Art Form (General)

Art Form (Specific)

Place

Ethnicity

PROFILE

The Southern Tier Indian Cultural Association (STICA)was was founded by Indian immigrants in the 1980s seeking to preserve Indian cultural traditions in the region. This short video looks at the early history of STICA told through the voices of some of its founders.

This glimpse into the traditions of The Southern Tier Indian Cultural Association was produced by Arpit Sapre and Apoorva Sonavani through The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes’ Community Documentation Workshop.

The Community Documentation Workshop, made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, began in 2021 as an 8-part workshop series designed to teach residents how to gather and share stories in ways that unify our diverse region, advance cultural equity, and reflect the dignity and resilience of the people within our community.

As our friends, collaborators, and community partners complete their documentaries, The ARTS Council is proud to amplify their stories.

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PROFILE

For the Knox family, food has been central to their livelihoods for over 3 generations. Learn about Jesse Knox’s experience as a professional chef, told by his daughter, Sue and grandson, Kaylen in this short video.

This glimpse into the traditions of the multi-generational culinary traditions of Elmira’s Knox family was produced by Christa Heyward of Elmira Center for Cultural Advancement and Will Wickham through The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes’ Community Documentation Workshop.

The Community Documentation Workshop, made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, began in 2021 as an 8-part workshop series designed to teach residents how to gather and share stories in ways that unify our diverse region, advance cultural equity, and reflect the dignity and resilience of the people within our community.

As our friends, collaborators, and community partners complete their documentaries, The ARTS Council is proud to amplify their stories.

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PROFILE

This Islamic Association of the Finger Lakes (IAFL) serves the Muslim community of the greater Finger Lakes. This short video details some of IAFL’s early history, core beliefs, and their contributions to the larger community locally. 

This glimpse into the traditions of The Islamic Association of the Finger Lakes was produced by Im. Zaman Marwat, Najeeb Rehman, Aayla Sheikh, and Dan Gallagher through The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes’ Community Documentation Workshop.

The Community Documentation Workshop, made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, began in 2021 as an 8-part workshop series designed to teach residents how to gather and share stories in ways that unify our diverse region, advance cultural equity, and reflect the dignity and resilience of the people within our community.

As our friends, collaborators, and community partners complete their documentaries, The ARTS Council is proud to amplify their stories.

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PROFILE

Like many faith communities, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congregation Kol Ami has had to adapt to the conditions of everyday life. This short video illustrates how they have reinvented worshiping and their very popular Jewish Food Festival. 

This glimpse into the traditions of Congregation Kol Ami was produced by Ashley Gillen, Nausheen Fatima, and Beth Manwaring through The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes’ Community Documentation Workshop.

The Community Documentation Workshop, made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, began in 2021 as an 8-part workshop series designed to teach residents how to gather and share stories in ways that unify our diverse region, advance cultural equity, and reflect the dignity and resilience of the people within our community.

As our friends, collaborators, and community partners complete their documentaries, The ARTS Council is proud to amplify their stories.

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PROFILE

Jaya and Naga “Shashi” Shashidar are South Indian Carnatic Musicians who have called the Southern Finger Lakes home for many years. Both Jaya and Shashi share a love of and responsibility to share Carnatic music here in the Southern Finger Lakes. Although they relocated in 2020, while here, their work to perpetuate this music locally was a vital component of the local Indian community. Annually, they organized a Composer Day celebration honoring the music and life of renowned 18th century carnatic composer, Sri. Tyagaraja. These celebrations took place everywhere from local living rooms to places like 171 Cedar Arts.

Growing up in Chennai, South India, Shashi was exposed and trained in classical carnatic music from a young age. His father was a violin teacher and moved their family to be close to a well known violinist, Lalgudi Jayaraman who would take Shashi on as a student.

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I started learning violin when I was 10 and after I started learning that was pretty much my everything. You know, my typical day would actually start with practice in the morning for about an hour and in the evening. And then whenever my teacher had time he would just drop in and teach something new. So that’s how it used to be. So, my day was practice, go to school, come home, practice, and then do homework. It was pretty structured that way.

