Populations across southwestern Pennsylvania share a rich history of creative prowess, ethnic diversity and community values reaching back centuries. Heritage Arts programming represents the many folk and traditional art forms unique to our region. As a Regional Folk Life Center, RSHC helps maintain the vital presence of these cultural traditions that have shaped the Monongahela River Valley. Heritage Art events including interpretive dance, blacksmithing and folk music festivals, celebrate the social and cultural traditions of those who have built their lives here.
Folk Arts and Traditions are expressions of the everyday cultural life of a group of people who share a common background, experience, ethnic heritage, language, religion, occupation, homeland, or geographic region. These expressions are deeply rooted in and reflective of a community’s shared values, heritage and standards of beauty. They are a community’s face to the outside world. Folk traditions are usually passed on from one generation to the next between members of a community, and usually exist outside of institutional settings. These traditions are a valued part of life in communities, homes, workplaces and neighborhoods.
Examples of “Folk Arts” can include music, dance, storytelling, crafts, celebrations and architecture. Folk “Traditions” embrace a much wider range of cultural activities including food traditions (foodways,) occupational skills, and ways of speaking.
Being true to the past is usually more important than change or innovation. Therefore, traditional techniques and forms of expressions tend to change very slowly. Though each generation adds their special flair to a tradition, the sense of what is beautiful and well done is defined more by the community than by an individual artist’s personal creative vision. Because of this, folk and traditional arts often become symbols of identity and pride for a community.
Rivers of Steelconducts community research in southwest Pennsylvania. The focus of the research is to identify a significant number of people, places, organizations and events that highlight and sustain local folk arts and traditions. As part of our ongoing efforts to increase awareness of the region’s enduring cultural heritage, Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area recognizes Master Artists and/or Tradition Bearers in southwestern Pennsylvania. Master Artists are those who have reached a high level of excellence in their art form; who began by learning from people within their community; who are recognized both within and outside of their community; and who are dedicated to sharing their skills with others, sometimes as a professional but always as a way of life. Tradition Bearers may or may not be artists. They are individuals who are recognized for their expertise and for their sustained efforts to carry, preserve, and share traditional knowledge.
Cathleen Bailey, master artist and tradition bearer in multiple genres including Yoruba sacred and ceremonial beadwork, African American quilting, and writing stories and narrative poems.
George Balerdose, master of the Highland bagpipe, Scottish smallpipes, and uilleann pipes.
Joe Grkman, master accordionist, both button box and piano accordions, in the Slovenian traditional. He performs with his family polka band, “Grkmania.”
Mimi Jong, master of the traditional two-string Chinese fiddle called the erhu.
Michael Kapeluck, master of the art of iconography in the Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic traditions: the representation in art of Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels, saints, feast days, parables, miracles etc.
Mac Martin, master bluegrass musician and founder of the legendary Dixie Travelers traditional bluegrass band.
David Motak, master creator of szopka (shop-kah), a traditional Polish art that originated as ornate theatrical sets combining rich architectural elements into elaborate constructions of various sizes.
Yuriy Mudrenko, master painter and sculptor whose work includes landscapes, folklore, and historical portraits as well as Russian icons in a variety of media.
Dean Poloka, master choreographer and ethnic researcher of traditional Carpatho-Rusyn music, song and dance.
Charley Rappaport, master player, teacher, and champion of European folk music that features stringed instruments, particularly the mandolin family.
Brett Ridgeway, master musician preserving the musical heritage of the Appalachian people.
Sam Robinson, oral historian of Pittsburgh’s steel heritage.
If you believe you are a Master Artist or Tradition Bearer, please contact Mary Briggs firstname.lastname@example.org to be vetted for inclusion in the Folklife Directory.
Funding for this initiative has been partially provided by the Folk Arts Infrastructure Initiative in Pennsylvania with funding support from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Park Service.