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Last month, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage hosted the symposium Cultural Sustainability in the Age of Globalization along with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan. The event featured community activists, folklorists, scholars, and traditional arts experts exploring efforts to sustain local artistic practices and cultural identities in the face of globalization.
One of the presentations was from Amy Kitchener, executive director and co-founder of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. ACTA was established in 1997 by cultural workers, arts administrators, and traditional artists. Its mission is to support ways for cultural traditions to thrive now and into the future by providing advocacy, resources, and programs for folk and traditional artists. Over the years, it has supported over 1,000 grants and contracts to further traditional arts practice and sharing.
ACTA brings its valuable breadth and depth of work in California to this summer’s Sounds of California program at the Folklife Festival. After the symposium, Kitchener explained more about ACTA’s work, community engagement practices, and some of the artists who will be featured on the National Mall this summer.
What is the role of traditional arts in building a healthy community?
The notion that traditional music can bring people together is not new. Skilled artists are able to adapt their music to bring people together. Our job is to figure out how selected cultural treasures can be brought to bear on policy as well as access to resources.
For example, César Castro, a master of son jarocho music and dance, led community workshops to teach collective song composition in support of a campaign to legalize street vending in Los Angeles. This campaign was significant because street vending provides an important small business opportunity for the large population of Mexican immigrants—some of whom do not have working papers, but have traditional cooking skills.
This activity did not function as propaganda. Instead, it was a bottom-up approach for community members to formulate public statements around the issue.
What do you think about artists incorporating diverse influences into their own music traditions?
First of all, traditions are constantly changing. California is home to hundreds of diverse traditions and to an incredibly diverse immigrant community. People living in the same community are often from different cultural backgrounds. And it’s inevitable that people will be influencing one another.
We are lucky to have brilliant musicians who are able to use their musical traditions as bridges to connect to other communities. They may introduce new sounds, but they can also stay faithful to the cultural values of their own traditions.
Social context and audience members are really important factors in determining how traditions change and adapt. I am thinking at the moment about the Pilipino-American musician Danongan Kalanduyan. He has been recognized as an NEA National Heritage Fellow for the role he has played in spreading the kulintang (bronze gong and drum ensemble) tradition of his home region of Mindanao to Pilipino communities in the U.S. It is interesting to note that this music, rooted in the Muslim culture in the southern Philippines, is now being appreciated by Christian Filipino Americans.
Since California is home to Silicon Valley, what is the impact of digital technology on traditional arts practices?
I would say technology has largely facilitated, not hindered, people’s ability to transmit their musical traditions. This is a big question, a complex situation—but I can give you an example. We have a master-apprentice program. We can see that technology makes it possible for students to learn traditional music from teachers in their home countries. Several apprentices in our program are doing this through Skype.
Technology also provides the means through which community members stay connected. Grupo Nuu Yuku, a Mixteco dance group from the San Joaquin Valley, will perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer. The group members are on Facebook all the time. In fact, Diego Solano, the group’s co-director, told me that when they posted about their invitation to the Festival, he was contacted by a mask maker in his hometown of San Miguel Cuevas, Oaxaca, volunteering to accompany the group to Washington, D.C.
In many towns of the Mixteca Baja, where the group members come from, most of the men have left in search of work in other parts of Mexico, the U.S., or Canada. The majority of people left behind are either children or elders. The internet helps these separated families keep connected.
Can you explain your cultural asset mapping project in rural California communities?
The idea behind this project was to identify people, groups, places, and events—what we called “cultural treasures”—that were considered to be culturally significant. In each community, we created questionnaires that community members could submit online or on paper. We kept our methods flexible—specific to the particular place and situation.
To document responses, we recorded interviews and took videos and photographs. During the interviews, we trained residents how to identify local treasures. Some of the questions we would ask included: 1) Do you have any skills based on your heritage that you found valuable to your community? 2) Can you name any groups or organizations that give you a sense of community or a sense of being at home? Such a process naturally led to conversations where community members had to think about what to feature.
Then we created an inventory comprised of the community’s submissions describing who and what they considered to be local cultural treasures. Finally, we made our research visible through organizing a public celebratory event in each site.
What has it been like collaborating on the Sounds of California program?
It has been a beautiful thing to have this trilateral partnership among the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, ACTA, and Radio Bilingüe. Each of us cannot achieve the same scale of work alone. There are a number of participants coming to the Festival whom we have worked with over the years. Some have been ACTA grantees and students in our apprenticeship program.
We are not only excited about the upcoming program at the Festival but also in planning ongoing work to promote the sounds of California in the long run.
