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Ready for research: Documentation of Southern pottery, Southeast Asian cultures, and Armenian folk crafts

Nancy Sweezy and Barry Bergey posing in the Library of Congress

Nancy Sweezy was awarded the Bess Lomax Hawes NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 2006. Pictured at the ceremony with Barry Bergey, former director of Folk and Traditional Arts at the National Endowment for the Arts. Photograph by Tom Pich.

This is a guest post by American Folklife Center archivist Jesse Hocking, who is part of a new cohort of archives staff across the Library who were hired to help bring collections out of the processing backlog.

The American Folklife Center is excited to announce that the collection of Nancy Sweezy (1921-2010), noted folklorist, potter, and traditional arts administrator, is open for research. A finding aid is now available at this link. The finding aid includes detailed inventories of Sweezy’s manuscripts, field notes, photographs, sound recordings, and videos documenting her decades of support for diverse expressive culture.

In the 1960s, Nancy Sweezy served as president of the board of Club 47 in Cambridge, MA, a significant venue in the folk music revival. It was through Club 47 that Sweezy met Ralph Rinzler, who would become a longtime friend and collaborator. At the time, Rinzler was working as fieldworker for the Newport Folk Festival, bringing southern musicians and crafts up to the festival. In 1966, with Norman Kennedy and Ralph Rinzler, Sweezy developed the nonprofit Country Roads, Inc. Two years later, with the help of the Newport Foundation, Country Roads purchased the historic Jugtown Pottery near Seagrove, North Carolina. Sweezy became the director of Jugtown from 1968 to 1982. Her leadership brought national attention to Jugtown and contributed to a resurgence of the traditional pottery market in the Piedmont region. The Nancy Sweezy collection includes photographs of pottery work at Jugtown, notes on glaze recipes and kiln designs, and other documentation of the era.

Green and brown glazed teapot

Teapot made by Pam Owens, Jugtown potter.

After leaving Jugtown Pottery, Sweezy traveled throughout the southern United States, conducting interviews and researching the makers of traditional southern pottery. For the Smithsonian Institution, Sweezy developed a traveling exhibit displaying the work of these potters and wrote a book—Raised in Clay: The Southern Folk Pottery Tradition, published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1984 and re-published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1994. Audiocassettes of Sweezy’s interviews with artists have been sent to the Library’s National Audiovisual Conservation Center.

In the 1980s, Sweezy was asked by Bess Lomax Hawes to serve as a panelist, consultant, and evaluator of craft programs around the country for the Folk and Traditional Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts. Sweezy served in this capacity for more than a decade and many of the site visits are documented in Series 4. Returning back to Massachusetts, Sweezy established Refugee Arts Group (RAG) in 1985 in Boston through Country Roads. The group administered festivals, workshops, exhibitions, apprenticeships, and school programs focused on empowering Southeast Asian refugees to preserve their cultural knowledge and art practices. RAG materials in the collection include documentation of master and apprentice work, education kits for teaching about Cambodian, Hmong, and Vietnamese cultures in the US, and much more.

A woman and a girl doing needlework

Chia Yang Khang, a Hmong fabric artist, teaches apprentice Maria Khang the traditional art of paj ntaub as part of the Refugee Arts Group apprenticeship program. Photograph by Marc Halevi.

Parade

Vietnamese Lion Dance at the 1987 National Folk Festival in Lowell, Massachusetts led by master artist Hiep Lam. Photograph by Sam Sweezy.

In the 1990s, Nancy Sweezy began a study of Armenian folk crafts. She and her son, photographer Sam Sweezy, made many trips to Armenia researching and documenting instruments, artifacts, architecture, and traditional arts as practiced in the Republic. They collaborated with Armenian scholars to publish Armenian Folk Art, Culture, and Identity, edited by Levon Abrahamian, Nancy Sweezy, and Sam Sweezy.

Other projects documented in the collection include Spirited Objects, an interview project Sweezy undertook in 1998, which was to become an exhibition of the best of American crafts from New England blacksmithing to Cherokee basketry. While the final exhibit did not fully materialize, the photos, interviews, and writing of Spirited Objects have been preserved for public research here at the Folklife Center.

Carolina Restrepo, a library technician at AFC, assisted in processing the Sweezy materials and writes of her experience:

Processing the collection was like constructing a puzzle whose pieces had origins in different times, geographical regions, and cultures. I explored ancient symbols, such as the many intricate Khachkars, throughout the mountainous Armenian landscape, and was captivated by the spiritual expression of Green and White Hmong Paj taub. I particularly appreciated documentation of events that mirror my experience growing up in an immigrant community grappling with its transition of space and time. I am filled with gratitude my elders insisted I practice Mapalé and Bambuco to represent the Colombian community, and see ready parallels to the cultural events that Nancy Sweezy and other folklorists laboriously organized and documented in the 1980s and 1990s. I invite members of the Southeast Asian community of New England to explore this collection and relive those events. See if you find your auntie’s face participating in a weaving workshop, or an old family friend dancing at the Lowell Folk Festival!

Visit the Folklife reading room soon to see this incredible collection. We’ll be open 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday, whenever the Library is open to the public. Check the Library’s current status at loc.gov!

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