remarkable Tennessee county. Now retired from other work, he's as active making chairs as in any time of his life, and in recent years he’s begun to share his craft at public events, including the folklife program at the 1993 National Folk Festival in Chattanooga.

Willie Doss - Jamestown, 1988

A ballad singer as well as a chairmaker, Doss has passed his craft on to two sons. Theirs is the only chair shop in the state that still makes use of a foot-powered springpole lathe.

Doug Dillard & John Hartford - Murfreesboro, 1990

The biennial Tennessee Banjo Institute has three times brought together the instrument's finest performers and most avid enthusiasts. Nashville bluegrass masters Dillard (left) and Hartford were among the performers at the event's public Banjo Meltdown concert in 1990.

Ted Davis - Loudon, 1994

Like his peers in Dixie Frets, Davis builds sophisticated and impressive instruments in modest shop suuroundings. Through careful research and harvesting, he has crusaded to reintroduce eastern red spruce as an instrument wood among American luthiers.

Ida Pearl Davis - Cannon County, 1985

One of the finest of many active senior craftswomen in this "capital of white-oak basketmaking," Davis revived her artistic career in later life with encouragement from her devoted daughter and apprentice Thelma Hibdon.

Dale Calhoun - Washington, D.C., 1986

Tennessee's most notable traditional boatbuilder, Calhoun is the third generation of his family to produce the distinctive Reelfoot Lake "stumpjumper" from local cypress in the Tiptonville area. He was a demonstrator at the 1986 Festival of American Folklife.

Minnie Bell - Washington, D.C., 1986

The narrative stage at the 1986 Festival of American Folklife provided opportunities for interviews and discussions with the participating artists. Here Bell, a master Choctaw basketmaker from Lauderdale County, describes her river cane tradition with the assistance of her interpreting niece, Patsy Thompson, and presenter Drew Beisswenger.

Women's Ensemble, Royal Lao Dancers - Nashville, 1990

Few Nashvillians realize that the world's finest Laotian musicians and dancers live among them, having resettled here as refugees in 1980. Before political upheaval in their country, these artists performed for Lao royalty in the palace at Luang Prabang. Today they practice their artforms only on rare occasions, such as this 1990 local celebration of Lao New Year. Here the women present one of several dances of greeting that customarily open the performances during New Year’s ceremonies.

The Cumberland Music Tour Boys - Pickett County, 1987

The Cumberland Music Tour was a series of concerts across the Southeast and up the East Coast, showcasing an extraordinary group of musicians documented by Bob Fulcher along the Tennessee-Kentucky line. For the tour promotional photo, we tried to capture something of their home country and their sense of adventure at taking off together on the road. The musicians are, front (left to right): Virgil Anderson, Clyde Troxell, Ralph Troxell; middle: Clyde Davenport (who received the National Heritage Fellowship in 1992 and now lives in Jamestown); rear: Johnny Ray Hicks of Clarkrange, and Willard Anderson.

Fisk Jubilee Reunion Group - Nashville, 1989

The 1989 Gospel Arts Day Program honored the late Mrs. James A. Myers, this century's most influential director of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers. It featured a reunion of premier quartet singers who had performed and toured worldwide under Mrs. Myers' direction during their college days. Posed at the Fisk Chapel doorway are (left to right) Matthew Kennedy of Nashville (who directed the group), Rawn Spearman, Nathaniel Dickerson, Oscar Henry, Starling Hatchett, and Daniel Andrews.