Episode Eight: Katy Clune
Katy Clune is Virginia’s state folklorist and the new director of the Virginia Folklife Program, which serves to sustain and empower the vital and diverse cultures and traditions of communities across the Commonwealth. In this episode of Folklife Fieldnotes, we chronicle Katy’s work with Laotian communities and her Archie Green Fellowship from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to interview repair professionals across North Carolina.
Pat Jarrett: We have a new addition to the Folklife team. Her name is Katy Clune. She is a very talented folklorist coming to us from North Carolina. She got her Master's in folklore from UNC Chapel Hill, and has done some amazing work all around with ties to Southeast Asia in Laos and the Laotian communities that have come to Western North Carolina.
Katy Clune: At the textile museum where I was working, I was introduced to Laos through an exhibition of contemporary and historic textiles. And so when I was moving to North Carolina for graduate school, I sort of headed there with the intention and hope to find a folklore Master's thesis project that related to Laos, so that I could do field work both in North Carolina and in Laos because I had this really exceptional unique opportunity to spend the summer between graduate school years with my parents in Vientiane. That both speaks to how I began to dig into Laotian culture in the South but also kind of gives you a hint of why I became a folklorist. I was raised moving around internationally with my parents and on the weekends we'd often go to a museum or take a day trip to see a separate part of the city or a different town a few hours away and that was always experiencing culture through the people who practice it.
PJ: I've been in the field with you on a number of interviews and you really do have a gift of making people feel at ease when talking about these big issues. I think it's wonderful and I think that it comes across in how relaxed people feel in these interviews.
KC: Thank you, Pat. That means a lot to me. It's fun doing field work side-by-side. I'm really glad we get along as well as we do, but you've sat with me through now two formal sit-down interviews. I appreciate you saying that. And I think part of it is technique and practice but part of it is just the way I am. I essentially grew up as an outsider wherever I was because we moved so much and I think that contributes to a certain degree of openness and comfort stepping into other people's worlds waiting to have them tell you what's going on as opposed to trying to make assumptions. I spent first through fourth grade and Jakarta, Indonesia. So, I had this sort of really deep reverence and love for Southeast Asia and not to say that Laos is similar to Indonesia. They are very different, but in terms of being in that part of the world and tapping into a totally different kind of spirituality and way of being in the world that I could at least make some connections between the two. I think that's also why I pursued it.
PJ: Do you think it's those impressionable years that made such an impact? Is it because you were there at a young age?
KC: Yeah, I think so. One of my classes in elementary school was Indonesian language and culture. I used to be able to speak a little bit of Bahasa Indonesia, which is the language there. And in that class we learned about holidays and traditions and the Ramayana which is a Hindu epic but it is played out as a folk tale and Indonesian shadow puppet theater. There's also 3D wooden puppets.
PJ: I always feel like there's a tie back to when we were young and what we do in the present day and I'm always curious about what people's connections are to their past.
KC: I've not been back to Indonesia as an adult and I would really like to and I know that when I land there and smell the air and I'm totally immersed in that language, that memories I haven't encountered since the mid-90s will come up for me and I remember landing in Laos and stepping outside out of the plane and being hit with like a similar smell and just feeling at ease and excited and at home. That smell is both the heat, the humidity, the smell of cooking over an open flame, incense because temples and spirituality and offerings are a part of everyday life in Laos.
PJ: Let's go to North Carolina and your work with the Laotian communities there. Did you feel that same sense of connection to it when you were in these communities?