I learned from a prominent violinist in India called Lalgudi Jayaraman. My father was very impressed with his music, so he actually moved to the city of Chennai just to hear him and be with him. He started learning a little bit from him and then that made my family close to his family. So, that was how I got to learn. It’s a privilege to have studied with such a great musician. What I have learned is like the gold standard of how you perform the music. So, it was a privilege getting that directly from him.

Jaya’s love for music also started at a young age by listening to Carnatic music records in her family home.

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Growing up I think music was something, you know, all South Indians’ households kind of have as a given music artform. And I have older sisters and most of them sang. But I had a South Indian music teacher come home to teach me. So, I started learning when I was in high school back in India. AndI learned until I went to a bachelors program and then I stopped. And then life happened. And then I came here in ’92 to the United States. And I think music is really the common thing you know that brought me to be with Shashidhar in marriage. So, I learned from him for a while.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZG_5XzcCwnI

This kirtana (composition) was composed by Dikshitar, one of Carnatic music’s most significant composers. The kirtana describes Ganesha, the elephant-headed god and remover of obstacles, and how to worship him.

Part of their training during childhood was centralized around the technical skills needed to play the foundations of this musical art form. Shashi describes the basics of a raga:

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Raga is a melody type-melody form. At the crudest level it’s a set of notes sung in a certain way. A certain order. At the next level we have glites that are characteristic of the raga. And then at the higher level you have certain phrasings that go with the raga. So, all this together forms the melody type.

The basic structure is there, but then there’s a lot of liberty that you can take. Just like in Jazz, it’s the same here. There’s liberty you can take with the song itself. You have a free form improvisation and then after the song you also have improvisation that’s more set to the rhythm cycle.

Tabla playing keeps the cycle going. They don’t improvise beyond the cycle. Except when you let them improvise. So that’s a different way of accompaniment. What the rhythm does is actually improvise as you sing along. But really it’s getting used to different kinds of accompaniment.

Whatever Jaya sings will be based on a certain raga. It will be set to certain rhythms. A rhythm cycle. And when you know the raga then you can pretty much follow. It may not be perfect, but you can follow, and you can support. The job of the violinist in the concert is to support the vocalist.

Jaya elaborates on the different roles the vocalist and violinist play when performing:

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So technically the singer will do the main rendition and the format goes where the singer sings. As the singer is singing the accompanist, violinist, would play along and so would the percussion. So, in my case this particular song and many songs I’ve learned from Shashidhar, obviously there is a particular way of rendering these compositions. So, it’s no surprise that the way I sing is the way he taught me, and he has learned from his teacher. So that’s why it’s almost identical. But the same song, another singer can sing a slightly different way. The raga will be the same, but the way he does the words, the phrasings, it could be slightly different.

For many years Jaya and Shashi have held an Indian music festival featuring South Indian performers from all over New York and Pennsylvania. To them this is a contribution to the community and a way to honor a beloved musical artform.

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One of the composers who is called Saint Thyagaraja, he is very popular among several composers. He was born in May 1767 and he lived on until 1847. So, he lived up to 79 years of age. He has made a significant impact or contribution to Carnatic music. So, he has composed over thousands of kritis. One of the kritis Shashidhar played. Like I said, it’s a tradition. Any South Indian classical musician will honor that composer. Part of that is we learn a set of five songs. These are difficult songs. So, we learn them and we sing as a group as a way to pay homage to him. And youngsters who are in the beginning stages will also learn small compositions. And they come and demonstrate their experience by offering a song or two. It’s a festival.

It is very very important for me personally because as a singer or as a person learning, I still call myself a learner, because music, as long as it’s looked upon as a divine art, that’s the least one could give back to music, right. You have to keep it alive. Especially in a place in the Southern Tier where the focus is not music. So, we are blessed. And at the same time, we have the special responsibility to keep this art form alive. So that’s why, even though it’s hard, the simplest way of expressing that responsibility is to do the music festival.

