First off, it was a very good thing that the Arkansas Arts Council decided in 2002 to begin to recognize Arkansas artisans who've devoted years to keeping a traditional craft form alive and handing it down to the next generation. These Arkansas Living Treasures, as they are called by the Arts Council, are the craftsman's version of MacArthur fellows, people with a certain genius in making rocking chairs, knives, woodwork and other fine things.
Now, the Arts Council's collaboration with the Historic Arkansas Museum has done us another good turn by creating documentaries of 11 of the Living Treasures, so we can know the potter in Hot Springs, the chair maker in Bear, the quilter in Conway and so forth a little better. The docs' debut screening is coming up Wednesday, May 28, at the Ron Robinson Theater in the Arcade Building. There will be a reception at 5:30 p.m. before the 6:30 p.m. screening start. Admission is free.
The shorts, executive produced by Swannee Bennett and produced by Caroline Millar of HAM with Jennifer Carman, were made over the course of about 14 months starting in 2013. Profiled are fiddler Violet Hensley, basketmaker Leon Niehues, chair maker Dallas Bump, potters Jim Larkin, Winston Taylor and Peter Lippincott, quilter Irma Gail Hatcher, master bladesmith J.R. Cook, woodworkers Doug Stowe and Robyn Horn and wood planemaker Larry Williams.
Joe York's short "74 Fiddles" deserves its own award for craftsmanship for capturing the charmingly peculiar Violet Hensley, a 96-year-old Yellville resident who at the time of filming was working on her 74th fiddle. The white-haired and whiskered fiddle-maker puts her left fist up to the camera lens and announces, "See, that's danger," and then, with her right, "that's death." Henley alternately sings; plays, sometimes atop her head ("I play it my way"), and talks about seeing her father build fiddles and figuring at age 5 she could do the same. It's not biography, but the way she speaks and the stories she tells — like the tale about her horse that lived 26 years and whose head is carved into the head of one of her fiddles — are a window into a singular, marvelous personality and make us wonder what other unknowns with a unique devotion to craft are out there.
Niehues, Larkin, Taylor, Lippincott and Stowe are well known to Arkansas's fans of the handcrafted; less so is Dallas Bump, another nonagenarian whose family has been making chairs for four generations in Bear (Garland County). Filmed in Bump's ancient workshop and shown at last year's Little Rock Film Festival, "Bump" (also directed by York) is a laid-back look at the chair-maker; his nephew, who joined the family business after the sawmill where he worked went out of business, and his nephew's wife, who weaves the seats and backs. The craft itself is the focus of "Blade of Damascus" (Greg Spradlin and Camp Friday Films), as the jovial Cook, of Nashville, explains the process of making the super strong steel blades. Williams, a Eureka Springs plane-maker who with Don McConnell supplies "period-appropriate" tools to Williamsburg, touts the "magical" planes made in the late 18th century ("The Perfect Plane," Nathan Willis), "the most sophisticated planes ever made"; potter Taylor demonstrates raku (film by Kat Wilson). Fine art woodworker Robyn Horn maintains that she majored in art "because that was the easiest way to graduate," and thank goodness she did; "Suspension of Disbelief" (York) is a terrific profile of Horn and her work. In the "Craft Artist" (York), Niehues talks about the evolution of his baskets into sculptural objects. Each documentary offers a little bit of knowledge about crafts, people and good goings on Arkansas.