Dispatches from the Road to Reopening – Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program

This is the fifth article in a series on reopening arts and cultural organizations across Tennessee. As Tennessee continues to open up in this ever-changing environment, new opportunities and challenges appear as we come back together in person. In addition, arts and cultural organizations are essential to the recovery of Tennessee’s economy. In recognition of the very challenging circumstances facing arts and cultural organizations, these articles aim to bring us together as a community by sharing how different organizations find opportunities and solutions to moving the arts forward in our state.

By Bradley A. Hanson, PhD, Director of Folklife

At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, in March 2020, thirteen apprenticeship teams were hard at work, meeting regularly and tackling the goals set out in a work plan they developed at the time of application. Most definitions of Folklife make some significant distinction that traditional arts, skills, and knowledge are shared and passed between people in face-to-face encounters. Our description notes that Folklife, most often, “is transmitted orally, by imitation, through observation, and in performance.” This being such, a special strain was placed on the important work of traditional artists when the pandemic shutdown began.

As part of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program design, Folklife Program staff visit each master and apprentice two times during the term of the project. These site visits are a way for Evangeline Mee, Traditional Arts Specialist, and myself to get to know the artists, to learn more about the work, and to document their progress through a combination of photography, audio, videography, and written notes. After the apprenticeship projects have concluded, the best of this documentation is then presented along with objects from the various projects in an exhibit at the Tennessee Arts Commission gallery. Each June, when the exhibit opens, the artists are invited to come from across the state to join together at an opening reception. Each team has an opportunity to discuss or demonstrate their work, turning the event into a kind of miniature folk festival.

For our part, we had fortunately visited twelve of the thirteen teams prior to mid-March 2020. During the early days of the shutdown, we worked with teams to find suitable, safe ways to complete their work in some form. Some projects involved only family members and continued to meet in person, others went virtual, and some had to modify work plans to be less ambitious. The exhibit set for June, of course, could not take place. Still, the work of the 2020 teams was vital and carried out with great care under trying conditions. Because the exhibit was not possible, we presented the teams, their stories, and our documentation in multi-media essays.

The apprenticeship program moved cautiously into 2021. Eleven new teams were awarded funding in November 2020, each having completed the standard application, including a new detailing of how they would navigate the continuing challenges of the pandemic. As these teams began their work, travel for site visits was still not possible. We monitored from afar, soliciting self-documentation in the form of photos and videos and keeping up with many of the teams as they charted their progress on social media. As travel has become more feasible in the late spring, we have finally set out to document the latest projects in the past few weeks. It has been a thrill to return to the field, to marvel again at the creativity and devotion of the state’s finest traditional artists, and to catch up on capturing through documentation the process and products of these efforts. To date, we have visited four teams of masters and apprentices, each having made their distinctive journey through the past several months. As we return to fieldwork, and as these artists return to sharing and transmitting their traditions, we offer these dispatches from the road.


Johnny Bellar, master, and Joey Gibson, apprentice. Resonator Guitar

Johnny Bellar, of Ashland City, Tennessee, is recognized today as one the most expressive and well-respected resonator guitar players in Tennessee–and the United States for that matter. Born and raised in Springfield, Tennessee, Johnny grew up immersed in traditional country music. At age 14, he was inspired to first take up the resonator guitar–an acoustic guitar with a metal resonator cone built into its body–after hearing the playing of his dad’s older brother, Felix. Johnny began listening for hours on end to recordings of Josh Graves, of Tellico Plains, Tennessee, and Beecher Ray Kirby (better known as Bashful Brother Oswald) of Sevier County, Tennessee. By age 17, Johnny was a guest on stage with Graves at the Bluegrass Inn and shortly thereafter won his first contest. Johnny soon launched a career that would see him play for over a decade with the legendary Stoneman Family, found the bluegrass group New Tradition, join Wilma Lee Cooper’s Clinch Mountain Clan on the Grand Ole Opry for many years, and pursue a solo career that has included the recording of ten albums and the composition of many well-loved instrumental tunes.

As part of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program this year, Johnny taught apprentice Joey Gipson. Also born to and raised in a family of musicians, Joey’s primary instrument is the banjo. First introduced to the instrument at age 10, Joey has won 14 state championships and a 3rd place title at the National Championship. He has also played resonator guitar as a secondary instrument for many years and has used this opportunity with Johnny to enhance his skills and continue to hone his personal style.

