The nation’s most important artists are not the ones you see on television or hear on the radio; they’re the ones you read about in books. One new book, in particular, gathers 100 of the “greatest artists you’ve never heard of” and presents their stories, environments, and work in vivid detail. Folk Masters: A Portrait of America combines Barry Bergey’s writing with Tom Pich’s stories and incredible photography, exposing more than 30 years of powerful folk artistry.
Bergey and Pich form an unlikely duo. Bergey, who has a certain professorial manner about him, enjoyed a long career in the folk art world. He produced radio programs, exhibits, documentaries, festivals, and everything in between before landing at the National Endowment for the Arts where he eventually became the Director of Folk and Traditional Arts. In that role, Bergey oversaw the NEA National Heritage Fellowship Awards—recipients of which served as the selection pool for Folk Masters. “It was the best day of the year when I got to call these artists and let them know they were to receive this award,” he said. His has been a life dedicated to preserving and showcasing our country’s folk talent.
Pich, on the other hand, speaks through a thick New York accent. A successful corporate photographer, he gained interest in folk art after reading “Masters of Traditional Arts,” a Marjorie Hunt article published in National Geographic in January of 1991. “After flipping through the pages over and over, excited visually by the photography and intrigued to get to know more about these folks through the author’s writing, I realized at that moment that this is the type of meaningful photography I wanted to do. I tried to call the NEA, but ended up getting redirected to the NRA.” Eventually his call went through to the correct three-letter organization and they encouraged him to get involved. “The next day, I took a train down to D.C.” In the years since, Pich has been travelling across America—on his own dime—to photograph more than 200 NEA National Heritage Fellows.
After decades of cataloguing the nation’s greatest folk artists, the two decided they needed to showcase Pich’s stunning photography. Their first idea was to create an exhibit. Bergey said, “It would fit perfectly somewhere like the National Portrait Gallery since it’s a portrait of America in many ways—the diversity, both cultural and geographic.” While planning the exhibit, however, they realized that photographs alone can’t tell the whole story. Similarly, exhibits don’t provide a memento for the artists involved and can’t be shared throughout the country easily. In other words, an exhibit would not inspire quite the same way that National Geographic inspired Pich. To accomplish that goal, they agreed to collaborate on what would become Folk Masters.
Deciding to create the book was easy—the actual publishing process proved to be more difficult. The most daunting task of all, selecting which artists to include, presented a unique problem. “We tried to think about different things: geography, ethnicity, cultural tradition, the visual impact of the photograph, of course,” Bergey said. “In the introduction, I talk about three things that stand out in the photographs: one is a sense of the person, another is a sense of place, and the last is a sense of purpose.” Pich further explained their process, “We looked at the photographs separately. Barry went to his family and I went to my family—then we each came up with a list of about 125. When we got back together, we overlapped our lists and saw which ones we agreed on. Some of them were locks that we knew needed to be included, but the rest were hard.”
Once Bergey and Pich agreed on which 100 artists to feature, they started compiling the text, consisting of three components for each artist. First, they recorded the artist’s life story—not in its entirety, but enough so that readers grasp the artist’s experience, heritage, and motivation. Second, they told the stories behind each photograph. Pich often travelled to remote, inaccessible locations to capture the images, and the stories he accrued border on the numinous. Finally, they included quotes by the artists themselves. Bergey explained, “We wanted the artist to have a voice, so they could say—in their own words—who they are and what they do.”
Asked to share some of his favorite stories from the book, Bergey recollected two Virginians:
Flory Jagoda is in Northern Virginia. At the age of 17, her father put her on a train, knowing that the Holocaust was on the horizon. He gave her an accordion and a forged passport. He told her to play her accordion so perhaps people on the train wouldn’t challenge her identity. She did, and she escaped. She ended up in Northern Virginia, meanwhile 42 of her family members were killed in the Holocaust in Bosnia. She carries on the musical tradition from her grandmother. In the background of her picture is the accordion which traveled with her to safety.
Frank Newsome, a singer in Haysi, Virginia, was a coal miner and now suffers from black lung disease. He became a minister and sings these beautiful, unaccompanied hymns. When Frank got the award, he used the money to put a new roof on his church.
Pich also shared the mystic story behind the cover photograph:
I was going to meet Julia Parker at Yosemite Park—she teaches at the museum there—and there was a storm coming. As I arrived, they were evacuating the park. During a break in the rain, I walked through the forest with her, and she told me how she was everything that surrounded us at that moment. She touched a tree and said, “I am part of this tree.” She talked about “the Earth, the animals, and the sky.” Later that afternoon, when we had another break in the weather, I asked where she would like to be photographed. She said, “my favorite field—where I collect materials for my baskets and my medicines.”
As we started taking the pictures, and started talking, five deer—that I didn’t even know were there—stood and rose out of the grass. So long as we were there, they never left. At that moment, I realized that the photograph contained every word she spoke to me that morning: it’s the Earth, the animals, and the sky, and she’s a part of it.
Bergey hopes the book reveals the value of the NEA. “What other organization besides the NEA would find and highlight these artists?” he said, “We need the NEA.” Pich, on he other hand, wants just one reader to pick it up and inherit the same deep calling that Hunt’s National Geographic article awoke in him all those years ago.
Barry Bergey and Tom Pich will give a presentation on Folk Masters: A Portrait of America at the Virginia Festival of the Book on Wednesday, March 21 at 2 PM. Admission is free. See full schedule of events at vabook.org.
Photography provided by Tom Pich