Though folk art may not be mainstream, White Plains-based ArtsWestchester considers folk traditions more than worthy of having their own department and a full-time program director. Aaron Paige, an ethnomusicologist with a knack for acting “like glue” between community members, heads up folk art programs and outreach for the countywide arts collaborative.
ArtsW’s folk art department started 23 years ago with inspiration from a project documenting the history of local stone masonry that connected traditional Italian and Irish immigrant stone masons.
Paige came to the directorial role two years ago from Denver College where he was a professor. His credentials include a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Wesleyan University in ethnomusicology and time spent in Southeast Asia, India, Canada, the UK, Egypt and West Africa to complete his studies.
Raised in Long Island, Paige played drums and performed in a jazz band. Twenty years and three degrees later, he trudged through forests to find handcrafted bricks for an exhibition and worked closely with a robust Paraguayan community to put together a celebration of traditional dance.
“Folk art is all traditional cultural expressions through which a group … is able to pass on a shared way of life — its aesthetics, its sense of value, its sense of beauty and an account of the world,” Paige said. “Folk arts tend not to be institutionalized or formalized, but passed down through performance or oral transmission.”
Folk art encompasses visual arts, including fiber arts and textiles, as well as music, dance, storytelling and other means of performing. Much of ArtsW’s effort under Paige’s direction is finding a place and means for performative cultural art to be authentically recreated.
A recent example is Paige’s partnership with Miguel Zaracho, former president of the Paraguayan Soccer Association of New York and a respected leader in his community, to bring more Paraguayan celebrations to the Westchester community.
“We have about 5,000 Paraguayan people living in Westchester,” Zaracho said, “so we wanted to celebrate our independence day, to celebrate our culture here in the U.S. and especially in Westchester. To rent a space is very expensive, so if ArtsW didn’t let us use their space, we wouldn’t have been able to [celebrate the day].”
ArtsW hosted “Dia De La Independencia Paraguaya” for the second time this year, providing space for traditional Paraguayan dance, food, music, art and culture to flourish and gain exposure within the Westchester community.
“For us it was very important to work with [ArtsW] because nobody knew before just how many Paraguayan people were living in Westchester,” said Zaracho. “Thanks to Aaron and ArtsW, more people know about our dance, food, culture, traditions and what we do and why we’re here.”
Much of Paige’s work for ArtsW pulls him from the walls of academia and research and thrusts him into the cultures and communities he’s read about. He is tasked with forming relationships with local communities, presenting cultural events, documenting and recording history, doing field and archival research and helping members of the public discover an array of histories and cultures.
“The process is really about collaborating and assessing needs, identifying artists and then figuring out how to pay for programs that truly are going to best serve the needs of that community,” said Paige. “It’s about transmission, it’s about getting young people to learn a traditional folk art from an elder, for example. But sometimes it’s just about connecting the existing communities together.”
Wilfredo Morel, director of Hispanic services at Hudson River HealthCare, has worked closely with Paige over the last several years on HRH Cares Three Kings Day Celebration and other projects.
“The act of educating and preserving one’s culture and tradition is not easy to do,” said Morel. “You need to be a strong advocate and facilitator to get people to get along. Aaron breaks it down to the level to help the entire community understand, execute and engage.”
The folklorist helped to create an archive of the health center’s history and to document the narrative of one of its original five African-American female founders, to identify one of the oldest African-American churches in the area and to help create a library to share archival information, as well as building an LGBTQ+ Pride event within the Hispanic community.
“My community is historically not supportive of gay people,” said Morel. “This year we were finally able to celebrate with the trans and LGBTQ+ community with over 700 people and put the trans population forth in our community ... Aaron has connected us with other groups in nearby places we didn’t even know existed. The man is like glue.”
Paige also is the artistic director of the White Plains Jazz Festival, returning to his roots through culturally impactful music. His average day is almost never average, he said. His mornings can include working on a grant and interviewing a local brickmaker while his afternoons can be dedicated to exploring spaces with Paraguayan bands to find the one with the best acoustics.
“All the local cultural events [and] a lot of community events don’t take place during the workday, meaning I am out and about in the community. On the weekends, I attend funerals, document dance performances and go to community meetings,” said Paige. “That’s the benefit of having an actual folk art position, being able to provide services that oftentimes otherwise would not exist or do not exist for those communities.”
Paige said he looks forward to an upcoming community quilting project, an art installation, and every other bit of field work that comes with documenting Westchester’s folk art — funerals and all.
Paige’s influence will continue long after after he’s gone, said Morel. “The man comes, he gives us tools, brings us together, and then he leaves and we can do the [project] ourselves. He’s building a legacy, and it’s the things we learned from him that remind us he was here.”