These WA master teachers and apprentices make sure cultural traditions don’t get lost 

“The person who has no knowledge of his past, his origin and his culture is like a tree without the roots,” said artist, designer and master teacher Deepti Agrawal, invoking a thought from Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey. “We certainly don’t want to plant trees which have no roots.”

This is a sentiment that resonates deeply with master teachers like Agrawal and apprentices who are part of the Heritage Arts Apprenticeship Program. Originally started in 2018, each year, a panel of community members from around the state evaluates applications and recommend teams of apprentices and master teachers who work together during the yearlong program to pass along cultural traditions.

Each pair spends at least 100 hours of one-on-one time together between July and June, with master artists receiving a $4,000 honorarium and apprentices receiving $1,000 for their time. Around 15 pairs are chosen to participate each year. Funding for the program is through the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Washington State Legislature through ArtsWA/Washington State Arts Commission.

The program is from the Center for Washington Cultural Traditions, a partnership between Humanities Washington and ArtsWA/Washington State Arts Commission. The apprenticeship program, also co-sponsored by Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission, gives artists a chance to take a break from their busy lives to preserve folk and traditional artforms. 

CWCT director Langston Collin Wilkins commended the state’s investment in providing communities a secure structure to hand down their deeply cultural, and in some cases deeply spiritual, traditions and practices. The program enables communities to shape and control how their traditions are passed on from generation to generation.

Conversations with three pairs of apprentices and master teachers completing this year’s round of the program highlighted the importance of intentionally seeking ways to ensure the survival of these traditions. Otherwise, Wilkins said, we risk losing knowledge about these ways of life.

“In order to have a more complete picture of who we are as a state,” said Wilkins, “you must make sure you preserve the traditional arts.”

Calming connection to history

Master teacher Agrawal, founder of Deepti Designs in Bothell, was part of the program’s inaugural year in 2018, teaching the art of Madhubani painting, a style of visual art originating from Mithila, part of the Indian state of Bihar and passed down among women over generations. She said she jumped at the opportunity to be part of this program in part because she saw how the visual arts weren’t being given enough importance.

“Even within India, people know about the dancers, about the music,” Agrawal said, “but the visual art, the painting is something which is taken for granted.”

This year, Agrawal is working with North Creek High School sophomore Harini Thiagarajan. In addition to learning more deeply about Madhubani art, Thiagarajan said she saw this as an opportunity to have a change of pace alongside her responsibilities with school, sports and other activities.

“Madhubani is such a meditative art,” said Thiagarajan. “It’s a win-win. I get better at a particular art form, and also it’s very calming.”

Part of the teachings, Agrawal explained, go beyond just developing artistic skills. The tradition helps an artist successfully translate their ideas, thoughts and imagination onto a blank canvas.

For their sessions together, Agrawal would give Thiagarajan a topic. From there, Thiagarajan would dive into research, going through ancient scripture to pick out a scene that resonates with her. Through reading and talking to family members, Thiagarajan sought to more fully understand and find nuance in a concept from India’s history, culture or mythology, which can then be turned into the painting. From there, Thiagarajan would create a mood board and sketches before finally putting the scene to canvas. One project, Agrawal said, could take up to three or four months to finish.

In addition to her own art, Thiagarajan’s apprenticeship included working as a teaching artist and shadowing Agrawal during workshops. Now, Thiagarajan has a handful of students of her own.

“Learning from me is one thing,” Agrawal said, “but when she’s teaching somebody else is when she’s got to understand better how to convey what she already knows.”

As Thiagarajan looks forward beyond the program’s end, she said she hopes to continue this work, passing down this tradition to yet another generation.

Resistance, and maintaining heritage

Watching a teaching session of capoeira angola between master teacher Silvio Dos Reis and apprentice Sandra Amolo at Union Cultural Center in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, the level of body control is astounding. Capoeira angola is a form of martial arts that was created by enslaved Africans to fight oppression in Brazil. It’s a particular style of capoeira that maintains traditions from before the creation of regional forms of the art. The art form integrates movement with music and songs to create a sort of improvisation that sits somewhere between dance and combat.

While this session between Dos Reis and Amolo only featured the two of them, Dos Reis explained that a typical session would have a small group of people sitting in a circle, with some playing instruments and singing while others are up doing the movements. Watching the two work, it’s as if they’re building a language together. Each movement is a letter that they can then string together and have conversations with each other. Amolo may lunge to one side as Dos Reis reacts, swinging a leg through the space her body just vacated.

Amolo, a program director at Seattle nonprofit Rooted in Vibrant Communities, said she was originally introduced to capoeira when she was living in Oregon, but she was initially resistant to it. Amolo immigrated to the United States from Kenya when she was 12, first living in Seattle before moving to various places around the country.

“I came to a performance and I saw the instruments and it reminded me of home because Kenya has similar instruments,” said Amolo. “It felt strange to come to a class where Americans were using these instruments, where white people were using these instruments. I was like, ‘This is from my country, and I don’t feel right about this.’”

