With three oral history/photography projects under my belt, I’ve been able to see that they don’t simply disappear into the archives. There is so much life left in them!
My first project I completed on my own simply because as a Michigan girl in Kentucky, I was fascinated by the subject. It took several years, in several places, as I followed tobacco farmers through the year as they raised their crops. My research wasn’t about the technical aspects of growing tobacco, nor did it focus on the history of tobacco or health issues. It concentrated on family and community and how everyone became immersed in producing a crop that for generations had put food on tables, shoes on feet and sent children to school. It wasn’t about smoking or big business. It was about survival and working together to help our friends and neighbors. And it’s changing. Today’s growers want a way to show their grandchildren and future generations what they did to earn an honest living and provide for their families, often for five or six generations or more.
Some of the images from this research have been sold as art pieces. People either have fond memories of their years helping raise the crops, or they want nothing to remind them of the backbreaking work. Most people tell us they like the memories and owe more than we can imagine to the money raised from selling tobacco. These images and many others are going into a book so that families can share this heritage with family members. This research will live on for a long time.
My first official Community Scholars research involved quilters in a nearby county. The research didn’t focus on patterns or techniques. Instead, I looked at the quilters themselves, their quilting history, family quilting memories, why they quilted and what they did with their quilts. No one had looked at it quite this way before.
Their stories were all very different, but they all quilted so they could give this symbol of love to friends and families. A few sold a quilt on occasion, but most had never sold a single one. Many made quilts from their children’s favorite clothes. Some turned tattered quilts made by loved ones into things like stuffed teddy bears for the family when the quilt could no longer be patched. Their gifts of love were handed down from one generation to another, even when they could no longer serve their original purpose. The quilters said they were so happy that someone appreciated them and their history, rather than just the pattern or the skill. Each and every one held special memories of their quilting experiences. Their stories and pictures were made into a book, which was given to each quilter I had interviewed. The area arts council has the rest to sell, so the story can be passed on.
My third project is definitely my most unusual one. I received a grant to research funeral traditions in a county in southeastern Kentucky. The experiences with this research have been amazing! It’s not a topic that many people like to talk about…or so I thought. I carried this research out in an area that has often been stereotyped in the media and never in a good way. Again, as a Michigan girl who after 20 years in Kentucky still talks like a Michigan girl, I was an outsider and talking about an unpleasant topic. The first week we tried to do interviews, no one showed up even when they had an appointment. We tried again a month later and this time, through a great deal of help from my fiscal agents and some local people I had met the month before, we were able to find folks willing to talk to us. Over the course of a year and a half, we compiled interviews from a good representation of people from the area. Word spread that it was okay to talk with us, and we ended up with wonderful pictures and information. The project has since expanded beyond the area of my funded research, simply because it’s been so fascinating that I can’t stop. It’s now “Funeral Traditions of The South” and has turned into a touring exhibit shown in a college, two churches, to a camera club and in a public library. It is scheduled for other venues in the coming year, including the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park as part of a larger oral history event. This research will also become a book, simply because people really are interested in the topic. In this research, the goal was not only to preserve our heritage but also to educate. Across the board, we all seem to think everyone “does it” the same way. That is oh, so wrong! There are as many different traditions as there are people! This research will also be around for a long, long time and in this case, the research itself will never end until I do. I’m always finding new information to investigate and preserve.
Community Scholar projects document folklife in our state. We have many cultural traditions that differ from one group to another and need to be preserved and shared, to educate us about each other and to pass on to future generations. Understanding what lies behind our actions and customs helps us live better with our neighbors.
So what will I do now? I’m going back to the beginning, because the stories keep changing with the times! The projects may never be done.
If you have interest in learning more about any of this research, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 606-780-9440. Examples of my photography, and my personal blog can be found at www.carolshutt.com.
Carol Shutt, photographer and Community Scholar