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PROFILE

Gerard Burke is a lifelong resident of Elmira, minus the years he spent at Boston University. Much of his early life was steeped in music — lessons at an early age, his parents’ record collection, and Elmira’s Soul and R&B music community in the ‘70s. For nearly the last 20 years, Burke has performed as a solo delta blues guitarist throughout the region. Hear in his own words about his upbringing in Elmira’s Black community and his journey to become the deeply emotive player he is known as.

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I’m a longtime resident of Elmira, and I define long term as being the major portion of my life. Major portion of my life. I have only been away from Elmira to attend college. I graduated from Boston University with a degree in Journalism. I returned back to the area to work for our local newspaper, and I’ve been here ever since. My family on my mother’s side has been in Elmira since before the Civil War. We’ve traced it back that far. On my father’s side, his family originated in Burke County, Georgia. He and his siblings were the first generation of that part of the family to move to Elmira. We grew up on what is known as the East Side of Elmira. But when I was in sixth or seventh grade, the city razed that whole section to make room for the Chemung County Health Department. From that neighborhood, we moved a couple blocks down the street from Woodlawn Avenue to a street called East Thurston. I went to junior high and high school from there. My father started working at Harding Bros. It was a family-owned machine shop business. He eventually was able to save enough money and purchase a bar on the corner of East Clinton and Madison Avenue. That bar was called Dub’s. As he worked that bar, he was able to expand it by including a diner on the backside. Then he branched off and bought a neighborhood store a couple blocks down from the bar. He and another friend of his also started a janitor service. My mother graduated from local high schools [Elmira Free Academy] and she went to work for the State Department of Corrections at Elmira Reformatory, where she was a receptionist.

Burke describes the musical backdrop in his home growing up.

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I’ll lay that blame at my mother’s feet. We had a piano in the house. As a matter of fact, most of her siblings had musical instruments in their houses. She played, all of my sisters played. I took lessons for saxophone and clarinet lessons in grammar and junior high school. I picked up the guitar right the time the Beatles came out, and I’ve been playing ever since. I stopped for maybe five or six years, maybe even longer, while I was in college. But when I returned to Elmira, I still kind of tinkered around. But I really got seriously back into it, oh, maybe ten or fifteen years ago. My mother was a music fan. She had lots of albums. And it was pretty much the same for my father. Both parents enjoyed recorded music. I distinctly remember my mother having and playing a Billie Holiday’ album, Lady in Satin. And I remember it specifically because of the cover of the album. I also remember a tune by the Isley Brothers called “Shout” from back in the ‘50s that was another one of her favorites. My father was a blues and rhythm & blues fan, and I remember mostly from him James Brown.

As a teenager, Burke immersed himself in the city’s music community. One of his bandmates at the time had a large family living in Elmira and Rochester. When the family got together, Gerard’s band would play.

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That band was called Gary and the Blazers. We were all pretty much on the same level as far as music goes. But they had a huge family, and they were always having parties at what used to be Jones Court. So we had a lot of opportunities to hone our skills by playing in front of people. They weren’t paying us, but they wanted to have some live entertainment, so come one down. “Okay, we’ll do it.” The type of music was mostly soul music and dance music– that kind of stuff. We did stuff by Kool and the Gang, Joe Tex. In junior high we had a bigger band– more horns. The name of that band was called Raw Soul, and we were doing anything you could dance to that had horns in the band. There were a lot of high school dances and church dances back then, because I guess there were a lot of kids starting bands. So with the second band, we had a lot of stuff to do. It was sponsored by a theatrical organization based in the Neighborhood House. They had the sound equipment, so we were able to use their sound equipment for our musical stuff. The bands back then: Mom’s Apple Pie was one of them. The Puzzle was the original group I played with. There was a band called the Kaselles. They played a lot of stuff by the Young Rascals. There was a group called Jack and the Diamonds. There was a group of older gentlemen who played at my father’s bar called The Star Upsetters. Since we were too young to go into the bars, we couldn’t go listen and get stuff from them, but I’m aware of their existence.

Decades later, Burke found the blues.

