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Kathi Figgen, folklore collector

Article by Marcia Darnell

Folklore – May 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Fine Art of Collecting Folklore

by Marcia Darnell

KATHI FIGGEN is a folklorist. What, exactly is a folklorist? “That’s an ongoing joke with folklorists,” she says, “how to explain ourselves.”

She pauses for a moment, glancing around her narrow office, which is crammed with books, papers, weavings, carvings, quilts and Elvis memorabilia. Her eyes rest on a French poster depicting Saint Elvis, then she continues.

“We work with traditional artists, promoting the folk arts in communities,” she says. “Folk artists often aren’t thought of as artists because their work is part of their culture, their religious affiliation, their occupation or ethnicity, for example.”

Someone who grew up doing colcha embroidery or quilting, for example, may not think of herself as an artist. It’s part of the folklorist’s mission to find and promote these artists and their work.

Figgen has served as state folklorist for Southern Colorado for five and a half years, a partnership position with the Colorado Council on the Arts and Trinidad State Junior College. The state program has formed partnerships with schools, believing that folklorists can work better on a regional level, and can serve their communities better when they live there.

Figgen now resides in Alamosa with her 16-year-old skateboarder son, Andrés Romero. Her partner, Leonard Velasquez, runs a concrete firm and is a part-time rancher. Her office is in the San Luis Valley Education Center in Alamosa.

Figgen has a doctorate in folklore and Latin American studies from Indiana University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley.

She discovered her thesis subject in Argentina: the popular worship of a folk saint, Antonio Gil. Gil was a legendary Robin Hood figure, defying the government and giving to the poor. Gil’s popularity grew during that country’s “Dirty War,” and since then his admirers have built a culture around his life in their stories, art and celebrations. They hold a festival on the anniversary of his death, a gala that in 1994 drew 40,000 people.

Soon after completing her research on Gil, Figgen went to Graceland for the first time and discovered the same phenomenon surrounding Elvis Presley. That made her a fan of the singer, and taught her that folklore is whatever the community says it is.

“It’s the contacts that define it,” she says, citing a weaver’s guild as an example.

“If there were a quilting competition involving a hand-stitched quilt and a machine-stitched quilt,” she says, “the machine-stitched quilt wouldn’t necessarily be disqualified — that’s up to that art community.”

“We don’t decide what is art and what is craft,” Figgen says of folklorists. “We go to the community for that answer.”

Once that answer is found, the folklorist’s mission is to expose that art, and artist, to the wider community.

“Folklorists don’t separate the art from the artists,” Figgen says. She believes mass marketing of art as “folk art” endangers the folk art community.

“It raises the profile [of the art form], but it confuses the consumer,” she says. Authenticity and tradition can be lost in mass marketing.

Figgen also wants to bring art and artists into public schools, through a program that teaches teachers how to use folklore to teach art, history and geography.

Other parts of her job include managing a Heritage Award program in Colorado; helping award grants through the Colorado Council on the Arts; and making demonstrations to schools and civic organizations. She taught folklore at Adams State College from 1992 to 1996.

Future plans include classes in colcha embroidery and ornamental ironwork. The SLV Education Center has offered a course in Santero woodcarving that’s been so successful it may be offered for college credit. A free class is being offered in scherenschnitte, the German art of paper cutting.

The state folklorists’ dream is to open regional or state folklore archives, to showcase the history and culture of Colorado art and artists.

But more than anything else, Figgen enjoys getting everyone involved.

“Try everything,” she says. “You may have a talent you don’t know you have.”

Figgen points out that everything in a culture has an æsthetic element, from cooking traditional dishes to storytelling.

“Everyone practices some sort of folk art,” she says. “A folk group can be as small as two people you and your childhood friend and that secret language you invented when you were children.”

Marcia Darnell lives and writes in the San Luis Valley. She hopes to get a grant to pursue the ancient art of free-lancing.