Ying Diao recently graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. She is currently an intern for the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the Sounds of California program at the 2016 Folklife Festival.
Biography is one of the oldest forms of history. It serves a public function. Biography aims to record and commemorate—even celebrate—exemplary lives. In Renaissance Italy, biography was an adjunct to portrait painting as a way of recognition. Biography is a way of linking private with public lives. It shows how character develops in childhood and then reveals itself to the public as the individual steps into the world as an adult. Biography is constantly reinventing itself, adding dimension, depths and new approaches to the lives of emblematic people in past time.
At the National Portrait Gallery’s recently created Center for Visual Biography we are exploring new innovative approaches to telling lives and to support scholarship about portrait biography.
Artist and writer Lauren Redniss is among our advisors. Her visual biographies about the scientists Marie and Pierre Curie and Ziegfeld showgirl Doris Eaton Travis (who lived to be 106) are a delight to the eye, but also show a new way of revealing the contours and dimensions of past lives.
Redniss takes an oblique approach, finding meanings in the scraps and details of the lives of her subjects—postcards, snapshots, diary entries and shopping lists as well as other physical evidence. She is not interested in master narratives but idiosyncratic ways to visually enter the worlds of the people who interest her. Above all, she is fascinated with people who are survivors, people who endure and overcome.
For her imaginative engagement with past lives as well as the world around us, Redniss was recently awarded a MacArthur Grant, and while, in her modesty, she would eschew the label of genius, her work is an influential indicator toward new directions in visual biography.
In her new book, the acclaimed Thunder & Lightning: Weather, Past, Present and Future, she is intrigued by how people have coped with, survived, or failed in extreme weather situations. In the context of concern about global climate change, Redniss’ take on the history of weather is entertaining, but also salutary in what it tells us about human vulnerability to changes in the atmospheric membrane which supports life on earth.
We sat down recently for a discussion of her works and her process."When Doris Eaton was 14, she changed her name and lied about her age to skirt child protective services and dance in the Ziegfeld Follies."—Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis (Lauren Redniss)
Tell me why you are interested biographically in people who overcome, who keep working against the odds and against various obstacles.
I think I am drawn to people who are undaunted by hardship. It puts things in perspective. I don’t usually think of my work as therapeutic, but in this case, it probably is. Doris Eaton survived heartbreak, economic peril, the murder of a sister, the death of five other siblings and her spouse, just for starters. Marie Curie was up against a patriarchal system loathe to acknowledge or reward her scientific research, working tirelessly with toxic substances that were slowly killing her. And she still managed to be a tremendous teacher, humanitarian and mother. Wait, what was I complaining about again?
Did you have other plans or dreams as a kid? Did you start out as an artist?
As a kid I would stay with my grandparents in Worcester, Massachusetts, and work the cash register at my grandfather’s grocery store. On slow days I made signs and “jewelry” for the customers out of rubber bands and garbage ties. I always made things as a kid—shoes, little wooden carvings of animals, playing cards. Doing things with my hands was automatic, like it is for a lot of kids. My career is partly based on the fact that I never passed out of this phase. At various points I’ve had other aspirations: for a while I studied to be a botanist and worked in a plant research lab. I drew fossil turtles at the American Museum of Natural History.
How did words become part of your visual work?
Both my maternal grandparents could really spin a yarn. My grandfather was a private in Europe during World War II. At 20, he had never left Worcester, and suddenly there he was in Paris, in Alsace, in little towns in Italy, where a young girl poured him water from a glass pitcher with a streak of blue glaze— “a beautiful blue streak, deep blue, like the ocean,” where a blind woman gave him tomatoes, where he had to hustle to grab a mattress stuffed with sufficient straw to be able to sleep. At one point he was shot and left for dead in the forest. My grandmother worked in her father’s bakery, making jelly donuts and busting the milkman for drinking their cream. She remembered her town’s ghost stories. When I was in college, I started making tape recordings of these conversations. I had a sense that if I didn’t, their stories would be lost. This created a habit of interviewing people and recording oral histories. When I draw someone, the portrait seems incomplete without including their words, their voice. That’s how text crept into my work.
Image by Lauren Redniss. "In 1891, 24-year-old Marie Sklodowska moved from Warsaw to Paris, where she found work in the laboratory of physicist Pierre Curie."—Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout (original image)
Image by Lauren Redniss. "They fell in love, they were married, they took their honeymoon on bicycles. They also heralded the dawn of a new scientific era—ushering in the nuclear age."—Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout (original image)
When did you think about doing art books?
