Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Mastering Tradition

ICA's apprentice program


Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but when it comes to keeping traditions alive, imitation is also a lifeline. Idaho has become a welcoming community for a range of nationalities, each bringing unique cultural arts ranging from Burundi basket weaving to Turkish drumming into an area teeming with artistic traditions of its own.

These folk arts depend on constant practice, support and instruction, and for the past 25 years, Idaho Commission on the Arts has provided that assistance through its Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, awarding more than 390 grants to master and student artists throughout the state.

According to Folk and Traditional Arts Director Maria Carmen Gambliel, the program was conceived as a way to keep the tribal arts alive, and it later began to incorporate refugee and immigrant groups, such as Basques, Latinos and Western European immigrants.

"It works with people who learn to do or make from others in their cultural groups to maintain lifestyles and connect with their roots," Gambliel said. "Our main goal from the outside is that cultural expression continues in the community."

The commission hopes that by the conclusion of a four- to 10-month-long apprenticeship, the apprentice will be skilled enough to pass the tradition to others.

Emmett-based saddle maker Deana Attebery was a saddle-carving apprentice in 1993 and a rawhide braiding apprentice in 2003. She became a master artist in each discipline. Attebery is currently one of Idaho's artists-in-residence and has worked with Treasure Valley Community College students and 4-H youth.

"The program really encouraged me on this aspect to pass it on," Attebery said. "These are lost arts in today's society, and lots of kids today spend most of their time in front of the computer and don't do a lot of stuff with their hands or take part in craftsmanship."

This year, ICA awarded $11,000 in grants to five apprentice/master artist partnerships. The artists range from Greek dancers to Norwegian folk painters to Basque percussionists.

Nikki Totorica, master artist and instructor of the Greek Mediterranean Dancers, is a lifelong member of Boise's Greek community. She first learned Greek dancing in the basement of the St. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church when she was 5 years old.

"Belonging to the church, it's just part of the culture, part of who I am ... " Totorica said. "You go to any function, celebration or wedding, and there is always dancing."

Totorica will use part of the $3,000 grant to purchase traditional costumes, which usually cost more than $300 each, for the Greek Mediterranean Dancers. Their dance attire currently consists of black pants and tops.

Totorica also hopes to travel to different Greek and folk dancing conventions to teach new techniques to her niece and apprentice Miren Aizpitarte, as well as to draw new members into the dance group.

Master artist Joanne Hulstrand and her apprentice Grace Herron, a retired Hillside Junior High art teacher, specialize in the Norwegian art of rosemaling, which involves the painting of scrolls, flowers and leaves onto wooden plates, bowls or trunks.

"I can do the small scrolls, but when you do the large scrolls, it's done in one stroke," Herron said. "Joanne can turn corners and get the fluidity of one stroke. You watch her and it's like magic."

Hulstrand, whose first language is Norwegian, recently returned from a 21-day trip to Norway, which included an eight-day class on rosemaling.

"I realized that we really have Americanized rosemaling to the point that we better start reverting back to the old form," Hulstrand said. "We just went over the edge a little bit too much. We need to be a little looser, have more energy."

Hulstrand has known Herron since 1998, when the two taught rosemaling to Herron's art students. They plan to use some of the $3,000 grant to teach a public workshop.

Basque musician and Amuma Says No percussionist Spencer Martin hopes to increase awareness for a Basque percussion instrument, the txalaparta, that once teetered on the brink of extinction. Originally used as a communication device to call people to the cider houses when a new batch was ready, the two-person instrument is composed of long wooden boards held up horizontally. When beaten with Basque drum sticks called makilak, a hollow trotting horse sound is produced.

Martin first heard the txalaparta 10 years ago in San Sebastian, Spain, and will use his $2,760 grant to build two txalapartas, one of which he hopes to make pitched in order to play melodies. Martin and his apprentice, Julia Achabal, teach the youth Basque percussion group Txantxangorriak together. Martin plans to use higher-quality wood, as well as salvaged wood he finds throughout town.

"As a percussionist, that's half the fun: creating and building that stuff," Martin said. "You're making music out of found objects, and you're spreading that along to whoever is willing to put up with us."

Achabal said the Basque music scene in Boise has ballooned from a single accordion and tambourine duo to the formation of the Oinkari Dancers, Txantxangorriak and local bands such as Amuma Says No.

"I've grown up in this Basque community, and consistently the activities around our culture are growing, and this is just another piece in that growing culture," Achabal said.

At the conclusion of each apprenticeship, groups submit a final report to the commission answering what was accomplished and how they involved the public in their art.

Martin, who brought the txalaparta along to Washington, D.C., for Amuma Says No's performances at the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center, hopes to spread the music of the txalaparta to as many people as possible, Basque or not.

"Things are being lost, and this is a way it can keep going. It's nice the State of Idaho and the Idaho Arts Commission can appreciate arts like this, and I feel very honored that they would allow us to be a part of it."