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My wife and I were visiting my sister down in Charlotte. We went into a pawn shop, where she was looking for cheap jewelry, and we ended up getting a cheap acoustic guitar. I picked it up and I started playing again. That when I switched genres to blues. I decided that if I was going to start playing again, I didn’t want to be in any groups because sometimes personality stuff can get in the way. I decided to do blues because I felt it was more appropriate for a solo artist– an African American solo artist as opposed to singing folk music or any other solo guitarist performances. If you believe—and I’m on the fence about this—that there are different types of blues, my style is what they call Delta blues, which originated in the Mississippi Delta, which is actually in the Northwest corner of the state, as opposed to being farther south where the Mississippi Delta is actually located around New Orleans and what not. It’s more percussive as opposed to intricate finger styles. That’s why I liked it. There are other styles: Texas blues, or East Carolina blues. But as I like to say, and I’m quoting one of my favorite artists, Son House, “There’s only one type of blues, and that’s what consists between male and female.”

Burke describes his approach to building his musical repertoire and his pursuit of feeling in the moment.

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If I’m hearing a song, and I might not like the lyrics, or I might think a chord change would go better than the place the original artist placed it, I do that sort of stuff. When I really do the songs that I play I call them hybrids because most of them, it’s my music with someone else’s words or vice versa. I’ve never been able to put them both together because who needs another blues song. They’ve been playing those since the 1900s. There’s enough that’s already been done that I can adapt to my own purposes and style. All types of music are really improvisation, but some styles take that improvisation and formalize it by writing the notes down on a staff. It all comes from the mind. I just happen to not be able to write down the notes, so I play what I feel. Jazz is basically an improvisational art too, and in some cases you can transfer that to blues as well because it’s all about feeling, I believe. Sometimes you might feel a different way — and I know this from experience — I’ve played the same song different ways depending on how I’m feeling, or how I’m thinking the crowd is reacting to it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOno69RV-VEhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ATI9Ghsp-bkhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUwjzfQaXOQ

Gallery

Photo: Chris Walters PhotographyPhoto: Chris Walters PhotographyPhoto: T.C. OwensPhoto: T.C. OwensPhoto courtesy of Gerard BurkePhoto courtesy of Gerard BurkeBillie Holiday's Lady in Satin (1958)Courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society

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PROFILE

Ira Heyward (1938 – 2019) was a saxophonist and drummer that spent the majority of his life in Elmira and Pine City, NY. A husband and father of four, he was an active participant around the Neighborhood House, Notre Dame High School basketball team, and baseball fields throughout the Elmira area. He was also a veteran and worked for Corning Inc. for 40 years as a skilled laborer, tradesman and member of the United Steel Workers local 1000. The following profile focuses on how he and his family came to Elmira from Charleston, South Carolina and some of his experiences as a local musician in the band the Star Upsetters. Hear Ira share about what it meant to him to perform with the Star Upsetters at Green Pastures, his career working for Corning Inc., and more.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5HMohnw8G0

Ira describes his trajectory over 42 years working for Corning Inc. as a member of United Steel Workers local 100.


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I started out as a laborer. I swept floors, packed boxes, loaded a truck to take supply to Horseheads. I got a chance in ‘61 to go down to Big Flats. At that time Big Flats was booming. They had 3-4 shifts going. 1,300 – 1,400 people working. Outta sight. I had a job there after I started bidding on jobs to improve my income. I learned to etch glass. What you do: cylinders, pipettes, beakers. The girls would wax them, and they’d put the numbers on them, and they had a machine that turned them. And there was an acid room. I learned to run that machine. Acid will not eat wax. You put it in the hot water, the glass would melt off, and it would move to the next station. I worked that for a while. I decided I wanted to learn to blow glass. I bid on the lathe. When I got there, that was really interesting.