I used to draw and write “Op-Arts” for the New York Times Op Ed page. These were single-panel narratives that looked at issues in the news in unexpected ways. I loved doing these, but the turnaround time was tight, and space that any piece could occupy was limited. I often felt that the most interesting parts of a story were getting cut. I wanted a more expansive canvas, so I started working on books.
Do you have another practice where you just do images or write?
I often draw, paint, or make collages with no eye toward publication. I have ideas for future projects that are either just images or just writing, but who knows. I have some ideas for work that is a complete left turn from what I’ve been doing.
I see a little Edward Gorey in your drawings. And then there is the pastiche of mixed media element in the book on Doris Eaton. Did you have any particular artistic influences?
I’m usually drawn to work that was, at least originally, created for something other than a museum or gallery. I’m interested in medieval religious painting, and scrimshaw, film stills, and paper ephemera like cigarette cards or mid-century Japanese matchbooks. I’m drawn to the narrative power of these kinds of work, and also what is sometimes a raw or even awkward quality.
Could you speak a bit about how you get interested in a topic and the process by which you start to conceptualize it as something you want to work on?
Whenever I am working a project, I begin to be haunted by some element that the project is missing. It could be aesthetic, a way of making the images or of using color, say. Or it could be conceptual, a question of subject matter. That missing element often becomes the seed of new work. Once I embark on a project, I’m reading, traveling, conducting interviews, drawing, taking photos, looking into archives. Certain themes begin to emerge. I create a “dummy book”: I bind a blank book and begin to collage in Xeroxes of my sketches. I print out sections of text and Scotch tape then to the pages. That way I can turn the pages and get a feel for the pacing and the book’s rhythms. The element of surprise is built into the form of a book: you don’t know what will be revealed when you turn a page. I have a chapter in my recent book called “Rain.” There are pages of rainy scenes, thunderstorms, and dark skies punctured by lightning bolts, descriptions of violent cyclones during Madagascar’s rainy season and interviews with lightning strike victims. Finally, the rain stops, you turn the page and, on a wordless spread, a brilliant rainbow arcs across the landscape. The drama of that image is created by its contrast to the preceding pages.
Marie Curie is such a Promethean story: she does all this incredible work and then dies from it. What drew you to the Curies, particularly Marie?
I liked the idea of creating a visual book about invisible forces. The Curies lives were animated by two invisible forces: radioactivity, a subject of their research, and love. They lived a great, and ultimately tragic, romance.
The weather, of course, is interesting because it is both serious and whimsical at the same time. Your drawings seemed to reflect that: you’re establishing a mood in a way. Is that fair?
Weather is, as you say, unpredictable. In a world where we’ve come to expect a high degree of control over our daily lives, there remains this fundamental uncertainty. That fascinates me. A storm, like a wild animal, can be simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.
I wanted Thunder & Lightning to be a beautiful object, a pleasure to hold and to read. I wanted to convey the many sensual experiences of weather—the disorientation of being lost in the fog, the uncanny stillness and quiet after a snowstorm, the unbeatable pleasure of a sunny day. But I wanted to face the terror, too. In the book, I also look at weather throughout history: as a force that has shaped religious belief, economics, warfare. Ultimately, Thunder & Lightning is my stealth climate change book. I’m worried about our planet.
Were you scared of lightning before writing the book? It freaks me out, as you know, now having read it.
I love lightning! At least, as long as I’m indoors. Maybe it’s because I don’t golf.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a book about an Apache tribe in Arizona. I’m depicting three generations of one Apache family.Redniss takes an oblique approach, finding meanings in the scraps and details of the lives of her subjects—postcards, snapshots, diary entries and shopping lists as well as other physical evidence. (John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
For Joseph Qualls, it all started with video games.
That got him “messing around with an AI program,” and ultimately led to a PhD in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Memphis. Soon after, he started his own company, called RenderMatrix, which focused on using AI to help people make decisions.
Much of the company’s work has been with the Defense Department, particularly during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the military was at the cutting edge in the use of sensors and seeing how AI could be used to help train soldiers to function in a hostile, unfamiliar environment.
Qualls is now a clinical assistant professor and researcher at the University of Idaho's college of engineering, and he hasn’t lost any of his fascination with the potential of AI to change many aspects of modern life. While the military has been the leading edge in applying AI—where machines learn by recognizing patterns, classifying data, and adjusting to mistakes they make—the corporate world is now pushing hard to catch up. The technology has made fewer inroads in education, but Qualls believes it’s only a matter of time before AI becomes a big part of how children learn.