She said she started to feel more welcome when a Portland teacher acknowledged the roots of capoeira as an Afro Brazilian art form that comes from African tradition. Something clicked for her, hearing it spoken of as a form of resistance and a way to maintain heritage. Yes, capoeira can be seen as a sort of game, with music and a fun, improvisational feel, but it’s more complex than that.

After moving back to Seattle, Amolo started taking classes at Union Cultural Center with Dos Reis, who has made it a point in his work to create dedicated space for Black students. Through her lessons with Dos Reis, Amolo said she’s seen an impact in her everyday life through communication skills and the ability to smile through difficult challenges.

“It’s taught me to really just slow down and watch and listen more than I am responding,” said Amolo. “That’s been really powerful for me as a person living in this world as a woman, as a person of color, as a professional.”

In their time together, they’ve attend a conference in Brazil and they’ve been able to read books together. Deep conversations between the two venture past their hour-and-a-half classes as Amolo is able to draw from Dos Reis’ 36 years of experience.

“It’s a great opportunity to just listen and absorb that knowledge,” Amolo said, “because, above everything, capoeira is an oral tradition.”

Alongside his wife, Dos Reis manages Union Cultural Center, an educational space originally established by the International Capoeira Angola Foundation as a home for classes and events. He said this program has increased his interest in finding ways to fund similar efforts in the future. Programs like these ensure that the time, effort and place in the cultural ecosystem of those who hold cultural knowledge is valued and, importantly, compensated.

“As masters of cultural knowledge — culture that is based in oral tradition, based in life experience — as a teaching artist, we don’t have a Ph.D.,” Dos Reis said. “You have a lot of masters in the cultural arts out there that have a lot of knowledge to share, and sometimes they don’t because they don’t have that support.”

More significance than we think

“I’m always the storyteller,” said master teacher Melba Mitchell Ayco. “I tell stories about everything.”

In a conversation with Ayco and apprentice Monique Franklin, Ayco’s penchant for storytelling was clear. Ayco could spin the smallest kernel of an idea and draw connections back to trips taken, lessons learned and history embedded in every step of the journey. It’s clear why Franklin, an activist, poet and spoken-word artist who founded Inspired Child, a Seattle organization with programming aimed at social change and community empowerment, would want to deepen her knowledge of the role of the griot in West African culture with someone like Ayco.

“I was like, this would be a great opportunity for us to formally work together and also have a few dollars to help us access some visual resources and experiences that would help me develop with the area of storytelling,” said Franklin, who said she and Ayco had known each other in the Seattle area for over a decade before starting the program.

The griot role has traditionally been one to preserve historical narratives and oral traditions, with many serving as key figures in society as the primary storytellers of their people. As such, Ayco is the keeper of her family’s heritage. After retiring from administration within the Seattle Police Department in 2017, Ayco said she wanted to go back and look more into her Gullah Geechee heritage — people of coastal North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida who are descendants of West and Central Africans.

Ayco recalled attending a Gullah Geechee festival with Franklin and seeing a painting from Gullah Geechee artist Sonja Griffin Evans that Ayco told Franklin reminded her of her sister. Ayco recognized a conch shell in the painting as shells her aunts used to have in their houses. When the artist told Ayco the story behind the conch shell, Ayco said she recognized it, but realized that she had only been told part of the story before.

“I knew this story from this person who I’ve never seen before, never knew before,” said Ayco. “We began to talk about the strength of storytelling, and that sometimes stories are told that have more significance than we think.”

Trips with Ayco, including traveling to the Gullah Geechee islands and Barbados, gave Franklin an opportunity to train and teach spoken word. But it was also, she said, “a chance to look around and see the beautiful ways in which Black people have retained their culture.” With Ayco, Franklin had the chance to write poetry expressing the experience of not realizing a story or other aspect of culture came from someplace else, where someone else may have the same story.

In those learnings, Franklin said she considered what traditions have been kept and how they’ve managed to be kept. She pointed to examples like ancient rhythms persisting through tap dancing, or stories of seeds being brought from Africa in French braids.

Between their travels together, Franklin’s solo travels to Africa and Franklin learning from Ayco’s solo travels, Ayco helped Franklin develop stories featured in Franklin’s solo show “Mama’z Muezz” at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute last November. Some of the stories were based on Franklin’s own life and others were fictionalized stories based on research. Along the way, Franklin said Ayco helped build nuance into the stories, interweaving happy moments with the traumatic.

More recently, Franklin has been able to put her learnings to the stage at Lakewold Gardens in Lakewood in “Mama’z Muezzic,” a one-hour live performance featuring her spoken word (which can be viewed online on June 16 through verbaloasis.com/live), alongside “Mama’z Muezzeum,” a 3D installation encapsulating the diversity of motherhood.

Ayco said a program like the Heritage Arts Apprenticeship Program is critical for communities of color so they can tell their own stories and hand down their histories. Often, she said, children grow up hearing stories as filtered through white, institutionalized spaces. Through that lens, much can get lost. Some information can only be passed down through the efforts of master teachers and their students.

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