If you took high school lab, the equipment you made if they were glass, they were made in Big Flats: erlenmeyers, extractors, so forth. I learned to seal the necks on them, learned to blow them. I got really good. I ended up at Steuben Glass for a while. Then I was on the floor making animals, Ferris Wheels, and all that stuff. I even made some Steubenware, and I engraved some too over 20 years. And I did all of that in the first 22 years working on the lamps. In 1979 Corning was going to convert its tanks to oil. I was afraid if I got laid off what would I do. So I took a trades test. Basically when I took the test I forgot about it. I got in an argument with the plant personell director, and I said, “I’m not coming back here. I’m going back to the main plant.” He said, “You’re not going anywhere. I’m gonna keep you here in Big Flats.” I walked out the door and I was angry. He and I had some discussion that really upset me. By the time I got home, I was living– new house in Pine City, new car. I’m there in Pine City in my home sitting on my bed. I get a call from some people in Corning, and they wanted me to come up to Houghton Park. The man told me, “Ira, you came in second or third on the electricians test. It’ll probably be 3-4 years before we put an electrician on. We have a pipe fitter job coming on.” I had no idea what a pipe fitter was. So I went up there and talked to the man anyway, Mr. Andrews. In doing that, he explained the job to me. “You can do whatever you want. You will learn plumbing, you will learn welding, AC if you want. You can go to Honeywell in Rochester for 3 years and learn that if you want.” Cleaver Brooks– I did 2 years training there for building roof-mount boilers and AC units.

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The old Neighborhood House had 2 gymnasiums, big and small. We converted the small gym on the weekends to dances and roller skating for the kids. Where the skates were, we made it a canteen. The kids could do hamburgers and sell candy. It kept escalating. Supposed to be the weekends. Then I had 5 days of work. I enjoyed it.

In those days, the Neighborhood house was the place to be. You could play basketball, get on a boxing team, roller skate. The lower are had a wood shop, build airplanes, carpenter’s shop. If you wanted a license for hunting or fishing, you could go down there, shoot and qualify for your license. I think it cost $2-3 for a membership for the whole year. Now if you got kicked out of the Neighborhood House, that was like cutting your arm off. Because you wanted to be with the rest of the kids, party. I had no problems. I kicked 2-3 out and that was it. We’d have dances. We’d have Mr Jennings come over. He was one of the area’s outstanding boxers. I saw him hit a man so hard, he tore the ring down. The kids had so many things to do. That’s why I stayed there after the ‘72 flood.

Gallery

Ira Heyward with his saxophone at Patricks in Elmira. Courtesy of Julia HeywardThe Star Upsetters with Ira on drums. Courtesy of Julia Heyward.The Star Upsetters reboot. Courtesy of Julia Heyward.The Star Upsetters at Patricks. Courtesy of Julia and Christa Heyward.Press clipping fo the Star Upsetters reboot. Courtesy of Julia and Christa Heyward.Press clipping from when the Star Upsetters regrouped. Courtesy of Julia and Christa Heyward.Portrait of Ira Heyward after becoming a journeyman plumber through USW 1000 at the Fallbrook Plant. Courtesy of Julia and Christa Heyward.Basketball at the Neighborhood House. Courtesy of Julia and Christa Heyward.Ira Heyward with a young player he coached. Provided by Julia and Christa Heyward.

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PROFILE

The John W. Jones Museum commemorates the life of John W. Jones, born enslaved on July 21, 1817 in Virginia and fled to Elmira in 1844 along the Underground railroad when he was 27. In 1851, Jones became the station master of the Elmira stop of the Underground Railroad en route to St. Catharine’s, Canada. Working closely with chief Philadelphia Underground agent William Still and Elmira abolitionists Jervis Langdon, Simeon Benjamin, Thomas Stanley Day and more, Jones helped nearly 800 enslaved Africans reach freedom. In 1859, Jones also became the sexton for Woodlawn Cemetery, burying just under 3,000 confederate soldiers, keeping records so meticulous that in 1877 the US Federal Government declared the burial site a national cemetery.

John W. Jones Museum president, Talima Aaron describes the selflessness and moral fortitude it must have taken Jones, a formerly enslaved man, to bury in such a dignified manner confederate soldiers.

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Because of how he interred them with respect and dignity, with as much of their belongings with them, when the widows came from the South and they wanted to take their dead to the South, they were resting so peacefully they said leave them where they are. He personally supervised each one of those burials, even though he supervised a crew of twelve. It’s a story that needs to be told all over. On the other hand he is still helping, he’s still reaching back to help those like him to escape the institution of slavery and help them on to freedom.