It’s often seen as being a key component of the concept of personalized education, where each student follows a unique mini-curriculum based on his or her particular interests and abilities. AI, the thinking goes, can not only help children zero in on areas where they’re most likely to succeed, but also will, based on data from thousands of other students, help teachers shape the most effective way for individual students to learn.
Smithsonian.com recently talked to Qualls about how AI could profoundly affect education, and also some of the big challenges it faces.
So, how do you see artificial intelligence affecting how kids learn?
People have already heard about personalized medicine. That’s driven by AI. Well, the same sort of thing is going to happen with personalized education. I don’t think you’re going to see it as much at the university level. But do I see people starting to interact with AI when they’re very young. It could be in the form of a teddy bear that begins to build a profile of you, and that profile can help guide how you learn throughout your life. From the profile, the AI could help build a better educational experience. That’s really where I think this is going to go over the next 10 to 20 years.
You have a very young daughter. How would you foresee AI affecting her education?
It’s interesting because people think of them as two completely different fields, but AI and psychology are inherently linked now. Where the AI comes in is that it will start to analyze the psychology of humans. And I’ll throw a wrench in here. Psychology is also starting to analyze the psychology of AI. Most the projects I work on now have a full-blown psychology team and they’re asking questions like 'Why did the AI make this decision?'
But getting back to my daughter. What AI would start doing is trying to figure out her psychology profile. It’s not static; it will change over time. But as it sees how she’s going to change, the AI could make predictions based on data from my daughter, but also from about 10,000 other girls her same age, with the same background. And, it begins to look at things like “Are you really an artist or are you more mathematically inclined?”
It can be a very complex system. This is really pie-in-the-sky artificial intelligence. It’s really about trying to understand who you are as an individual and how you change over time.
More and more AI-based systems will become available over the coming years, giving my daughter faster access to a far superior education than any we ever had. My daughter will be exposed to ideas faster, and at her personalized pace, always keeping her engaged and allowing her to indirectly influence her own education.
What concerns might you have about using AI to personalize education?
The biggest issue facing artificial intelligence right now is the question of 'Why did the AI make a decision?' AI can make mistakes. It can miss the bigger picture. In terms of a student, an AI may decide that a student does not have a mathematical aptitude and never begin exposing that student to higher math concepts. That could pigeonhole them into an area where they might not excel. Interestingly enough, this is a massive problem in traditional education. Students are left behind or are not happy with the outcome after university. Something was lost.
Personalized education will require many different disciplines working together to solve many issues like the one above. The problem we have now in research and academia is the lack of collaborative research concerning AI from multiple fields—science, engineering, medical, arts. Truly powerful AI will require all disciplines working together.
So, AI can make mistakes?
It can be wrong. We know humans make mistakes. We’re not used to AI making mistakes.
We have a hard enough time telling people why the AI made a certain decision. Now we have to try to explain why AI made a mistake. You really get down to the guts of it. AI is just a probability statistics machine.
Say, it tells me my child has a tendency to be very mathematically oriented, but she also shows an aptitude for drawing. Based on the data it has, the machine applies a weight to certain things about this person. And, we really can’t explain why it does what it does. That’s why I’m always telling people that we have to build this system in a way that it doesn’t box a person in.
If you go back to what we were doing for the military, we were trying to be able to analyze if a person was a threat to a soldier out in the field. Say one person is carrying an AK-47 and another is carrying a rake. What’s the difference in their risk?
That seems pretty simple. But you have to ask deeper questions. What’s the likelihood of the guy carrying the rake becoming a terrorist? You have to start looking at family backgrounds, etc.
So, you still have to ask the question, 'What if the AI’s wrong?' That’s the biggest issue facing AI everywhere.
How big a challenge is that?
One of the great engineering challenges now is reverse engineering the human brain. You get in and then you see just how complex the brain is. As engineers, when we look at the mechanics of it, we start to realize that there is no AI system that even comes close to the human brain and what it can do.
We’re looking at the human brain and asking why humans make the decisions they do to see if that can help us understand why AI makes a decision based on a probability matrix. And we’re still no closer.
Actually, what drives reverse engineering of the brain and the personalization of AI is not research in academia, it’s more the lawyers coming in and asking 'Why is the AI making these decisions?' because they don’t want to get sued.
In the past year, most of the projects I’ve worked on, we’ve had one or two lawyers, along with psychologists, on the team. More people are asking questions like 'What’s the ethics behind that?' Another big question that gets asked is 'Who’s liable?'
Does that concern you?
