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Geraldine Niva Johnson: In Memoriam

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One woman mixes ingredients in a bowl while another woman interviews her, holding a microphone.
Geraldine Johnson interviews Ruth Newman, who is cooking in her aunt’s home in Galax, Virginia. Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection. Photo by Lyntha Scott Eiler.

Note: the following is a guest post by Carl Fleischhauer, a former staff member who participated in many of AFC’s field projects in the 1970s and 1980s. 

This blog celebrates the life of Geraldine Niva Johnson, who passed away on November 16, 2016. Gerri was a folklorist who specialized in women’s crafts, especially woven rag rugs and quilts. Her contributions to two American Folklife Center field research projects in the 1970s, however, demonstrated that her sensitivities and knowledge extended well beyond the realm of fabric arts.

Gerri was born on July 10, 1940, to Clifford and Janet Niva in Superior, Wisconsin. The family–of Finnish extraction–moved to Duluth, Minnesota, not long after her birth. Gerri graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, in 1963 with a degree in English. She got a high school teaching job in Tucson, Arizona, where she met Jim Johnson, whom she married in 1965. A year later they moved to Los Angeles where Gerri received her master’s degree from UCLA, followed by a move to Washington, DC, where she taught at Howard University and the University of Maryland, College Park. Within a few years, Gerri had started work on her doctorate at the University of Maryland.

Gerri’s folklife fieldwork began in earnest when she participated in a crafts survey for the state of Maryland in 1975, a project that took her to the highlands of the Western Maryland panhandle, where she documented domestic rug-making. This study evolved into her doctoral dissertation, “The Weaving of Rag Rugs: A Women’s Craft in Western Maryland.” Gerri received her degree in 1980. An essay based on this work was published in Rosan A. Jordan and Susan J. Kalcik’s Women’s Folklore, Women’s Culture (1985, University of Pennsylvania Press), with the full study presented in the 260-page monograph Weaving Rag Rugs; A Women’s Craft in Western Maryland (1985, University of Tennessee Press).

In 1987, Thomas McGowan reviewed Gerri’s book for the Appalachian Journal, praising its “clear descriptions of weavers’ methods, careful distinctions of regional style, and provocative insights into the personal esthetic, traditional patterns, material necessity, chance, community values, and weaver-customer negotiation.” McGowan added that “Johnson’s careful descriptions, dogged and voluminous research, and articulate expression of individual values make it an exemplary folk craft analysis ….”

This writer sees Gerri-the-person in those words as much as the text-she-wrote. Her insights were always as much about the people she visited as about the crafts they created. She said as much herself in the 1985 essay: “Describing the [weaving] process . . . tells us as much about the rug maker as it does about the rug.”

Donna Choate and her husband Sabe stand in front of a quild draped over a fence. A farm building and flatbed wagon can be seen in the background.
Gerri Johnson took this portrait of quiltmaker Donna Choate and her husband Sabe standing in front of a fence with a quilt draped over it. (Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection AFC 1982/009: BR8-GJ29-14.)

In 1978, she joined the American Folklife Center’s field team for the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project. There were fabric-based crafts in this region–quilts more than rugs–and Gerri found great examples, many of which are featured in the online collection Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978-1996 . Here are two, named by the patterns applied to their pieced tops: “Trip Around the World” by Donna Choate of Alleghany County, North Carolina and “Sunflower” by Maggie Shockley of Hillsville, Virginia.

Gerri’s recorded interviews not only gathered information about quilt design and method but also elicited insights into place and time. “You know, I’ve never done any of the, of the fancier quilting,” Maggie Shockley told Gerri. “By the piece, by whatever pattern the quilt is pieced. The fact is, I think most of us mountain people, always quilted, that, that was the type of quilting that most of the people around did, was just the fan, or the diagonal, or quilted it by the block rather than, I know, in late years, you know, since quilting has become quite a fad, that, a lot of it is done more or less with the fancy scrolls and so on.”  (Hear this segment in the player below.  Find Gerri’s other interviews and photos of Maggie Shockley at this link.)

Gerri’s fieldnotes from the Blue Ridge project reveal the breadth of her interest in cultural expression, including examples encountered at the many small Protestant churches that dot the region. Joined by other members of the project team, Gerri documented worship services and social events at the Crab Creek Primitive Baptist Church, the Crossroads Primitive Baptist Church, the Laurel Glenn Regular Baptist Church, the Coulson Church of the Brethren, the New Covenant Baptist Association meeting at Redmond Creek, and the Faith Temple Mission.

