Just Plain Folks

Say the word folklife and many people can't help conjuring up visions of cross-eyed hillbillies who live in Appalachian hollows with their stills and slobbering hounds. No surprise there's more to it than that. The folks at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida are trying to break through people's stereotyped notions of what folklife can mean by mounting the touring exhibition Florida Folklife: Traditional Arts in Contemporary Communities, which opens Friday.

Two years in the making, the exhibition features more than 180 handmade works -- quilts, boats, baskets, garments, musical instruments, costumes, and more -- by 80 artists from throughout Florida. The genesis of the show was 22 years of research conducted by folkorists associated with the Florida Department of State's Division of Historical Resources, who have been traveling through the state's cities, towns, and rural areas documenting the various forms of traditional expression that are often defined as folklife.

"We decided to focus on material culture, meaning objects," explains Stephen Stuempfle, folklife program coordinator at the Historical Museum. "Everything we have on display is based on some sort of shared communal aesthetic. Everyone has his own way of doing things, but there is usually a shared element. That's what folklife is -- a way of doing things or expressing oneself that involves cultural patterns that are shared."

In addition to the exhibition, this Saturday the museum will present the South Florida Traditional Arts Festival, which will feature several South Florida artists displaying works, such as Cuban quinceanera dresses, and demonstrating skills such as Japanese origami and Haitian kite making. Cuban, Bahamian, and Haitian musical acts will perform, and Glen Simmons and Laura Ogden will discuss their book Gladesmen.

If people realize folklife is created by folks and its objects can be just as important and beautiful as those shown in major art museums, then the museum's mission will have been accomplished. "These traditions reveal types of creativity and knowledge that often get ignored because our society is so focused on mass-produced objects and images through the media," notes Stuempfle. "Often this type of creativity is portrayed as quaint and anonymous, that there are not actual individuals who do these things. Our message is that there are actual individuals who do this work and that these people have well-developed aesthetics and highly developed skills too."

-- Nina Korman

The Florida Folklife exhibiton opens Friday, September 25, and runs through January 3, 1999. The South Florida Traditional Arts Festival takes place Saturday, September 26, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, 101 W. Flagler St. Admission to the exhibition is five dollars; the festival is free. Call 305-375-1492.