We met with Johnny and Joey on the patio of the American Legion Post 82 in Nashville. They were good-humored and relaxed. After tuning their dobros, they worked carefully through several of the tunes they had selected during the project. In between, they shared with us their eagerness to return to more live playing, especially the music contests, festivals, and jams that are central to the old-time and bluegrass music communities. They noted favorites the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention and the Smithville Fiddler’s Jamboree, set to return for an in-person audience this weekend. Both named several contest victories, with Johnny sharing that he was the last player to win the National Resonator Guitar Championship in 2005. That contest has not been held since, leaving his reign intact. Finally, Johnny slowly demonstrated the extraordinary arrangement of Shenandoah that had secured him that victory, explaining to us throughout the chord choices he made. Listen here.

View a virtual gallery of more of photographs from that day. 


Héctor Saldivar, master and Ariel Dickman, apprentice. Folk Sculpture.

Héctor Saldivar is an award-winning ceramicist and sculpture artist based in Lenoir City, Tennessee. Héctor was born and raised in Mexico City, and although he has spent more than half his life in the United States, his art draws inspiration from the colorful traditions of Mexican craft. At age six, Héctor began making piñatas for Las Posadas celebrations. Since moving to Tennessee, Héctor has been making larger sculptures out of cardboard and papier-mâché, in the tradition of Mexican cartonería. Ever-evolving, Héctor’s art now includes ceramics and recycled material. This multi-media folk art draws from Héctor’s lived experience, the natural world, and the cultural traditions of Mexico.

“The importance of this art form is that people can see something different than they usually see in regular art exhibits,” Héctor explained in his application. “At the same time, it promotes my cultural roots and exposes the community to diversity.” In recent years, Héctor has had solo exhibits at Casa HoLa in Knoxville and has exhibited at the Knoxville Museum of Art’s Latino Artist Exhibit.

This year, Ariel Dickman, Héctor’s niece, has been learning her uncle’s unique form of folk sculpture as part of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. From Knoxville, Ariel is a high school student and has been painting for five years. “My uncle is my influencer and role model because of his willingness and love for art,” Ariel explains. “I want to work with Héctor because his art shows his love and talent for Mexican culture. I love the vibrant colors and stories his art shows. Our culture is the inspiration to my uncle’s art, and I would love to learn from him.”

We met Ariel and Héctor on a scorching Sunday in mid-June at his spacious but dense and stimulating studio, situated just one block from the heart of downtown Lenoir City. The building is a converted Mexican-Italian restaurant, and Héctor has adorned the full perimeter of the space with his dynamic artwork. Tables, counters, shelves, and recessed wall chambers brim with his brightly colored sculptures, one after another emerging across the space in a shifting array of mediums. Highlights include the papier-mâché Alebrije (mythical creatures), Catrina skeletons, Covid-19-inspired fantastical busts with spiked face coverings, and masks made in mosaic of broken second-hand store dinnerware.

(In the history of TAAP, the density of the space was comparable perhaps only to the Horsin’ Around Carousel Animal Carving School in Soddy Daisy. Hector’s work, though, we found more so to be an intriguing complement to the self-taught paper clay work of two-time master artist Hattie Duncan.)

With Ariel, Héctor has been working with both ceramics and papier-mâché. More than the medium, it is the sense of creativity and liberation that Hector has been trying to inspire in his apprentice. Ariel gets it. It is the freedom to expression, the realization that there are no mistakes in the artistic process, that has most developed within her during this project with her uncle. Together they worked carefully to sculpt a paper clay eyeball that will rest in the palm of a dramatically gripping hand. Ariel studied a particular image of an eye on her phone throughout the lesson, comparing it to the one progressing in her work. Ariel explained that she spent half of this Covid year in virtual high school and half in person. The Sunday lessons, she said, were a welcome break throughout the uncertain year.

Héctor and Ariel were disappointed that we wouldn’t be having the TAAP exhibit again this year. We explained that we hoped to mount some showing in the future to highlight their work and other apprenticeship projects affected by Covid-19. Hector told us he would be featured in Dia De Los Muertos events in Knoxville again this coming fall. Ariel’s work, too, might be included.

View a virtual gallery of more photographs from that day. 

Stay tuned as we share more documentation from our ongoing 2021 TAAP site visits. For more information on the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program and guidelines for applying in the next cycle, visit here.