The greatest part of AI research now is that people are now asking that question 'Why?' Before, that question relegated to the academic halls of computer science. Now, AI research is branching out to all domains and disciplines. This excites me greatly. The more people involved in AI research and development, the better chance we have at alleviating our concerns and more importantly, our fears.
Getting back to personalized education. How does this affect teachers?
With education, what’s going to happen, you’re still going to have monitoring. You’re going to have teachers who will be monitoring data. They’ll become more data scientists who understand the AI and can evaluate the data about how students are learning.
You’re going to need someone who’s an expert watching the data and watching the student. There will need to be a human in the loop for some time, maybe for at least 20 years. But I could be completely wrong. Technology moves so fast these days.
It really is a fascinating time in the AI world, and I think it’s only going to accelerate more quickly. We’ve gone from programming machines to do things to letting the machines figure out what to do. That changes everything. I certainly understand the concerns that people have about AI. But when people push a lot of those fears, it tends to drive people away. You start to lose research opportunities.
It should be more about pushing a dialogue about how AI is going to change things. What are the issues? And, how are we going to push forward?
When Marian Anderson Sang at the Lincoln Memorial, Her Voice Stunned the Crowd, and Her Gold-Trimmed Jacket Dazzled
In the final months of her life, famed classical singer Marian Anderson moved from her ranch in Danbury, Connecticut, to live with her only nephew, conductor James DePreist, and his wife Ginette DePreist in Oregon. In an effort to minimize the jarring effects of the cross-country move for the singer who was now in her mid-nineties, Mrs. DePreist attempted to replicate the singer's former bedroom in their residence. "Among the things she really liked to see were her dresses," says DePreist.
Anderson was, by all accounts, a meticulous dresser, with an elegant array of gowns and suits to rival that of any performer of the time. “She carried herself in the way she wanted to be seen,” said Dwandalyn R. Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
A seamstress herself, Anderson carted around a miniature sewing machine and passed her free time on tour ducking into fabric shops and collecting fine textiles. Toward the beginning of her career, she would sew her own stage attire while traveling on ships to and from Europe, but as her reputation grew, fans and admirers made many of her garments for her.
Image by (Carl Van Vechten via Wikimedia Commons);Gift of Ginette DePreist in memory of James DePreist, Photo by Hugh Talman. For her 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial, Marian Anderson wore a bright orange jacket, which recently joined the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (original image)
Image by Photograph by Robert S. Scurlock, Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. In this archival image of Anderson from the Smithsonian's Robert Scurlock collections, the decorative neckline of the dress can be seen underneath her fur coat (original image)
Image by Photo by Hugh Talman. Visitors can see the jacket and long black skirt on display at the entrance to the African American History and Culture Gallery, located at the National Museum of American History (original image)
Shortly before Anderson's death in 1993, DePreist asked to borrow something from the singer’s closet to wear at a gala honoring her late husband. She settled on a long, black skirt and a distinguished bright orange velour jacket, a form-fitting number trimmed in gold with turquoise buttons. The orange fabric had all but disintegrated, and so DePreist had it reconstructed by a French tailor, using a shantung silk of exactly the same orange hue (the tailor confirmed that the jacket was likely custom made for Anderson from a velour of French origins).
It was only later, while looking over photos from Anderson's career, that DePreist realized the outfit she had picked out was what the singer wore the day she became an iconic figure in the fight for civil rights.
Now, DePreist has donated the outfit from that day to the African American History Museum, which is scheduled to open on the National Mall in 2015, just steps from where the singer made history.
It was on Easter Sunday April 9, 1939, before a crowd of 75,000 people that Anderson sang from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, after being denied access by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the DAR, to Constitution Hall.
No known color photographs were taken when the virtuosic contralto performed that chilly day. The historic black-and-white images depict the stony backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial, the dark curves of the grand piano, the daunting sea of onlookers. The shots capture a moment in the history of a country rife with injustice and on the brink of yet another world war. But something in the picture gets muted. Beneath Anderson's heavy fur coat is the bright orange velour jacket, a form-fitting number trimmed in gold with turquoise buttons. The garment, which appears nondescript in black-and-white, would have radiated like a starburst from the center of it all.
Most anyone familiar with Anderson's life and career will tell you that she had little appetite for activism. She was an artist above all else, and that is how she wished to be seen. "Aunt Marian was a very humble, very sweet lady," said DePreist. "She always said, 'All I want to be remembered for is the voice the Lord gave me, [which] hopefully made people happy.'"
