Though we miss her presence, miss her laugh, miss her camaraderie, miss her wisdom, she's still with us and she's still very much a part of the National Endowment for the Arts and its legacy.
This is Dan Sheehy, Director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings at the Smithsonian Institution. Bess Lomax Hawes was every bit a Lomax. She looked like her brother, Alan, acted like her brother, Alan, and her sister, Shirley, and she had that same presence that the Lomaxes had, a sense of there really being a "there" there.
When Bess went to the National Endowment for the Arts in 1977 I remember her going there because I had worked with her starting in 1973 filling in for her classes at Northridge and she saw the National Endowment for the Arts as a new adventure ’Äì she'd been at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for several years and saw the possibilities of changing the world or at least changing the nation. She saw this great national institution, National Endowment for the Arts, that had had some folk arts presence in the past. But she knew that in this great country of ours and tying in to the legacy of her father John Lomax and her brother and sister and the whole family that had done so much work to bring the small voices, the local voices to the fore of American society. She knew the potential was there and her confidence was only bolstered by working at the Smithsonian Folk Life festival for several years and seeing the rainbow, the enormous rainbow of traditions and talent. And so she came with an energy, with a vision, with a sense of determination. She started in early January 1977, by 1978 had parlayed the special initiative called "the folk arts program" into a program on par with the other art forms, the other art disciplines - theater, music, architecture - and this was how Bess started. She saw the possibilities of structural change, which has a lot more impact over the long run, a lot more promise than little piecemeal change here and there.
Bess was our inspiration. She was the person who talked the talk as well as walked the walk. She was very much an activist, social, cultural, political, sometimes, activist, and she brought that sense of commitment of activism to her work in the Arts Endowment as well. Bess in a way was the right person at the right time in the right place for our country for the National Endowment for the Arts in my point of view. She came with the enormous credentials of being a Lomax, of knowing the key people who were part of and/or influenced by the American folk revival and she had that reputation she had those network connections and she brought her own way of being articulate. I remember many occasions where in the early days of folk arts, when it was really new, people were not accustomed to the issues of the folks arts field and communities had and it was her lot in life to be able to stand up in front of the National Council on the Arts and the senior people in her agency and some of the senior arts organizers in the arts world in the United States and defend things like Samoan tattooing as being appropriate for the National Endowment for the Arts. And she would speak with the passion and with a presence of being both grandmotherly and being a grizzly bear all at the same time and cornering her listeners into not possibly being able to object to her line of thinking and arguing and justifying the presence something like Samoan tattooing that went back centuries and centuries in Samoan culture and was so much a core part of their personal and interpersonal and social expression. And Bess made in that sense made great strides for the entire folk arts field in my point of view of giving us words to give to use to convince people to bring people in and let them discover what we were all so passionate about.
Looking back I am so thankful and though Bess has passed on she's still very much with, not only me, but the hundreds, and even thousands, even tens of thousands of people that through her work at the National Endowment for the Arts, through her work at the Smithsonian Institution, through her own just personal work before and after all of that, she's become I'm sure cherished part of so many people's lives and she'll have an impact for generations to come.