In Memoriam: Gregory Lew Sharrow (March 26, 1950 - April 2, 2018)
We believe strongly as an organization and as individuals that art does not belong to any particular sector of the population—to rich people or to people with university training or to people who have public acclaim—but rather that the making of art is an irrepressible force that is true of everyone. — Greg Sharrow
With tremendous sadness we share the news of the death of our friend, colleague and mentor, Greg Sharrow. His loss is a profound blow to all who knew and loved him, and for his friends and colleagues at the Vermont Folklife Center the pain is acute. Greg had boundless energy and vision, and it is frankly impossible to encapsulate neatly the full scope and depth of his extraordinary career at the Vermont Folklife Center. In an effort to do his memory some small justice we highlight here a selection of key accomplishments from his 30 years with the organization.
Greg first made contact with the Vermont Folklife Center in the early 1980s as an elementary school teacher and administrator with a passionate interest in local history. After many conversations, VFC founder Jane Beck persuaded Greg to pursue a doctorate in Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, which he completed with honors. In 1988 Greg joined the staff of VFC with the charge of building an educational outreach program and undertaking an ethnographic oral history research project that explored farming in the state across the sweep of the 20th century. In 1991 Greg, with Ev Grimes, produced the 12-part radio documentary, Never Done: Farm Life in Vermont drawn from his research recordings. This series was the first of several documentaries Greg would produce across his 30-year career.
In 1991, with support from the Folk and Traditional Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, Greg established the Vermont Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. The early years of the program focused on supporting cultural practices of Vermont Abenaki, with particular emphasis on dance and basketry. These efforts served a key role in reviving Abenaki basket making in the state. As the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program developed it grew to include a wide range of cultural practices such as Yankee fiddling, Franco-American song, rug braiding and weaving, and occupational forms from granite and marble carving to blacksmithing. As the numbers of refugees resettled in Vermont grew, the program began to emphasize support for the cultural practices of these new Americans. Under Greg’s careful watch the Vermont Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program flowered and now, almost 30 years later, continues to thrive.
From 2000-2002 in partnership with an Abenaki advisory board, Greg and videographer Michael Sacca produced the video documentary, The Abenaki of Vermont: A Living Culture. Grounded in an approach that gave intellectual control over the final film to the communities represented in it, The Abenaki of Vermont stands out as a key example of Greg’s passion for sincere partnership and direct collaboration with the communities with whom he worked. In many respects the film marked a watershed in his thinking and practice, and his experience with it would inform how he undertook all his research, exhibit, and media production activities going forward in several ways.
From one important perspective The Abenaki of Vermont project served as a catalyst for reframing how VFC conceptualized the nature of our work. The Abenaki of Vermont focused not on what life had been like for native people in the state, but rather on present day lived experience. In this way the project marked a turn away from earlier efforts framed consciously as inquiry into the past—oral history—and toward the more broadly conceptualized orientation of ethnographic research. As time passed Greg increasingly de-emphasized oral history as the defining perspective of his work and became an unapologetic advocate for ethnography, embracing the full potential of his training as a folklorist and greatly broadening the scope of VFC’s efforts. Additionally—and most importantly for Greg—his research partners were the experts in their own experience, and this expertise warranted profound respect; as such they needed to be treated as true partners in shaping how their stories were shared with the wider world. The Abenaki of Vermont would continue to serve as a model for how to engage ethically with communities, a template for how VFC would continue to involve the people we documented in our work in the process of creating documentary resources about them.
As a continued expression of his collaborative instincts, in 2007 Greg inaugurated the Vision & Voice Gallery Program, developing it in partnership with VFC Archivist Andy Kolovos, photographer John Miller and documentarian Susanne Rappaport. Greg saw Vision & Voice as a way to showcase work by established professionals and to foster emerging ethnographers and documentary artists. He instilled a curatorial lens for the program that emphasized documentary process and the ethics of representation as fundamental considerations for exhibition. Through it Greg coined the phrase “making Vermonters visible to one another” as a de facto mission of the program. It was through Vision & Voice that Greg first met photographer Ned Castle, who over the next ten years worked closely with Greg to fulfill the promise of the Vision & Voice program.
Above all else Greg was an educator, and the educational outreach work Greg pioneered in the late 1980s culminated in 2004 with the creation of the Discovering Community Summer Institute for Educators, a professional development program for teachers that over time would grow into the statewide Discovering Community Education Program. Discovering Community arose in resonance with growing interest in place-based education and service learning. Greg astutely observed how ethnography and ethnographic methods meshed with the fundamental goals of both these educational practices and, with a range of colleagues including Andy Kolovos, Erica Heilman, Ned Castle, Evie Lovett, Kathleen Haughey, Mary Rizos and others, developed and continually refined an innovative approach that put VFC’s tools and skills into the hands of teachers and their students so that they could conduct rich research projects in their home communities. Today the program Greg conceived continues to grow and thrive, reaching larger numbers of teachers and students across the state each year. It is a jewel in our stable of programs, and its longevity and impact are testaments to the person who brought it to life.
There is so much more we can say about Greg’s professional life—about his many connections across the state and region, the lives he touched, the people he inspired. At the Folklife Center Greg held titles from Folklorist to Director of Education to Co-Director. He mentored and nurtured hundreds of interns, aspiring documentarians and undergraduate and graduate students. He conducted fieldwork, taught workshops, wrote grants, produced video and audio documentaries, and developed an untold number of exhibits. He was a teacher, a scholar and a friend. He saw himself not as an authority on the topics that engaged him—such as farming or traditional arts—but rather as a student who immersed himself directly into the conceptual worlds of the people to whom these practices and experiences belonged. Greg dedicated his professional life to tapping the expertise and authority of others so that he, in some small way, could come to understand how they saw the world.
If we are really wanting to understand someone’s experience we need to know what they believe. Because people exist within a system of belief that has to do with health and wellness and illness and healing, it has to do with justice and fairness and all kinds of really fundamental and important things. Folklore is the perfect postmodern discipline. Because truth from my point of view is a chorus. It’s a chorus of 10 people, or a chorus of a thousand people, where some people are singing in unison, some people are singing in harmony, and some people are singing in disharmony. — Greg Sharrow