But, being an African American artist at a time when Jim Crow laws were still very much alive in the United States meant having to confront certain obstacles. From the time she first discovered her voice as a young girl, she had no option but to teach herself, or pay for private lessons, in order to hone her craft. When her family couldn't afford to pay for high school, Anderson's church pitched in and raised enough money for her education and a private voice teacher. After graduating high school, she was then refused admission to the all-white Philadelphia Music Academy (now University of the Arts) on the basis of her race.
By the early 1930s, Anderson had already sung with the New York Philharmonic and at Carnegie Hall. But she would often be denied hotel rooms, service in restaurants, and musical opportunities due to the rampant discrimination stacked against her. Her career was not picking up at quite the pace she had hoped. So, Anderson decamped for Europe, where she studied under a new teacher and embarked on her first European tour, to wild success.
"I’m not going to go as far as saying that there was no racial prejudice in Europe," said Reece. "But if you look at different styles of music, you look at jazz artists and writers and whatnot, it was more hospitable."
By 1939, Anderson had returned from Europe a world-renowned classical singer, and her management began to explore venue options for a concert in D.C. In the past, Howard University had more or less sponsored her by securing smaller auditoriums around town for her performances. Now, these venues seemed unfit for an artist of Anderson's stature. Her management requested a concert date at Constitution Hall, the historic venue presided over by the DAR. Their request was turned down.
It wasn't the first time this had occurred. In fact, the DAR had refused Anderson at least a few times before. The DAR had a strict "whites only" policy, and there would be no exception for Anderson, no matter how accomplished an artist she became.
The refusal gained a national platform when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in protest, famously writing to the group, "You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way, and it seems to me that your organization has failed." It was around that time that Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Walter White, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, conceived of the idea to have Anderson sing a concert on the National Mall. They received permission from President Roosevelt, and set a date.
"I think this time the feeling was we weren’t going to take no as an answer," said Reece. "This was part of a larger strategy. . . the NAACP was also actively involved in this, and there were people behind the scenes seeing an opportunity to break down some of these barriers. . . Like maybe they felt that the timing was right to raise the profile of this kind of activity."
Such was the climate leading up to the day of the concert, with Anderson a reluctant participant the whole way. And when she finally stepped before the microphone in her orange jacket and long black skirt and readied herself to sing "My Country 'Tis of Thee" to a crowd that had come from all over to take part in that moment, it was plainly visible that, like it or not, she had come to represent something larger than herself.
Anderson went on to pave the way for generations of African American opera singers and musicians to come. She was the first African American to be invited to sing at the White House, and the first to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. She took the stage again at the historic March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and she received the Presidential Medal of Honor that same year. But it was that first concert on the National Mall, in open defiance of those who would have deprived the world of her talents, that laid the groundwork, not only for future generations of African American artists, but for the Civil Rights Movement going forward.
"I think it’s also important to remember that the fight for civil rights is not defined by just a 50-year-old history. It pre-dates that in many ways. And there are small moments and big moments that really help lead to change. This is a big moment," said Reece.
Visitors can see the jacket and skirt on display at the entrance to the African American History and Culture Gallery, located at the National Museum of American History.
Said Mrs. DePreist, "I think that it goes without saying that [the museum] is the perfect guardian for what African American history is all about in this country... It's like going home again."
“When I write, I am flying,” says Armenian calligrapher Ruben Malayan.
Pen poised on paper, eyes intent, he breathes as if aligning his body with his mind. When his hand graces the page, ink flies over paper in a dance of strokes and curves. Like choreography, there is rhythm and melody in the way he writes—as if the script were embodied in his person.
His words do not lie flat on the page. Instead, the letters appear alive, and the space between and around the letters feels charged. “Negative space,” he explains, “creates the air within which the letter lives and breathes.” To him, the written word is powerful because it is both image and text. The calligrapher’s art is to contemplate and create both form and meaning.
“When I write, I often make the words slightly difficult to read. I want the brain to wrestle with the form in order to understand the living shape of a word.”
Words like journey and freedom, never cease to fascinate him. Like mantras, he writes the words over and over again. For both writer and reader, their meaning is always in flux.
Malayan grew up in Armenia in a home full of art. His late father, the renowned painter Petros Malayan, taught at the State Institute of Fine Arts of Armenia.
“As a boy, I would look at my father’s art books every night before falling asleep,” he recalls. “I was fascinated by the prints of the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. His pictures were so lively, and the Japanese writing filled my imagination. I could not read it, but the symbols excited me. I have been captivated by letterforms ever since.”
