By June Mathews
From its Native American beginnings, to its agricultural economy, to its role in the Civil War, Alabama’s cultural heritage runs diverse and deep.
But through each element of its culture runs a common thread: the creative hearts and hands of Alabamians, manifested in the form of traditional folk arts.
The Alabama Folk School at Camp McDowell, the camp and conference center for the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, is working to preserve those traditions for future generations. Founded in 2007, the school seeks to reconnect the adults and children who come there to music, art and each other.
“We provide opportunities for people to work creatively with their hands and minds in ways to preserve Alabama’s cultural heritage,” said program coordinator Bailey Hill. “Our hope is that making the world a better place is an extension of what we do.”
Workshops offered through the folk school include basketry, fiber art, painting, blacksmithing, fly fishing and quilting, as well as musical options such as fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar. For a complete list, go to alfolkschool.com/workshops.
“Folk school has become another reason to come to Camp McDowell,” said Hill. “It’s a good experience and kind of adds a different dimension to people’s lives. They’re learning something and doing something unique at the same time.”
Hill, a musician, began volunteering with the folk school five or six years ago, then became a part-time member of the staff last summer. He has since moved into a full-time position.
“It’s a privilege, not to mention fun, working with an art form you love and helping other people to do that, too,” he said.
Though mainly attended by adults in the beginning – 100 to 130 at any given session – the folk school now attracts a number of youngsters through its summer program for rising fifth- through 12-graders.
“At first, we didn’t get a lot of response to our youth camp,” said Hill. “We had maybe 20 or 30 kids attend. But the next year we had around 60, and interest continues to grow. It’s been fun watching the youth programs catch up to the adult programs. I wish they’d had this program when I was a kid.”
Youth Folk Camp combines the traditional overnight camp concept with instruction in farming, fiber arts, fiddle, guitar, mandolin and more.
During the registration process, campers choose the classes they attend. In between classes, they enjoy activities such as swimming, paddle boating, hiking and ropes courses.
Enrollment in each class is limited to 15 students, allowing for individual attention when needed. Instructors are master musicians and artists.
A showcase for sharing what campers learn during their Alabama Folk School experience will be held for family and friends on the last day of camp.
“The mandolin and guitar classes always fill up pretty quickly,” said Hill. “But what’s surprising to me is how the kids enjoy the farming classes. Farming is an art form of its own, and a lot of our campers come from urban and suburban areas around the state and haven’t seen where their food comes from.
“And,” he said, “seeing their first encounter with a muddy pig is always kind of funny.”
An hour’s drive from Birmingham in Winston County, Camp McDowell is situated on 1,140 acres of forests, canyons, streams and waterfalls near the Bankhead National Forest.
For more information, visit campmcdowell.com. ❖