Carol Edison, the Utah state folklorist of 33 years, is one of the last remaining state folklorist in the country. Edison is taking early retirement after budget cuts to Utah Folk Arts Program. She will be receive the Mayor’s Artists Award for service to the arts by an individual on June 24 at 8:15 p.m. at the Utah Arts Festival.
What did your job as a state folklorist entail?
On a really good day, we say something like, “I’ve noticed there are a lot of musicians on Highway 12. We need to let the world know about that. So, what’s the best thing we can do?” It’s a cumulative knowledge—you spend a lot of time going to community events and reading local newspapers. Every time I travel, I’m picking up brochures, I’m looking at bulletin boards and asking for the names and addresses of local artisans. ... Over time, you get a sense for what’s happening in the state. So, an ideal day would be one gathering information, processing it and deciding how best to share it with the general public.
How did your position come to an end?
The money went away in 2009 [due to Arts Council budget cuts from the Legislature]. There was a big public outcry. Arrangements were made for us to stay on while the transition was supposed to take place, and the time has run out. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with the program or with the Chase Home Museum [Liberty Park, 700 E. 1300 South, 801-236-7555, Arts.Utah.gov, which Edison oversaw with Craig Miller]. Our fingers are crossed that a good solution will develop.
Why is cataloging and disseminating folk arts significant?
Being a folklorist is a wonderful thing because it gives you license to investigate what’s out there, analyze it, figure out what matters to the people and then figure out the best way to share that. Hoping that, by sharing it, you’re going to help perpetuate it. So some little kid will say, “Geez. Some lady came here and thinks Grandpa’s whittling is neat. And she had him come to Salt Lake City to be at a festival. Maybe I better learn how to do that.”
So what will be lost?
There’s nothing like having an outsider say, “This stuff’s cool.” You watch your dad do it all the time and think it’s nothing. It’s cool! So we are going to honor him, as an example, by buying his art and putting it in the state collection, by giving him a grant so he’s got time to teach somebody else how to do it, by hiring him for an event so he can talk to a lot of people and show them what he does. It’s that honoring people in the public—that’s what our job really is: to find the stuff and share it. Some might think that’s a silly way to spend taxpayers’ money, but we’re finding it and documenting it. It’s part of our history. And we’re also trying to build bridges of cultural understanding so people can value those that are different than them. People walk into that Ethnic Room and think that that work isn’t from Utah. Yeah, it is. It’s your neighbors. Open your eyes and learn to appreciate what’s around you.
What’s been your highlight about the art community?
People do this art because they value their heritage and culture and want to perpetuate it; they know art is a way they can share it with others. They’ve worked very hard on pieces that are absolutely beautiful, that may or may not be recognized by a larger public. But they do it because they have to do it. They could go to Walmart and buy a rug made on a loom in China, or they could spend two weeks on a rug for a neighbor. That’s the kind of people they are. So it’s been a pleasure and honor to get to meet them all.
How do you work as a storyteller?
The storyteller part of being a folklorist is really just being a translator. We find a lot of stories out there, and we reformulate them in a way that makes them more accessible or meaningful for the public. Part of that is pointing out what is valuable or beautiful about it, because not everybody has time to figure that out. If we can consolidate that and share it, that’s a good thing to do.
How do you share the information?
A variety of ways. It’s buying art and showing it. It’s hiring artists to perform and providing a context for what they’re doing to give the audience a handle to better understand what they’re watching. It’s producing CDs or booklets that feature the most significant art forms that are traditional in the state.
Looking back, is there one story that sticks out?
I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of weeks in Washington, D.C., with Mary Holiday Black, who’s now a world-renowned Navajo basket maker. She and two of her daughters and granddaughter were there for a festival that had a component of basket weaving. We were there for two weeks, and they brought all of their weaving materials, ready to go. The sumac was all cleaned; they just had to split it and weave. Mary spent the entire two weeks weaving. She doesn’t speak English too much, so she just wove. We’d ask her to come out to dinner or various activities. But, no, she said she just wanted to weave. On the last night of the festival there was a big party. She came down with her basket and said, “Carol, I want to sell this.”
I said, “It’s sold! I’ll take it. How much do you want for it?” I went over to the cash machine and got out more than she asked for and calculated later that she had just earned significantly less than $10 an hour for the weaving itself, which didn’t include the time for harvesting, preparation and cleaning. Yet, that’s what she does every day of her life: She weaves; she makes those baskets. And she’s taught all of her kids how to do it and many of her neighbors. And she weaves baskets that have stories in them about Navajo culture and legends that are saved for everybody. And she does it selflessly.
I’ve met so many people like that. That story illustrates what I’ve found again and again and again.
Any big projects planned for retirement?
My book I’m working on is more historical than contemporary folk art. I’m really interested in 19th-century pioneer stone carvers, who left a legacy of unbelievably beautiful gravestones throughout the state. They were trained in England and Scandinavia and the Southeast, and they brought those skills, styles and traditions here. And we have beautiful art. I’ve identified a number of carvers and am delighted to share that with the historical record and help people appreciate the beauty of those grave markers.