Virginia Folklife Program

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

Master & Apprentice Program


Master Artist: Ubaldo Sanchez
Apprentice: Jorge Cabrera
City:  Arlington
Folkway: Guatamalan Sawdust Carpet

Alfombras de arracin (rice carpets) are created in Guatemalan cities and villages during Holy Week. Using dyed sawdust, rice, dried beans and other vegetable materials, teams of artists create a carpet depicting scenes from the Passion and other religious images as part of Good Friday activities. Built in the hours before Good Friday services, these carpets are destroyed as the celebrants and congregation walk through them as they enter into the church, reflecting, it is surmised, the destruction of Christ’s “earthly body” just before the crucifixion.  Each carpet is a unique creation, carefully developed by the artistic team during the days leading up to holy week. The images and techniques employed are drawn from a repertoire of traditional religious iconography and long-held community practices. The carpets can extend as far as 150 feet long and 12 feet wide.

Ubaldo Sanchez, the principal artist of the alfombra-making group Alfo-Conce, lives in Arlington, Virginia and learned the tradition from his older brother and community members before immigrating to the United States from Guatamala at age 14. Each year, Alfo-Conce creates an alfombra at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Falls Church, Virginia. Earlier this year, they were invited by the Archbishop of Washington to create a celebratory carpet at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in honor of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to America.  Ubaldo taught alfombra-making using dyed sawdust to a small group of apprentices from Alfo-Conce, led by Jorge Cabrera.

Master Artist: Deborah Pratt
Apprentice: Teddy Bagby
County: Middlesex County
Folkway: Oyster Shucking

For communities on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the oyster fishery was perhaps the largest and most influential industry from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Men and women employed by the industry worked a variety of jobs, from boat cook, captain and crew to shore-based scow gangs and shuckers.  Shucking, in particular, provided many employment opportunities for African-Americans throughout the Chesapeake Region.  Master oyster shucker Deborah Pratt’s parents first met while working in one of the many small oyster houses that dotted the Northern Neck coastline, and she has been shucking for most of her life.  Though the oyster industry has experienced a dramatic decline since the mid-1990s, the art of shucking has continued as a highly competitive sport.  Deborah began competing in 1985, and she has quickly established herself as one of the top women shuckers in the world.  She has won the prestigious Virginia State Championships held each year in Urbanna, National Oyster Shucking Championships in St. Mary’s City, Maryland, and has had impressive finishes against the men in international competitions in Boston and Ireland.  Deborah is known on the oyster shucking circuit for shucking a particularly “pretty oyster.”  Deborah has passed her skills on to her apprentice Teddy Bagby.  “Teddy thinks he can beat me now,” Deborah told us, “But I don’t think so.”

Master Artist: Mark Campbell
Apprentice: Barrow Wheary, Isaac Akers
County:  Richmond City
Folkway: Old Time Fiddle

The early folk song collecting expeditions of Cecil Sharp and others informed the rest of America about the remarkable breadth of fiddle tunes in southern Appalachia, many of which closely resembled songs collected in the British Isles generations earlier.  Still serving as a main source of dance music and the competitive focus of a vibrant network of “Fiddlers Conventions,” old time fiddling continues to thrive in Southwest Virginia.  Since his childhood in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, master fiddler Mark Campbell has traveled around the region, collecting and playing the old time music.  He learned bowing and picking styles from some of the giants of the last generation of great musicians of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, including Melvin Wine, Tommy Jarrell, Ernie Carpenter, Pug Allen, and many others.  Over the years Mark has become quite an accomplished fiddler himself, having been named the 2001 Champion Fiddler at the Appalachian String Band Festival at Clifftop, West Virginia, and the two-time champion of the State Fair of Virginia fiddle contest.  Now living in Richmond, Mark is also sought out as one of the genre’s greatest teachers, and he has chosen two of his most promising young students, Isaac Akers and Barrow Wheary, for a more extensive apprenticeship. 

Master Artist: Frances Davis
Apprentice: Annie James
County:  Franklin
Folkway: Fried Apple Pie Making

Known as “Fried Apple Pies,” “Dried Apple Pies,” or even “Fried Dried Apple Pies,” these locally made pies seem to have a ubiquitous presence throughout Southwest Virginia, appearing on the counters and shelves of country stores, gas stations, and community festivals.  The defining characteristic of the pie is its intense flavor, accomplished through the use of dried apples, which are re-hydrated through a long simmering process with brown sugar.  While each community likely stakes a claim for one of their local pie makers, it is our experience that Frances Davis of Rocky Mount, Virginia takes the title as the ultimate “Fried Apple Pie Lady,” and her delicious fried-dough pies have been featured at festivals around the state, including last year’s National Folk Festival in Richmond and the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival at Ferrum College.  Frances was one of six children born to a share-cropping family.  She learned to cook from her mother, and by the age of twelve was responsible for cooking for her entire family, and caring for the other children too young to go to the fields.  “I had to get up each morning around four, get the fire started to heat the house, and then be sure to have three full meals ready when the grownups came in from the field.  Honestly, I didn’t really have a life as a child, because I had a big responsibility.”  This responsibility led Frances to become one of the most respected and creative home chefs in the region.  “You had to be very resourceful,” she told us; “you had to learn to work with what you had.”  Now Ms. Davis is teaching her sister, younger by 18 years, to make pastries and desserts.  While Annie James is an experienced cook, she’s been making pound cakes and biscuits “out of a box”, and is now eagerly learning how to bake from scratch.