By 1997, Jones’ home had transferred hands many times, had fallen into disrepair and had been condemned by the city of Elmira. Aaron describes how this historic home was saved from being bulldozed.

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Lucy Brown: she is the founder and president. Here was a working mother, and African American lady who worked in corrections, she was active in the NAACP, and very active in the leadership of her church. So when you’re talking about people standing in their truth, and living a life that really stands up— Lucy started with some Black history programming she was doing at a local high school. She felt that if maybe she could introduce the youth to some figures from history, they’d have a connection. She felt we were losing a lot of our young people– our African Americans especially. They were going to college and not returning, the service, or just finding an Aunt in a bigger city. Just not here. She was talking about John Jones and other figures. She was notified that his house was being demolished. It had been condemned by the city, fell into disrepair and it was a rental. So I guess after there was no family connection, it had been a rental, rental, rental, and it had been infested. It was really an eye sore. So they were going to tear it down. And Lucy actually sat in front of the house with another friend, saved this house, got some attention through the paper. And because of that, concerned citizens that saw this also got behind her. It helped bring up the history of John Jones again. It was known in the ‘50s. He was recognized as being a significant African American contributor, and they named the first projects in the 1950s after him, Jones Court. After that, not a whole lot was said about him. And I think that until Lucy started talking about him again, people didn’t realize that they had this gem here and this legacy here. She sat in front of that house and she saved it. The board of Trustees was born in 1998, and they began meeting in the basement of Monumental Church. That original Board of Trustees was able to secure funding and buy the house. So they bought the house. She is a pretty phenomenal woman; she’s in her 90s now.

Aaron again describes the significance of Jones’ legacy today, and the responsibility she feels to honor that story in a way that is tangible for African Americans in Elmira and all community members.

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When I’m able to enlighten young people or adults—people that lived in Jones Court that didn’t know it was named after a Black man are just amazed. Jones Court was the first projects built in the ‘50s and they named it after John Jones because of his legacy of respect and living his life in service. It was in the African American community and they tore down a lot of the old neighborhood, and some important landmarks to build it, including the original AME Zion, other churches, houses. There were a lot of African Americans there, but it also had folks of other races there, so it was a mixed race community. But it was a very tight community. People that lived there have such fond memories growing up there. But a lot of them did not know who it was named after. I know that we—the African American community, or African Americans in general– really did a lot to help build the country. A lot of stories for African Americans, because so little was saved, becomes a story. But here you can physically come and see his house. So we are the stewards, and so is the community. We have had that relationship with the neighbors. The community in which we live, they are looking out for the museum. That makes me feel good. It’s more than just a building. It becomes a presence. And if we’re honoring the legacy of someone who is so honorable, respectful and so on, I think it’s the least we can do to continue to push that story forward. He lived a life that can be used as a guide to others. And something for young kids to look up to. Quite heroic. He was quite a big character.

To learn more about the life and work of John W. Jones and Elmira’s abolitionist history, visit www.johnwjonesmuseum.org.

Gallery

John W. Jones Museum. Photo: Chris WaltersJohn W. Jones. Photo courtesy of the Chemung County Historical SocietyHistorical marker commemorating Jones' life and work. Photo: T.C. OwensTalima Aaron, current president of the John W. Jones Museum. Photo: T.C. OwensInterior of the John W. Jones Museum. Photo: T.C. OwensInterior of the John W. Jones Museum. Photo: T.C. OwensInterior of the John W. Jones Museum. Photo: T.C. OwensInterior of the John W. Jones Museum. Photo: T.C. OwensPortrait of Lucy Brown, founder of the John W. Jones Museum. Painted by local artist Ronald Hills,Jones' house ca. 1901. Courtesy of the Chemung County Historical SocietyInterior of the John W. Jones Museum. Photo: T.C. OwensInterior of the John W. Jones Museum. Photo: T.C. OwensInterior of the John W. Jones Museum. Photo: T.C. OwensTalima Aaron outside the John W. Jones Museum. Photo: T.C. OwensFrederick Douglass AME Zion Church ca. 1930s. Courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society.Jones Court construction, 1951. Courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society.Jones Court construction, 1952. Courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society.Marker commemorating Jones' house as a historic place. Photo: T.C. Owens