After studying fine arts and graphic arts in Yerevan, Malayan moved to Israel and began working as an art director in Tel Aviv. His work involved developing digital typography, yet Malayan often found himself writing by hand. All fonts, he explains, have calligraphic roots. “The experiment happens on paper.” He left the commercial world and began to teach himself calligraphy. In the absence of a tutor, once again, books became his teachers. He studied ancient illuminated manuscripts and scoured scholarly publications to teach himself the history of Armenian writing.
The earliest forms of Armenian calligraphy exist in illuminated Christian manuscripts. The alphabet, developed by linguist and ecclesiastical leader Mesrop Mashtots in 405 CE, allowed for both the recording and dissemination of theology to Armenians. A written language also protected Armenians against linguistic dominance in a region that, over centuries, fell to Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman, and Soviet rules.
Malayan is now one of two calligraphers left in Armenia. Last July, he demonstrated his artistry to an eager audience on the National Mall for the Armenia: Creating Home program at the Folklife Festival. For Armenian American visitors, his calligraphy seemed particularly meaningful. An Armenian American woman approached him to say, “These letters are sacred. And they’re ours.” Her comment, though seemingly minor, reflects Armenia’s emotional relationship with its script.
Yet his experience at the Folklife Festival does not reflect general attitudes toward calligraphy and penmanship, which Malayan finds distressing and tragic. He routinely faces misconceptions of calligraphy as nostalgic handwriting in period style and penmanship as a decorative yet ultimately superfluous skill. Letter culture, he says, is suffering.
Today, we type, tap, and swipe on keyboards and touchscreens. With smartphones and laptops, we send emails and texts, draft essays and reports. In the digital age, communicating messages and recording information has never been easier or faster. Typed letters all look the same—serif and sans serif. “Our writing is so impersonal. Now we all push the same buttons.” We still use letters, but we no longer create them.
“Handwriting is profoundly expressive,” Malayan urges. “Your handwriting is unique to you. Even a simple note that says, ‘Don’t forget the milk!’ will look different from person to person.”
Knowingly or unknowingly, we all make decisions on how to draw letters—from the size and spacing to the shape of a curve, or the speed with which we write. Our focus, posture, and breathing also affect our handwriting. Words penned by hand embody our individual traits, creating an almost intimate imprint of the self on the page. Malayan insists that handwritten words carry the writer’s emotion and energy—regardless of whether the text was penned yesterday or a thousand years ago.
“Writing is memory, both individual and collective,” he says. “When we write, we are intentionally making a record. We are putting down what matters to us—words we want to remember.” To him, written text is memory embodied and the act of writing expresses a will to remember. Early religious texts and current news stories alike are pieces of memory—expressions of lived experience. From the ancient world to the internet age, he believes all writing is connected. Although our tools and materials have changed, writing continues to record and shape our human story.
Throughout that story, certain changes have endangered calligraphy traditions. In addition to the digital shift, Malayan says that the widespread popularity of the ballpoint pen in the 1960s had a detrimental effect on calligraphic traditions. With a ballpoint, writing by hand required less skill than with a fountain pen. Regardless of the direction or orientation of the pen, the width of line remained consistent. The convenience was unparalleled and the ballpoint eventually became ubiquitous around the world. As a result, “we lost the plasticity and elasticity of lines, and many traditional scripts were no longer produced,” Malayan laments.
Now, sustaining the art of Armenian calligraphy requires considerable effort. Malayan believes the revival of letter culture will start in the classroom. In fact, he thinks children are unique in that they take the alphabet seriously. As kids learn to read and write, they examine the shapes of letters, learn the sounds they make, and practice drawing freeform symbols. Though penmanship has been increasingly phased out of formal education, schools provide an opportunity for revival. Malayan is currently developing a comprehensive first-of-its-kind primer to support those who wish to learn Armenian calligraphy. He plans to found a school where students can learn Armenian calligraphic traditions as well as experiment with letterforms.
Currently, Malayan is an adjunct lecturer at the American University in Yerevan. In his visual communications course, he teaches his students to generate and express visual ideas. His students are English majors with little to no background in the arts. Yet his curriculum, which draws from calligraphy and typography, is practice-based. Over the course of a semester, his students must learn formal composition—proportions, contrasts, and balance—to create works of their own.
“After developing technical skill comes the question of substance,” he says. Beautiful letters are not enough. An artist must have something to say. “If I have nothing significant to say, I will not write a word. We don’t need more visual pollution.”
For Malayan, advertising exemplifies visual pollution. Billboards, commercials, pop-ups, and flyers plaster our daily lives with consumerist messaging. “Ads are often sexy, funny, or visually appealing. Some use cheap tricks, others are well thought out campaigns. But the message is the always same: buy.”
