Masters of Traditional Arts is a journey across America through the lives of people whose creativity is rooted in a deep sense of cultural identity. Each is a recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship, presented annually since 1982 by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to recognize the excellence of individual artists and the ongoing ingenuity of different cultural styles.
National Heritage Fellows often owe their diverse talents to the generations of artists who have preceded them. They live in every region of America – whether in urban neighborhoods or sprawling suburbs or along back country roads – and are dedicated to creating time-honored art forms, including, but not limited to, music, dance, crafts and spoken word traditions. The folk and traditional arts are cultural expressions and skills that are often learned informally by word-of- mouth and customary example. By definition, they are inevitably both old and new; they may embody the values of the past but are nonetheless innovative in the ways that they adapt to present-day concerns. The folk and traditional arts are constantly evolving through the ways in which they are made and performed.
Many folk and traditional artists are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. While some Heritage Fellows have earned their livelihood from their mastery of traditional art forms, most have not. Often they practice and master their art forms in their free time or, perhaps, they return to art forms they learned as a child but are only able to master as an adult or in retirement. Overall, their commitment is defined more by the intrinsic meaning of what they make than by the possibilities of financial success. They are people who pursue excellence and understand the deep value of family and community.