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PROFILE

I am a storyteller. The earliest storytellers were those who did cave drawings. I like to tell stories about history. I think one of the easiest ways to learn about history is to ask someone who was there at the time what it was like. I grew up in New Jersey in a household of makers and doers. My world was filled with working-class folks who claimed and expressed themselves through work, out of necessity and through creative exploits for joy. As a child I was surrounded by gardening, hat and dressmaking, flower construction, leather working, and a myriad of other pursuits. Hands were rarely still at our house. My folks would not have called themselves artists, but I see now they were that and more. To a person, they had amazing singing voices and big personalities. I thought it was normal but now understand how remarkable they were. I was an only child, so I spent a lot of time listening to Elders’ stories about their lives and how and where they were raised.

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I grew up in the 1950s and 60s in the city. What my friends and I loved to do was play street games. We had so many neighborhood games that I don’t ever recall being bored. Few families had telephones. Fewer still had televisions. Most often, younger boys and girls played together. There were street games like hopscotch, marbles, jump rope; ball games like three flies, dodge ball, baby-in-the-air; and porch games like jacks, school, paper dolls, shoebox. We had song plays like Little Sally Walker, Punchinella, Zudio, London Bridge, and many more. Some days we would play one game all day like cowboys or storefronts. We made up our own rules and everyone was allowed to play. To be sure there were fights, but by the end of the day, it was mostly over and the next day started fresh.


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When I wasn’t playing, I was often in the service of older women in my family as they prepared food for canning or gathered to make quilt pieces and quilts. I would be called upon to fan flies, fan the ladies, collect and tote (carry out) unwanted or unusable scraps, and other small duties. If I dragged my feet enough (behind a closed door) and stayed still and quiet I would hear the best stories. Stories that kids my age rarely heard because these stories were meant for grownfolk sharing. I think this is how I began to love storytelling. It was exciting! The ladies were expressive in their ways of telling, so much so that for me, their tales took up lives of their own and played out before my very eyes.

Some tales were sad and spoke about slavery and hard times and some were very funny. I always learned something about how to live life from these stories—how to get by in this world. As an adult, one of my greatest joys has been the privilege of interviewing many elderly Black women. Their stories have been jubilant, painful, expansive, instructive, insightful, and hopeful all in turn. But, I feel their voices are fading. I feel useful filling in the gap and telling their stories or stories like theirs. I don’t want them to be forgotten.

With historical research, I craft dialogue and narratives of their lives. I sometimes express stories in poetry, sometimes as monologue. I love to try to take an audience with me, back to a specific period with the happenings of the day acknowledged for context. Then I paint pictures with words, music, and often costumes and props that allow the audience to lean into that reality.


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Finally, I encourage the audience to ask and answer questions about the lives and times of the character(s) they experience with me. I generally concentrate on elderly everyday Black women in the years between 1845-1960s in the U.S. I feel framing story snapshots in this way allows us to explore valuable old/new lessons history is holding for us.

I call what I do “Framing the Past in the Peace and Possibility of the Present.”

This profile was produced through the Local Learning “Culture, Community, and the Classroom” professional development for teachers and artists.

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PROFILE

Named after Elmira College’s president from 1987 – 2012, Thomas K. Meier, Meier Hall is a residence hall on Elmira College’s campus. Completed in 2012, it was designed by QPK Designs and constructed by local company Welliver. Designed in a traditional collegiate gothic style, it is meant to match the other buildings on Elmira College’s campus built in the late 1850s.

Adorning the exterior are many limestone relief and three dimensional carvings completed by master stone carver Wayne Ferree, based out of Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania. Wayne describes how he started carving on the college’s campus back in 1993.