Master Artist: Kathy Coleman
Apprentice: Callie McCarty
County: Wise
Folkway: Appalachian Storytelling

When the American Folklore Society was established in 1901, a critical part of its stated mission was to document the “oral literature” of the southern Appalachian Mountains, as this region has long been regarded as a rich repository of folk tales and gifted storytellers.  Years later, the Virginia Writers Project, a subsidiary of the WPA, collected thousands of folk tales and other forms of folklore, resulting in one of the richest collections in the country.  While the keeping and telling of folktales has greatly declined in modern times, there are a number of storytellers carrying on this tradition.  Kathy Coleman is an accomplished and internationally-known storyteller steeped in the oral and craft traditions of the Wise County coalfields. From a family well known in the region as “singers and talkers”, Kathy has long been aware of her tradition-keeping heritage, and proud of the “legacy of words” she has inherited from her mother and grandmother. She began work as a professional storyteller in 1985, and has gone on to share her knowledge of Appalachian culture and crafts throughout Virginia and the U.S., speaking at festivals, schools, libraries, historical sites, resorts and prisons.  Along the way she has received many honors, performed for dignitaries such as then Vice President Al Gore, and has served as an ambassador of Appalachian expressive culture throughout the world.  Kathy has used her apprenticeship to share cherished stories with Callie McCarty, a young woman from Kathy’s native Wise County, who has already established herself as a fine storyteller.

Master Artist: Moges Seyoum
Apprentice: Bililign Mandefro
City:  Arlington
Folkway: Ethiopian Orthodox Singing

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the oldest of all Eastern Christianities.  A defining characteristic of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the elaborate singing or chanting which takes place often for hours before the service.  The son of an accomplished church musician, Moges Seyoum began his musical education in Ethiopia at the age of eight. He soon became an accomplished singer himself, and an expert in the various genres of Ethiopian Orthodox Christian chant, sacred dance, and associated instrumental practices.  By the time he arrived in the United States in 1982, joining the quickly growing Ethiopian communities of Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia, he could perform from memory the complete Ethiopian Psalter, as well as other liturgical books such as the Ethiopian Hymnary.  In 2006, he recorded and published a collection of six CDs containing the most complicated musical sections for the annual liturgy.  Moges is also an expert on the Ethiopian Christian notational system, the only indigenous system of music writing in Africa, which has 600 signs.  He is viewed as the master of an elaborate style of movement of the prayer staff (takla), and is known as the only such practitioner living in the United States.  Today, while holding down two jobs, he leads the performance of the musical liturgy at the Debre Selam Kidist Mariam Church in Washington, DC, at services that are often attended by more than 2,000 worshipers.  Moges has taught many members of the church the ancient songs of St. Yared, written in the 6th Century.  One of his finest students, Bililign Mandefro, has served as Moges’s apprentice.

Master Artist: Jimmy Price
Apprentice: Alex Handley
County: Amherst
Folkway: Brickwork and Traditional Building Arts

Working from his home business not far from the site of his grandfather’s farm in Amherst, Virginia, Jimmy Price is a master of traditional building craft skills once prized and now nearly forgotten.  Producing the basic materials for historic brickwork and masonry, Jimmy’s family-run business Virginia Limeworks showcases walls built by hand with brick produced on site from Virginia clay, using lime-based mortar made from oyster shells harvested in Maryland and Virginia, burned in kilns on the property and painted with lime washes or mineral-based paints.
Lime has been used in building construction for over 6000 years, but this continuity was interrupted with the invention and broad manufacture of Portland Cement over a century ago.  Now supplying materials for historic restoration and green building projects, Jimmy’s company ships their oyster shell-derived lime products all over the U.S. and abroad, and has close ties to traditional building organizations in the U.K. and Jamaica.
With the help of apprentice Alex Handley, Jimmy and his crew are leading the project to reconstruct historic St. Mary’s City Chapel in Maryland, reproducing the bricks and lime mortar used in the original building, and even the scaffolding made of hand-hewn wood and rope knotting used to build the 1667 structure.  Jimmy’s expertise and labor also contributed to the reconstruction of James Madison’s Montpelier in 2008.

Master Artist: Danny Wingate
Apprentice: Dustin Marshall
County: Grayson
Folkway: Traditional Leatherwork

The history of Grayson County, Virginia is intrinsically tied to the use of horses for both riding and agricultural work.  Danny Wingate grew up on a dairy farm in Grayson County, where his family owned both working draft and riding horses.  Danny’s father taught him to work the fields with draft horses, as well as to do basic leatherwork on harnesses, saddles, handbags, and anything else in need of repair.  As a teenager, Danny sought out and apprenticed with two of the remaining “old leathermen” in the area, Mavin Lyons and Johnny Michael.   Danny has truly honed his craft over the years, and is still closely involved with horses, being one of the last farmers in the area to use draft horses for daily farm work.  Along with his mastery of equine leather work, Danny is also an accomplished blacksmith, farrier, and maker of hand-crafted wood shingles.  Danny apprenticed local craftsmen Mathew Todd and Dustin Marshall.