Basket by Steven R. Carty, photo courtesy Peters Valley Gallery

At State of the Arts we cover all kinds of art—including the “folk arts.” New Jersey is home to a rich community of visual and performing artists working with traditional methods, mediums, and inspirations.

Every year, the National Endowment for the Arts presents the prestigious “National Heritage Fellowships.” This year, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts created a statewide version of this honor. Stay tuned, as we’re excited to announce that State of the Arts will be featuring the first-ever New Jersey Heritage Fellows in 2024!

To close out this year, we’ve chosen to feature a few “folk-inspired” artists who show how tradition enriches their ever-evolving crafts.

New Jersey musician Ara Dinkjian is the son of NEA National Heritage Fellow, the Armenian-born singer Onnik Dinkjian (we meet him in our story). Ara is one of the most accomplished oud players in the world—in fact, he composes contemporary music with this centuries-old instrument. “It’s not a very traditional approach to our ethnic instruments,” Ara tells us of his work with his band The Secret Trio, “but we’re not trying to be museum pieces. We’re trying to move the music, our history, and our instruments forward.”

The Chivalrous Crickets bring together backgrounds in Early European music, Appalachian folk tunes, opera, Irish, Scottish, and English music, creating their unique sound on banjo, fiddle, pipes, baroque guitar, and more. “Every artist, every singer puts their own little spin and their own little flare,” band member Benya Stewart notes, highlighting the abundant creativity that can be found through the medium of folk music.

In the most recent episode of State of the Arts, we met basketmaker Steven R. Carty, and even joined him on a trip to forage invasive plants to use for his weaving. Echoing Benya’s sentiment, Steven explains, “What I do is a little traditional and a little modern—it’s traditional in that I go out, I gather my own materials, I’m making a basket. It’s also contemporary in that I’m finding new ways and using new materials. I’m always trying to rethink something, relook at something, and do my own spin on it.”

New Jersey has a wealth of natural spaces and the greatest diversity of cultural communities in the United States—making it an exciting time for the folk and traditional arts in our state.