‘Themes Across Culture’ is a celebration of South Jersey’s diverse folklife

"I want people to share their stories with us when they come and visit."

The Jersey Devil is one of the most well-known legendary creatures of southern New Jersey folklore, but folklife in south Jersey is much more diverse than just the one tale.

Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center is a campus of 18 buildings and home of the Down Jersey Folklife Center, whose mission is to “research, document and present traditional cultures in New Jersey’s southern eight counties.” The center’s “Themes Across Cultures” exhibit currently on display is a celebration of a wide range of south New Jersey’s regional, occupational and ethnic cultures and an invitation for guests to engage in thoughtful side-by-side cultural comparison.

“The Jersey Devil,” by an unknown artist is a wood carving in a popular regional design being displayed out of the DJFC Permanent Collection. / Courtesy: Down Jersey Folklife Center Archive

“This exhibition was not meant to be focused on one or the other of the ethnic groups or regional and occupational groups in our region, but to explore several themes that would be across cultures and [give] people the opportunity to compare and identify similarities and differences between them,” says Iveta Pirgova, Wheaton Arts’ director of folklife and cultural studies. “And also compare their own culture and see where the similarities and differences would be, because we believe that when you see other cultures you can better understand your own and that is why we chose three major themes and to represent several different communities.”

The exhibit is divided into three themes: “Becoming Someone Else,” “Behind the Story” and “Learning from a Master.” However, Pirgova does not know the exact number of cultures represented in the exhibit’s themes because, well, the numbers do not matter.

“When we talk about diversity of cultures, and we use examples of this diversity doesn’t mean that the others don’t exist even if they’re not representative of a single exhibit, because we cannot represent all cultures at once,” she says. “Numbers are not important but aesthetics and values, and the specifics of the creative process.”

Pirgova has worked at the Down Jersey Folklife Center for 20 of its 25 years and in that time has work to feature over 60 ethnic, occupational and residential groups represented in southern New Jersey life. The center was founded in conjunction with the New Jersey State Council of the Arts (NJSCA) initiative “to create a state-wide Folklife Infrastructure,” according to the center’s website.

For the “Learning from a Master” theme of the exhibit, Robert Broschart donated a glassblowing mold made of turned cherry wood that he made in 2020. / Courtesy: Down Jersey Folklife Center Archive

While the center hosting “Themes Across Cultures” has only been open for 25 years, the first Wheaton Arts building opened to the public in 1970, which means the campus celebrated its 50th anniversary during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most scheduled anniversary activities and exhibits were postponed or canceled.  

The “Themes Across Cultures” exhibit was planned for Wheaton Arts’ anniversary but was put on hold until this year, when visitors could come more safely and in larger numbers.

“Ancestors” is a Mexican mask by an unknown artist that is carved and painted colorín wood that is on loan from the collection of Magdalena Hinkova. / Courtesy: Down Jersey Folklife Center Archive

Pirgova says the three themes — “Becoming Someone Else,” “Behind the Story” and “Learning from a Master” — were selected because of the large diversity they could house and because they allow for diversity across time to be represented in one exhibit.

“It is important to see that traditions are over time,” she says. “Traditions are not something from the past. They are living traditions, and being living traditions they change over time because if they don’t, they will die. Some of my artists are in their 20s, but some of them are in their 60s, some of them are long gone, so it’s a long period of time that we cover, but it is not so much the period of time when the objects are created. It’s more of the story behind the objects, the meaning of the objects, and the relevance of these objects for the communities today.”

In “Becoming Someone Else,” the exhibit explores the varying use of masks across cultures and within cultures, with an emphasis on masks in rituals and theatrical performances.

“A mask allows the person behind it to identify with someone or something else,” Pirgova says. “And such identification is perceived by the viewers around him as either fictional or real depending on the context in which the mask is used.”

Some masks the exhibit includes is a Lenape Mesingw mask; a Chinese mask associated with the Peking Opera; two types of Italian masks — Venetian masks and ones that “are more similar to the Caribbean mask, the scary ones that are meant to chase away evil spirits,” according to Pirgova; and early Halloween masks from the 1940s, among other ones.

A “Monkey King” Peking Opera Mask by an unknown artist made with papier-mâché and acrylic paint that is on loan from the private collection of Peter Liu and displayed in the “Becoming Somone Else” theme / Courtesy: Down Jersey Folklife Center Archive

Each piece of work in the entire exhibit, not just the “Becoming Someone Else” portion, is presented with educational placards so that visitors can glean the full context, story and background.

“Behind the Story” takes a look into belief systems and practices across cultural groups, especially those that concern any or all of the following: cosmogony or how the world was created; cosmology or how the world is structured; and eschatology or how the world will end. Some belief systems “imply the existence of supernatural beings” while others “imply the presence of an impersonal supernatural force that flows in and out of nature, people,” Pirgova explained.

The exhibit features items used in rituals, as well as individual artistic expressions of belief that include belief systems such as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism, among others.

The final theme the exhibit explores — “Learning From a Master” — has a special meaning to the Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center, as the center offers residencies and other support for working artists. The center often helps identify talented artists from the southern eight counties in the state and help them apply for and secure Folk Arts Apprenticeship Grants offered through the NJSCA. To apply for this grant, artists must be over 18 so they can commit to their craft and be able to identify a master in the same community as them.

“This community could be either ethnic or occupational or regional, and the master and the apprentice, have to belong to the same community so that they can pass on certain practices and make sure that they’re maintained within the community,” Pirgova explains. “The whole philosophy behind this grant is to help people maintain their cultural heritage.”

An Indian woodcarving made in the mid 18th century, “Krishna” depicts the deity of love and tenderness. It is on loan to the exhibit from the collection of Frederick Kramer and displayed in the “Behind the Story” theme. / Courtesy: Down Jersey Folklife Center Archive

As a result of the connection to many artists participating in apprenticeships and the center’s dedication to showing living tradition, “Learning From a Master” features works created by local, living artists across crafts and communities.

“We had apprentices doing molds glass molds for the glassmaking industry and because we are very much connected to this — we have a huge glass museum on our campus, and a glass studio,” she says. “Actually, the molds that they create the use by our resident artists or the shaping blocks. Glassmaking is a big deal in South Jersey, but also among the regional traditions basketry has been always been a big deal, and quilt making, so, we have some of those too.”

Pirgova hopes that visitors deeply engage with the varying cultures presented in “Themes Across Cultures” and that visitors understand that stories displayed — and the personal ones that visitors have themselves — are all important to those at the Down Jersey Folklife Center.

“I want people to learn all these various stories that are represented through the exhibit themes and I want people to share their stories with us when they come and visit,” she says. “It’s all about stories, meanings, values and relevance.”