Folk Art and Aging: Life-Story Objects and Their Makers

Folk Art and Aging: Life-Story Objects and Their Makers

Folk Art and Aging: Life-Story Objects and Their Makers

Folk Art and Aging: Life-Story Objects and Their Makers


Growing old doesn't have to be seen as an eventual failure but rather as an important developmental stage of creativity. Offering an absorbing and fresh perspective on aging and crafts, Jon Kay explores how elders choose to tap into their creative and personal potential through making life-story objects. Carving, painting, and rug hooking not only help seniors to cope with the ailments of aging and loneliness but also to achieve greater satisfaction with their lives. Whether revived from childhood memories or inspired by their capacity to connect to others, meaningful memory projects serve as a lens for focusing on, remaking, and sharing the long-ago. These activities often help elders productively fill the hours after they have raised their children, retired from their jobs, and/or lost a loved one. These individuals forge new identities for themselves that do not erase their earlier lives but build on them and new lives that include sharing scenes and stories from their memories.


There are elderly people all over America, waiting only to be asked about their
stories and folk art. Their memories and works are stored in boxes, in cellars, in
trunks, in attics … needing only a witness to bring them to light, a recipient to
complete the interchange that is requisite to all cultural transmission.

(Myerhoff 1984a:38)

I arrive at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on a hot July afternoon to interview Harold Stark, a longtime state fair volunteer, and steam engine enthusiast. It is still weeks until the fair, but the eighty-nine-year-old senior is busy moving tractors and equipment into place for the big event. the fair selected Harold as this year’s Indiana State Fair Master, an award that the program I direct (Traditional Arts Indiana) produces for the fair. From sheep shearers to fiddlers, I have produced short documentaries about the fair’s veteran competitors, judges, and performers for this program. Like several of the other State Fair Masters, Harold is dedicated, gregarious, and elderly. At nearly ninety, the retired mechanical engineer and machinist continues to work throughout the year repairing the old farm implements that the fair’s pioneer village uses in its historical demonstrations. He explains, “If it’s broken, I can take it home and weld it or maybe make a new piece.” in providing this and other services, the volunteer remains an important knowledge bearer and worker for the village, despite his advanced years.

Harold’s association with the fair began when he started exhibiting the half-size steam engine that he built. He completed his homemade machine in 1976 shortly before retiring (figure 0.1). For decades, Harold has driven his small engine in tractor-show parades, used it to power buzz saws, and plough fields, but more importantly, it helps him to connect socially with others, teach about Indiana’s agricultural and industrial heritage, and share his personal story about helping his grandfather on the family farm. Harold built the engine to commemorate his family’s tradition of working with steam and to recall his grandfather’s influence. He explains:

Well, my grandfather (my mother’s father) raised his family on an eighty-acre
farm down in Rush County and the farm only had about fifty acres of it tillable.
The rest of it was Little Blue River running right through the middle of it. And
he had a large steam engine, a saw mill, a big separator, clover hauler, and then
he would help (back in probably before World War I) use that big engine and

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