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When I first came here, I met an architect at the University of Scranton and got a few restoration jobs. I used to drive around with little sculptures I made in the back of my van. I’d go around and sell them anywhere I thought might want them: garden centers, architects. I sold something to one architect, and another was looking for a stone carver at Elmira College. He had my carving on a wall and he said, “I know a guy!” They contacted me and we went to the college. I met with the President and his team, and I gave them some ideas and some drawings, and I sold them. I got this contract to do the carvings on the buildings. They kept using me and using me. Every couple years I’d get a nice contract from them. The last contract I had was with a residential hall called Meier Hall. Meyer was the president’s name. My son helped, too. That was from 1993-2011 or 2012. He’s retired now. He was a special kind of man, the president. That was really fun because after the 20 years prior experience that he had with me, he just showed me the spaces and said, “Do what you want.” The parameters were include the college logos: the iris, octagon and golden eagle. As long as those symbols were in the design, we were good to go. The gargoyles were 3D, and there were other 3D things in other buildings. But it was mostly 2D, high relief, carved 3” down. I like to carve really deep, especially on high buildings, because it really needs to stand out. That building had gargoyles, portraits.

Wayne’s journey as a stone carver began when he was 22, working with pen knives and exacto knives on soap stone. After about a decade he bought his first hammer and chisel set from Sculpture House NYC. Shortly after, he and his wife moved East, where Wayne apprenticed under Vincent Palumbo at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, learning how to architectural limestone carving in a gothic style. Later, raising a family in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Wayne worked with Julius Tomasetti of Tomasetti Cut Stone in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Wayne discusses his experiences learning his craft:

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My wife and I were offered jobs out east. While I was out working a job. Horrible. Locating cables for cable company. My wife heard about the Cathedral. They were hiring stone carving apprentices. 4 months later I got the job. That’s how I learned to carve on an architectural level: Gothic design, crockets, angels, gargoyles. Lots of fun. Not much money. Start at 7:00 am. Carve from 7-3. Run home and shower, then wait tables til 10 or 11 at night. I paid a lot of dues back then, but I had a family to support. You do what you have to do. That was about 3 years.

From the first day I was just going. I had already been doing it. I was like a kid in a candy store. All of a sudden I was able to produce stuff really fast. I had the whole 3D thing down. The pay was commensurate to productivity, and I had a family to support, so I was in there going to town, producing the best work I could as fast as I could. And I was doing it.

When Wayne isn’t creating architectural sculptures, he makes statues, benches, moldings, entryways and more for homeowners. He describes what he considers when beginning a new project:

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I really like traditional things. Renaissance things I grew up with and aspired to. I can and do modern design, but I tend to really like – Trained in Gothic at the cathedral. Always intriguing to me, but probably out of style now. Probably never was. I like things that are graceful, easy, and fun to look at.

Depends on the situation: what the application is? Site looks like? What client wants? I use my design skills to come up with something that they like that still pleases me. There’s gotta be enthusiasm. It’s a creative process. In order to do it well, you’ve got to be into it.

For more information about Wayne Ferree’s stone carving work visit www.ferreestudios.com

Gallery


Meier Hall, Elmira College. Photo: Chris Walters


Relief carving by Wayne Ferree. Photo: Chris Walters


Relief carving by Wayne Ferree. Photo: Chris Walters


Gargoyle by Wayne Ferree. Photo: Chris Walters


Relief carving by Wayne Ferree. Photo: Chris Walters


Relief carving by Wayne Ferree. Photo: Chris Walters


Relief carving by Wayne Ferree. Photo: Chris Walters


Relief carving by Wayne Ferree. Photo: Chris Walters


Relief carving by Wayne Ferree. Photo: Chris Walters


Relief carving by Wayne Ferree. Photo: Chris Walters


Relief carving of Mark Twain by Wayne Ferree. Photo: Chris Walters


Wayne Ferree with gargoyle at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. Photo provided by Wayne Ferree.


Sculpture by Wayne Ferree. Photo: T.C. Owens


Doorway by Wayne Ferree. Photo: T.C. Owens


Wayne Ferree outside his studio in Tunkhannock, PA. Photo: T.C. Owens


Wayne Ferree. Photo provided by the artist.


Relief carving by Wayne Ferree at Meier Hall, Elmira College. Photo: Chris Walters.

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