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AFS Review: Featured Folklorist

Featured Folklorist: Edward Yong Jun Millar (Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University)

Monday, February 26, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Lorraine Cashman

As Curator of Folk Arts, Ed Millar most recently curated
Appealing Words at the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University
that brought together local calligraphers from five different traditions and two contemporary forms. Photo by Michael Beam.

Edward Yong Jun Millar joined the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University in the summer of 2015 as Curator of Folk Arts, where he develops biannual exhibits, programs, and projects from fieldwork in the Buffalo-Niagara region. Ed received an M.A. in Folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland (‘14) and a B.A. in Anthropology from Seton Hall University (‘12), and currently serves on the 2018 AFS Annual Meeting Planning Committee and on the AFS Cultural Diversity Committee. Ed shared this response to our

What is your current job, and how does it fit within the field of folklore? What kinds of things do you do day-to-day in this position?

As the Curator of Folk Arts at the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University, I develop exhibits, programs, and projects rooted in fieldwork and collaborations with local communities and traditional artists. Since starting in the summer of 2015, I’ve curated six folk arts exhibits here at the museum, organized programs, and participated in some other initiatives.

We tend to focus almost exclusively on traditional arts in the context of exhibits, but sometimes dip into folklife for programs or initiatives.

The most exciting part of being a folklorist/curator (folkator?) is that my day-to-day responsibilities are rarely the same. One day I’ll be working with a professor to integrate a tour of the exhibit into their course curriculum, and the next I’ll be schlepping a friend over to an opportunity they secured. One day I’ll be out in the field, and the next using an array of power tools and measurements during an exhibit install. One day I’ll be helping a community organization with notes to brainstorm ways to present traditions during one of their events, and the next immersed in graphic design to create an exhibit panel. Every day brings with it a new set of challenges and skills that I need to draw from!

Briefly describe your career history, paying special attention to how you got from your very first folklore job to your current position. Did you expect to be doing what you are now doing when you entered the field?

When I first began my graduate studies in Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, I had an interest mostly in digital folklore and video games, and a head full of potential paths in academia or the gaming industry.

At MUN I became increasingly interested in and exposed to public folklore through coursework and a public folklore internship through the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York Folklore Society. I interned under Nancy Solomon at Long Island Traditions, whose tutelage really reinforced that this is the path for me to head down, especially within the museum context.

After completing my master’s in 2014 I relocated to New Jersey and began searching and applying for work across a wide range of areas where I thought my skills could transfer – and briefly worked on a living history farm as an educational assistant. I stumbled across the position at the Castellani posted to the American Folklore Society page (a wonderful resource!) in the spring of 2015, and started that summer.

As an early career folklorist – this is my first full folklore job out of grad school – I’m still cutting my teeth in a number of ways, but I’m grateful to be surrounded by a truly wonderful network of folklorists across the state.

What goals drive your work? What kinds of impact do you hope to achieve?

The main goal that drives my work is interconnectivity, and I try to pursue it at all stages of work – whether is in fieldwork and thinking about how my skills or resources can help outside of that project, what thread might tie together a multi-traditional exhibit, how to talk about a certain tradition within the exhibit to a college course.

Growing up bi-racial, I’ve always been keenly aware of that subconscious, puzzle-making process of trying to figure out what piece of me goes where will always be messy. This is especially true for others trying to figure out where I fit into what category or “pass as” – but I feel that finding those commonalities to approach deeper meaning is an important ‘foot in the door’…so long as it is followed by the other foot and eventually the rest of the person! 

How does your current work impact your community and region? What is, in your mind, the most important professional contribution that you make (or have made)?

I think the impact of the Folk Arts Program at the Castellani Art Museum is tied into the museum’s wider mission of awareness, appreciation, and education – both for visitors and our collaborators.

Within the Buffalo-Niagara region, we’re currently the only museum that specializes in local folk art, with the bi-annual rotating exhibit schedule ensuring that there is always a different tradition being highlighted. The display of folk art within a fine art museum like the Castellani encourages a dialog and reflection on one level of the relationship between the two, and on the other more appreciation for traditions.

For the community collaborators and artists that we work with to put together the folk arts exhibits, it’s been a lot about raising awareness of the role and resources that an institution can help play both within the “museum infrastructure” and, more generally, assistance we can help with from the skill-sets that we have.

Particularly with Folk Arts, the simple act of being able to raise awareness of underrepresented traditions and communities is major – both for visitors and collaborators. Impacts can be seen both in it being the first time there was an exhibit on that tradition – such as ebru – to educate visitors to the museum, and also the first time for the artist/collaborator to curate and display her own ebru (and now open up other opportunities for her). 

How did you come to reside where you now live? What are your favorite aspects of the area or of the local community?

I currently live in Lewiston, a small town just north of Niagara Falls on the Niagara River and Canadian border. Coming from North Jersey, we were torn between living in Buffalo versus a small town outside of it. Living in Buffalo would’ve been a more familiar environment so we decided to try something new as neither of us have lived in a small town before.

There was also something about Lewiston which really pulled us in – it has a really interesting history, a pretty distinct character, and a lot of “buzz” for a small town. Especially in the summer, the village area draws a lot of visitors from the surrounding region through different events and festivals.

Speaking with long-term residents, Lewiston has changed a lot from being predominantly a rural farming region outside of the village to now having a lot of residential developments and suburbs. In the short time I’ve lived here, it has been impossible not to continue to notice its growing development and expansion – there’s even a microbrewery now – which seems to have no sign of slowing down.