KC: Yes, and I attribute that to the incredible generosity, welcoming and partnership the Phapphayboun family really gave me. I found a Hmong New Year's Festival in Hickory North Carolina, which is in the western part of the state, and I had actually gone back to the textile museum for a symposium on Southeast Asian textiles and was talking to a volunteer there. And she connected me with this woman who at the time was teaching at a community college in Morganton, but she had been an activist for the Lao community when she was in California. For her and her family, when they saw my interest and sensitivity towards raising awareness about their experience coming to the country that we saw it as kind of a tripartite partnership. Me and the family and my dad all engaged in this kind of cultural diplomacy work. But after we walked around the festival, I sort of got the impression it would be hard to do research on Hmong textiles but she invited me to her sister’s restaurant after the festival. And from the minute I walked in the door, I knew it was Someplace Special. I immediately knew there was something special and I could tell that the way that Dara decorated the restaurant and displayed cultural objects on the walls, photos of the monuments, and made people feel really welcome and taught them a little bit about where she was from, that felt really special to me. And so when the family invited me to a New Year celebration later that winter, I said, yes, absolutely. And that was that Dara's home and I saw the table laid out with all these beautiful home cooked foods. I just sort of kept coming back and realized that I had very luckily begun a relationship with a family who was at the center of this community in Morganton, North Carolina, so a little bit further west than Hickory. And Morganton is a town of about 16,000 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. So there really a fairly small community.
PJ: What's interesting to me is the connection to place. Something Katy said about her interviews and her work in Western North Carolina, is that the Laotian people who moved there, moved there because it felt like Lao. The landscape, the green hills, and I've heard the same thing about Scots Irish who came to the valley. This felt like home. And to me that resonated and that was a cool part of our conversation.
KC: So Toon settled in California. Dara and her husband, Daniel, actually came to Bridgeport Connecticut first and that's where Toon’s parents also entered the US several years after Toon, and so Dara and Daniel took a road trip south to decide where they might live. They thought they would end up in Florida, but in driving through North Carolina as they told it, they felt a feeling of home. And seeing the rural green hills because Laos is a green mountainous country. The economy is mostly agricultural and they moved to Morganton and eventually all but one sister reunited there, and so I think the act of making Morganton their home was particularly meaningful and joyful for this family. Her dad helped establish the Buddhist temple, even working with Toon to navigate the customs nightmare of importing a 10 foot tall Buddha statue to be in the temple alter. And so my thesis work with them really became sharing how the family expressed and strengthened their cultural identity through traditional food ways in the context of the restaurant. Asian Fusion Kitchen, their home, and family and community gatherings; they host there and then through the temple. So I made field recordings in all those spaces, I went to worship ceremonies at the temple, both on and off big holidays. I went to two New Year's celebrations. I’ll also say that when I graduated, of course I got my thesis approved and a diploma, but their sister-in-law also gave me a key to their home. So I hold that in as much a symbol of my successful time in graduate school as the diploma. Years later, when Toon’s father past I was invited to write his obituary because I had done that interview with him and you'll have a chance to meet the family at my wedding because they will be invited there.
PJ: That's beautiful. That's really beautiful. And it also speaks to this field that we're in, Folklife encourages these deep relationships I've seen where in other fields it's discouraged, but in Folklife there's certainly professional boundaries, but we end up making these very deep connections with individuals and it carries on. It’s more than work.
KC: Absolutely. And I would say part of the equation when you're working with a family, over the course of more than a year. I feel lucky and I also acknowledge that we have to be aware that when we interview someone we're entering into relationship with them and life is long and as folklorists we gather a lot of relationships and we have to be conscious of what that means and to know there are different levels.
PJ: She received an Archie Green Fellowship. It's a research award from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to conduct fieldwork and interviews about repair people and the culture behind repair work in the country. This is everything from tire repair to plaster wall repair. And so it has to be specific knowledge to repair these kinds of things. And Archie Green, the award, is specifically geared towards occupational culture in the Folklife field. So that's cultures around professions.
KC: in 2019, a good friend of mine in Durham, Julia, Gartrell, she's a sculptor. We decided to team up and received a fellowship from the American Folklife Center Library of Congress and completed interviews with twenty-two repair professionals across the state of North Carolina and we talked to everyone from a furniture restoration shop owner, to someone who had a historic window restoration business, to a luthier, to a couple diesel engine mechanics. We really tried to make it a wide array of niche repair professionals and got to dig around in a lot of really cool workshops as a result.