Discourse and dialogue have little relevance in consumer culture. Malayan urges his students to consider visual messaging that contributes to a larger public conversation. For their final projects, he tasked them to create a poster that responded to the following question: what message is urgent for you to say to Armenia, to the world? This is Malayan’s call to action: to participate in visual culture not as consumers but as citizens.
During the protests of the recent nonviolent revolution, Malayan worked round the clock to create placards to fuel demonstrations and marches. He felt a sense of responsibility not only to reflect his personal opinions, but also to echo those of others. He observed and listened to the way political discontent played out in the public and private realm. “I wanted to capture what we all were feeling, what was on our minds,” he says.
In this way, his efforts were both anthropological and activist in nature. His work created a feedback loop, capturing the public sentiment and expressing it back on the street. Along with the compelling slogans, his posters featured eternal words like freedom and journey.
Maya Potter is a cultural sustainability project assistant at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. At the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, she worked with Ruben Malayan and other artisans in The Workshop to facilitate craft activities and classes for the public.
Page 16 of Every Little Boy’s Book details the folding of a piece of paper such that "when thrown from the hand, rarely hits the object aimed at, as it generally makes a graceful curve in passing through the air." To modern eyes, the instructions, description and illustration are exactly those of a paper airplane. But Phil Edwards for Vox.com points out that these instructions were printed in 1864, 39 years before the Wright Brothers first flew their airplane.
Humans dreamed of flight long before they put humans in the air. Back in the early 1500s, Leonardo da Vinci had designed a man-powered flying machine. Mathematician Archytas of Tarentum reportedly created a mechanical wooden dove that flew for 200 meters in 250 B.C.E. So paper airplanes flying from the hands of children during the Civil War Era aren’t that surprising — although the book calls them 'paper darts,' not airplanes. But despite the name, the design is very familiar and so was the play, apparently. Edwards writes:
People even used paper darts the same way kids use paper airplanes today: to be annoying. An 1881 description of the New York Stock Exchange noted an unusual punishment: "to throw a paper dart or ball at a member during the session of the Board is to incur a fine of ten dollars." Naturally, people threw paper darts at teachers, too: an 1889 story recalls the many times "a paper dart has glided noiselessly down the room, amidst the suppressed applause and smothered hilarity of the students."
When the term "paper aeroplane" first appeared in the 1890s, the toys it referred to looked more like birds than the aircraft that eventually lifted off the ground. They even included ways to flap the wings. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s, when airplanes finally looked like the paper toys of the last century did "plane" fully replace "dart" in the toy’s name.
The lag of that change indicates just how fixated people were to the idea that flying machines would imitate birds. Then again, humans have experimented with a lot of very odd-looking aircraft. Of course, now engineers and designers have truly dialed in the performance of real airplanes as well as the paper variety.
Ulysses S. Grant was a West Point graduate who had no real ambition to be in the military: he wanted to be a teacher. Nonetheless, he served with distinction in the Mexican-American War. After resigning from the army in peacetime, he reenlisted during the Civil War. Following a series of victories, Grant was brought east by Lincoln to command the Union armies. His unrelenting campaign against Robert E. Lee, in 1864–65, finally won the war for the North. Grant was ultimately elected president, but the powers of command he displayed in the army seemed to abandon him when he reached the White House. He was unable to manage the politics of Reconstruction, and his hands-off attitude spawned an outbreak of federal corruption. Shortly after his presidency, Grant posed for the artist Thomas Le Clear. Grant owned this portrait, while a second, larger version entered the White House collection.
18o presidente, 1869–1877
Ulysses S. Grant se graduó de West Point sin verdaderas ambiciones militares: quería ser maestro. Sin embargo, sirvió con distinción en la Guerra de Estados Unidos y México. Después de renunciar del ejército en tiempo de paz, volvió a alistarse durante la Guerra Civil. Después de una serie de victorias, Grant fue transferido al este por órdenes de Lincoln para que comandara los ejércitos de la Unión. Su campaña sin tregua contra Robert E. Lee, en 1864–65, finalmente consiguió que el norte ganara la guerra. Grant fue finalmente electo presidente, pero las dotes de mando que demostró en el ejército parecen haberlo abandonado cuando llegó a la Casa Blanca. No pudo manejar la política de la Reconstrucción y su postura de no intervenir dio pie a un brote de corrupción a nivel federal. Poco después de su término presidencial, Grant posó para el artista Thomas Le Clear. Este retrato fue propiedad de Grant, mientras que una segunda versión, de mayor tamaño, pasó a la colección de la Casa Blanca.
Thomas Le Clear (1818–1882)