One three-and-a-half-hour service at the Galax Primitive Baptist Church included hymn singing, preaching (three ministers), communion, and footwashing, followed by a dinner on the grounds. Of the footwashing, Gerri wrote with respectful care:

Elder Nelson removed his coat, and all the men followed his lead and removed their coats. Approximately half of the individuals in the congregation walked up to the front, took a basin, filled it with a small amount of water, selected a church member, and washed his or her feet. Men chose men and women chose women. The elders and the sisters passed out the water and the towels.

Gerri’s sympathetic engagement with the spiritual realm is also prominent in her contributions to another American Folklife Center field project, the 1979 Rhode Island Folklife Project. In that state, religious expression has a different look and feel from the Blue Ridge Mountains, reflecting Rhode Island’s industrial history, which brought many European nationalities, French Canadians, and others to the state.

Woman holds a baby while a hand ladles water over its forehead.
Scene from a baptism at St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church in Woonsocket, August 26, 1979. Photo by Henry Horenstein. (Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection, AFC 1991/022.)

Gerri’s notes from church services sometimes convey a vivid sense of “doing fieldwork,” like this self-deprecating example from St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church in Woonsocket (a spectacular building that is now a cultural center). Gerri was accompanied by project photographer Henry Horenstein. Before the service, she wrote, the Rev. Eugene Lessard had instructed Henry: “Just be discreet. I don’t want people looking at you instead of paying attention to the service.” Gerri added, “Those words were to haunt me later on.” Her fieldnotes for August 26, 1979, continue:

Three priests , a man, and woman hodling a baby surround a baptismal font. One of the priests ladles water over the baby's forehead.
Scene from a baptism at St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church in Woonsocket, August 26, 1979. Photo by Henry Horenstein. (Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection, AFC 1991/022.)

In the middle of that service, the baptism was carried out. The marble font had already been placed at the front of the church and each couple, each foursome actually, with a child came up to the front [to be] baptised. The child was baptised by the priest, and then the parents stood in a line. At about this time I was shocked to see Henry leap over the altar rail and stand right next to the priest in order to get some good photographs. I was in agony at the rear of the church. I was certain that Father Lessard was just going to string me up. As it turned out it didn’t bother him at all. He didn’t suffer nearly as much as I did. In any event once all the families were lined up at the front of the church, the baptism was then completed, and they returned to their seats, and the rest of the service continued.

Gerri’s writings convey the importance and value of documenting people’s lives and thoughts. In another account from Rhode Island, she wrote of interviewing Mr. and Mrs. Romeo Berthiaume, a couple of French Canadian heritage. Here are Gerri’s notes from her visit the Berthiaume’s home in Woonsocket in August 1979:

I set up the tape recorder, we started tape recording probably about 6:30 or a quarter to seven, and in that first tape I hardly had to say one word. I began by saying, “tell me about yourself,” and he started in. He has a structured tale that he wants to tell without interruption, and it was not necessary for me throughout the first twenty minutes of the tape to say a word. He has it clearly outlined in his mind. . . . He has a very strong sense of his own professional commitment to what he considers French folksong. A folksong has a particular meaning for him. By French folksong he means the old folksongs sung in French, particularly those from French Canadian culture. When he was done presenting his life, I then switched the mike over to Mrs. Berthiaume so that she could do the same thing. I again had this strong sense that she had a tale to tell and that we would not get into any serious conversation until these two people had been allowed to give their own particular sense of self. She talked for a while. It was interesting to observe both of them at this point. During this first half hour, as they were talking, both of them leaned into the microphone and neither one of them looked at me. As hard as I tried to maintain eye contact with them, they were not talking to me. They were talking to the microphone; they were talking to future generations during the first tape. After they got through their separate structured reminiscences, then we carried on a normal conversation with eye contact, questions and answers and the kind of interaction that one would find more normal. But that first tape is very interesting in terms of what they felt they had to say about their lives and French Canadian culture in general.

(Listen to Romeo Berthiaume singing “La Soupe aux Pois” in the player below.)

In the years that followed her participation in the folklife field projects, Gerri turned to other pursuits: she taught training courses for low-income students and, for a decade, managed a donut business that expanded from three to six shops. Her husband Jim recalls that she often adopted Persian and Himalayan cats, had a reputation for her “wicked wit,” and (connecting back to her Minnesota youth), labeled herself as an active Hubert Humphrey Democrat.

At the American Folklife Center, we recall her words about the Berthiaumes “talking to future generations,” confident that the products of Gerri’s folklife fieldwork will also speak to future generations, a testimony to the attention she paid to what was important to people, and the care she gave to preparing a documentary record with permanent value.

Note: We are not sure of the identities of people in the baptism photos above.  If you know who they are, please leave us a comment to let us know!

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