PJ: Oh, that's really cool. So you mentioned the window repairman.
KC: Yeah, so Dave Hoggard owns Double Hung Window. He just stumbled into specializing and essentially removing and restoring and then putting back in historic windows. And he shared the kind of pride you can feel when you are an expert specialist in such a niche area, that arguably no one else nearby can do what you do.
PJ: So what was his shop like?
KC: Oh, it's so cool. When we visited, they actually had all of the windows. And most of the columns and banisters from Cone Manor, a historic estate along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in their shop. And now those windows and decorative pieces of wood are all restored and back on the manner. So that was incredible. And he had words to say about the first time he removed windows from the house, he hadn't developed his system of numbering and coding so that the windows would go back in the same holes in the wall. So of course doing the scale of a job like Cone Manor he had it all very much down to a system. Then it was fun to hear from the people who worked in his shop how they never thought they would get into a window restoration career. But how deeply they loved working with the materials. They called the windows the eyes of a house. It was two women, Lori and Holly, I interviewed in the shop and each of them spoke about how meaningful it was to them to store carefully the piece of glass that someone had looked out of into the world for hundreds of years. So, it was really fun to take these deep dives into different areas that I might not encounter again. And I have to say, it also made me jealous. I think I have some kind of post folklore career in handwork and potentially even in repair because the amount of job satisfaction these professionals get from taking something that is broken, using their skills to restoring it back to its working order, and often their handiwork is invisible, but then returning it to the person, the customer, the homeowner and seeing that joy. That is just a world away from managing the never ending river of emails in your inbox.
PJ: The concept of invisible work, because I don't think about my windows at all unless they're broken. It's almost thankless, but it’s necessary.
KC: Yeah and a lot of these folks will leave a small trace of their hand so that they contribute their mark to the history of the object or the building.
PJ: Oh wow, like a maker’s mark.
KC: Yeah. That's not visible necessarily. Unless it's another person down the road. Daniel Smith or Danny as he goes by resembled a lot of the individuals I interviewed in North Carolina and that he fell into the field as he was coming back from serving during Vietnam and Danny Smith, as he goes by, really reminded me of a lot of the people I talk to during this field work project in North Carolina. Like many of the people in North Carolina, he had a really beautiful thing to share about the inherent satisfaction of working with your hands. To hear him talk with disdain about sheet rock was enjoyable.
PJ: That's so interesting. And also his knowledge is so deep that I could barely follow the terminology he was using when he was talking about plaster repair.
KC: And I shared that clip because I really love how it succinctly demonstrates how these skilled trades are each world's unto their own, with their own, vocabulary and methods and tips and tricks and specialties that people who aren't in the trade would have no reason to encounter or appreciate.
PJ: Now that you're here, now that you're kind of getting your stride, what do you see going forward for the Virginia Folklife program? What are you excited about? What are we in for?
KC: Yeah, well I'm excited about furthering this emphasis on documentation that has always been a part of the program especially since you came on board 10 years ago, you transformed the quality of the images and video and audio that the program can produce. And I feel like, in the end, we're here to serve the artist, serve the individuals we interview, serve the people who are frankly brave enough to share why they do what they do, and kind of make themselves and their experiences available to others. And one of the primary ways we can serve them is making their voice part of the historical record, but also giving them tools that can further their own careers and professional development.
PJ: I'm really excited to work with her. I think she has a clear vision of what the program should be moving forward and the field of public folklore at the state level is still relatively young. The initiative was put forth by the National Endowment for the Arts to fund state Folklife programs. So we're seeing the second or third generation of folklorists at these state appointments. If you want to meet Katy she's going to be at the Richmond Folk Festival in the Virginia Folklife area this year, which is going to be devoted to mainly luthiers. And we're honoring the 20th Virginia Folklife apprenticeship class at this festival. It’s free and open to the public and it's going to be wonderful, October 7th, 8th and 9th Richmond, Virginia.