What do you most wish outsiders knew about the area or community where you reside? What are some common regional or local stereotypes or misconceptions that you often find yourself trying to disprove?

The winter in Western New York is not that bad – no really! In fact, the bigger weather difficulty (in my humble opinion) is the change between seasons, where you can experience a year in a week. One day it might be warm enough to go outside without a jacket, the next a day for prying open frozen car doors, the next windy enough to steal your breath, and the next warm enough again for grilling. (Make up your mind weather!)

Before moving to Western New York, I didn’t really have a good grasp of just how complex “Upstate New York” as a term can be. From a North Jersey standpoint, I grew up referring to anything north of the city as “upstate.” Being here only two years, I’ve now come to understand that it really covers a huge area made up of connected but distinct regional identities in themselves. Just to give a sense of distance, living at the northwestern edge of Western New York, it is just as close for me to drive to Toronto as it is to Rochester – sometimes seen as the northeastern edge of Western New York.

I think, as with a lot of Rust Belt regions, there is a perception of stagnation and disinvestment that is difficult to overcome – even when a region like Western New York is going through a major resurgence. To be sure, there are plenty of shifting economic, demographic, and environmental challenges the region continues to face, but on its “flip-side” there are an innumerable amount of efforts and initiatives at all levels – from the grassroots up through major investments and developments – to address them.

Briefly describe one or more regional traditions that you’ve studied ethnographically since arriving in the region that you find particularly distinctive or compelling. Tell us how you have presented that work.

The most well-known traditional art specific to this region is Tuscarora raised beadwork, a form of Haudenosaunee raised beadwork practiced by members of the Tuscarora Nation. It is a wonderful tradition that is still widely practiced, and has a close, storied connection to Niagara Falls and its tourism. Raised beadwork is created through overlapped rows or less numerable rows of beads that gives a three-dimensional quality to the work, a three-dimensional “raise.” There are also some influences from Victorian aesthetics in a style connected to whims.

One of the major exhibits at the Castellani Art Museum was a folk arts exhibit over a decade ago that explored raised beadwork entitled Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life curated by a team of native and non-native scholars, including then-Curator of Folk Arts Kate Koperski.

More recently, in the spring of 2016, I helped curate an exhibit that brought together historic beadwork from two collections – one by a Tuscarora beadworker and one by a beadwork scholar and artist – with portraits of contemporary beadworkers (Haudenosaunee and Wabanaki) accompanying their beadwork.

An idea emerged through discussions of how to design the exhibit space during fieldwork with beadworkers to try to contextualize the space further. We ended up working with a local Cayuga illustrator – who comes from a family of beadworkers who were featured in the exhibit – to design and install a series of murals throughout the exhibit. The murals conveyed different messages and meanings depending on whether the visitor was Haudenosaunee or not, tying together a wide range of different traditional motifs found on beadwork to tell two traditional stories.

What kinds of things occupy your personal time? In particular, what sorts of distinctively local or regional activities, endeavors, or commitments do you pursue when you’re not on the job?

In the summer I enjoy walking along the Niagara Gorge and hanging around the south shore of Lake Ontario as well – a sunset with the Toronto Skyline across the lake is really something. I’m still somewhat new to the area, so I’m always discovering new spots or activities popping up in the Falls or Buffalo.

Given your position on the local committee and your insider knowledge of the area and community, what is the one thing (not related to the AFS Annual Meeting) that folklorists visiting Buffalo can’t afford to miss?

Narrowing it down to only one (not related to the AFS Annual meeting) is impossible! Here are a few:

  • The Tri-Main Center is a pretty cool factory that now houses art studios, offices, a café, ballet companies, a video game design hub, a resettlement agency – the list goes on. It gives a good sense of how old industrial factories are finding new life and the hub of activity going on.
  • The Niagara Arts and Cultural Center in Niagara Falls is located within the former Niagara Falls High School, and is a wonderful building which is always a huge hive of activity and buzz – with arts studios, theatre troupes, gallery spaces, etc.
  • For nature, if heading south, the Erie County Botanical Gardens and Tifft Nature Preserve, or if heading north, the Niagara Gorge Trail is a hiking trail up along the gorge along the Niagara River (after the Falls) – with the one end in Lewiston and the other in the Falls, and you can jump in at different spots along the trail.

Tell us about your favorite foods unique to Western New York.

My favorite regional dish is definitely beef-on-weck. As a vegetarian, there is a version at a local spot using wheat gluten (seitan/mianjin) that keeps all of its dream-worthy qualities. Tender thin-slices of (mock) beef piled high, that savory au jus, and a generous serving of horseradish (on the side!) – all served on a kimmelweck bun.  

Sponge Candy is a great dessert for satiating any cravings for sweetness as well, and it has a shockingly light texture.  

What is the most challenging part of your work?

Time management, without a doubt. Attempting to manage the time and balance between the different responsibilities and projects of a folklorist with that of the curatorial and production side is a huge challenge. It is both the most exciting part of my position, but also its most challenging – it basically is like juggling two (occasionally) overlapping schedules per exhibit and program.

Exhibits especially can be a pretty hefty endeavor but…

…with that said, shepherding an exhibit along from its very first outreach and fieldwork through to the final installations, is an incomparably rewarding feeling. Each exhibit truly feels a part of you – and all of the artists, collaborators, and stories that led to it – when it is installed.

It really is a wonderful feeling.


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