The Kentucky Museum is thrilled to welcome Jackson Medel as the Luce Term Assistant Curator. Medel is a graduate of the University of Missouri, holding a PhD (ABD) in English with an emphasis in Folklore and Culture Studies. He previously worked with the Missouri Folk Arts Program and, from 2016 to 2019, served as Curator and Folklorist at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, Maryland.
Funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, Medel’s work focuses on fully cataloging and digitizing our Folk Art collection into PastPerfect and its online companion portal, KenCat. He is also evaluating the collection in order to make recommendations for future exhibitions and acquisitions. Beginning in 2021, Medel will supervise the work of a WKU Folk Studies graduate student and support the work of quilt scholar and folklorist Laurel McKay-Horton, who will evaluate the historical significance of the quilt collection.
Folklorists work in many different places. Why did you decide to pursue museums?
I’ve always had a love for museums and the stories they tell about the past and the present, not to mention how they can inform what people do in the future. The public educational role of museums has been one of the key factors for me. Folklorists are closely aligned with the communities in which they work and that intensely local connection is something that museums facilitate and bolster as community pillars and centers of knowledge building. I’ve had a strong interest in public folklore and public humanities since my early graduate work and museums are right at that cross-section of higher learning and public education in which folklorists thrive.
How do you define “folk art”? What makes folk art unique compared to other forms of art?
This is a great question! And one that definitely shifts depending on the person and their perspective. My view of folk art is based in my academic training and experience working with several different state folklife programs, Missouri Folk Art Program and Maryland Traditions (shoutouts to Lisa Higgins, Debbie Bailey, and Chad Buterbaugh!). I prefer the definition of folklore that Dan Ben-Amos proposed, “artistic communication in small groups,” and folk art is a great example of this where individuals within a community express their values, aesthetics, and beliefs through artistic production. Folk art, to me, is artistic production based within a specific community tradition or aesthetic and that often is often part of a longer tradition. I tend to lean towards folk art being passed on from one person to another, something that programs like Kentucky Folklife and the others mentioned above facilitate through traditional arts apprenticeships. There is a tendency out there to lump visionary artists or untrained artists in with folk art, which can certainly be the case, but these things are not necessarily equivalent. I often think of folk art as having a hybrid nature that brings together form and function. A lot of folk art is made to be used rather than just seen and admired, think of leather workers or blacksmiths or silversmiths where their productions have concrete uses either as tools or jewelry with direct, creative expressions of cultural mores and values. Folk art is an expression of a person’s culture at the same time that it is an aesthetic object and, often, a functional tool. For me, this is what makes folk art unique relative to other art forms.
Why did you want to work with the Kentucky Museum and this collection?
One reason I wanted to be here and doing this work is the stellar reputation of Western as a home for folk studies and the Kentucky Museum as a leader in the field of public humanities. As I said, I’ve always been interested in and motivated to work in the arena of public humanities as I strongly believe in the importance of public education and the betterment of communities at a local level and museums are wonderful places to do that kind of work. I was interested in this particular position because of the opportunity it presented to make a mark on the museum’s collections, as well as help to inform the community and Kentucky at large about their own artistic past and present. I believe having that context can help to inform a better and more fully representative future as we have the opportunity to uplift and surface marginalized voices and artistic expressions, demonstrating the ways in which we are all connected, the ways in which we are more similar than different. Also, working with artifacts is just a huge amount of fun!
What part of the Folk Art collection have you started working on? Anything you’ve found intriguing so far?
On Sandy Staebell’s suggestion, I’ve started with a pretty easy collection of objects to include in the folk art category: Handmade Harvest. These objects were collected by Nancy Gher for an exhibit in 1987 that was focused on the handwork of tobacco farmers. There is a huge variety within the larger collection that includes farming tools and implements as well as toys, birdhouses, decorative objects, and more. I am currently working with the objects made by Homer Bowlin of Burkesville, KY. An African American tobacco farmer, Mr. Bowlin created a large number of carved wooden objects for his children to use as toys. They represent mules, horses, goats, jockeys, chickens, ducks, kitchen implements, fruit, yoyos, and even a coffin. They mostly have a rough character and have been decorated using felt-tip markers, pencils, and pens. This found object character is often a marker of folk art, making use of the materials you have to hand is one of the most valuable and informative parts of folk art, teaching us to re-use or recycle the things around us in interesting, attractive, and useful ways.
What skills do you recommend students learn if they want to work with folk art in museums?
I think students should always bring intellectual curiosity to their studies and their work, regardless of their field. However, some important skills are attention to detail and the ability to make connections and draw conclusions. Deductive reasoning and pattern recognition are extremely important tools for anyone working in museum collections and certainly with folk art. Motifs and how they shape the form of an object are extremely important in relation to the community-oriented/influenced nature of folk art. A good familiarity with the practices of ethnographic fieldwork, interview techniques, and a relatively high level of reflexivity will serve future museum professionals and folklorists well in terms of working with folk art collections as these collections will often be accompanied by the notes and results of fieldwork around these collections. Knowing how these objects were collected and how the ephemera around them were produced creates a much fuller picture of the history of an object and its place within the larger community context.
Finally, why are museums awesome?
Haha! Let me count the ways! I think I hit on a lot of the reasons why museums are awesome before but, for me, museums are places dedicated to holding and preserving aspects of the past, typically objects but more broadly knowledge, for the betterment of the present and the future. Museums are simultaneously repositories and disseminators of knowledge and artistic productions for their communities. Museums are centers of communities and provide invaluable teaching and learning opportunities for all comers. This is why I love working in and visiting museums: I always learn something new and find something beautiful when I visit a museum. This is as true for those museums that celebrate a community or art form as it is for those that preserve the difficult and traumatic experiences of the past. Museums perform a vital function in preserving knowledge, experiences, objects, and artworks that teach us about where we came from, who we are, and what we might become.