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For the Love of all things Irish
03/17/2008 06:48 PM EDT
By Laura Meade Kirk
Journal Staff Writer
photography Sandor Bodo
Rhode Island didn’t have much of an Irish “scene” when Laura Travis settled here more than 30 years ago, after graduating from Rhode Island College with a degree in art education. She’d fallen in love with Irish art and culture thanks to a family vacation to Ireland a few years before, when she was 18. But there weren’t many opportunities to pursue her newfound passions — nor to share them with others.
So she found ways to make that happen.
She became the disc jockey for a local Irish radio program, The Celtic Realm. She took up step dancing, then went on to teach the moves to others. She helped found groups that sponsored local “ceilis”pronounced “kay-lees” — which are gatherings that feature Irish music and dance, first in Newport, and later around the state.
She even took up the ancient art of stone carving, a skill she now shares with students at Hope High School, the public school in Providence where she teaches, as well as at some of the most well-known Irish festivals in North America.
“She’s one of the original movers and shakers of anything Irish around here,” said Bob Drouin, one of the founding members of Pendragon, the well-known Celtic music group, and the Blackstone River Theatre in Cumberland. “. . . She’s just an amazing artist. She does it all.”
And to think her family didn’t even have corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.
People in Poughkeepsie didn’t focus as much on their heritage — Irish or otherwise — as they do here in Rhode Island, Travis explained, not even on March 17. “It wasn’t this huge thing, like it is here in New England,” she said. She had Irish ancestors on both sides of her family, but it wasn’t that big of a deal to her until her family went on a European vacation when she was 18. They began their trip in Ireland, and Travis was immediately smitten.
“I walked into the airport (in Shannon) and there were all these people who looked like me,” she recalled. She felt an instant connection with everything about the country — the people and culture, the history and traditions. “I just thought it was an amazing, amazing place,” she said.
She was fascinated by the art, especially. Even though she’d studied art through high school and, later, in college, she’d never heard much about Irish art. It had been around for thousands of years, yet it was virtually overlooked by educators here.
She recalls going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in the late 1970s, when the “Treasures of Early Irish Art” exhibition was on display. Here were truly gorgeous works, dating back thousands of years, that she’d never before seen or read about. She felt as though her teachers had cheated her. “I realized that there was this huge piece of art history that no one had ever even bothered to mention to me.”
And, she loved the music, the pure and simple, Travis said. In fact, she said, “The music led me right back to the art.”
Meanwhile, after graduating from Rhode Island College, she went to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. But there were few openings for public school art educators back then, so she worked as a substitute teacher while waitressing and bartending in pubs around Newport. And to promote a bit of Ireland in this country, she helped found the Newport Folklore Society which promoted folk concerts of all kinds — including Irish folk music — at the Seaman’s Church Institute there. During this time, Travis recalls, radio station WRIU at the University of Rhode Island featured an Irish radio program from 6 to 9 p.m. each Wednesday. It had a loyal following, especially among people looking
for an alternative to rock, she said. And new Irish music was emerging all the time. “This music was happening,” she said.
Then, one night, the show wasn’t on the air.
She immediately called the radio station and learned that the host of the show had moved, so she lobbied her friends to write to WRIU to say they wanted the show back on the air. The next thing she knew, Chuck Wentworth, who’s director of folk music for the station, was calling her, offering her the job. She was one of two hosts of the program when she started in 1982, but has been doing it alone for years.
That’s how Drouin came to know her back in the early 1980s, when he first became interested in Irish music and started listening to her show. “She also at the time was promoting concerts and running coffee houses and things like that,” Drouin recalled. She was among the first to book his newly formed band, Pendragon, now a Celtic music heavyweight. Russell Gusetti, another founder of Pendragon who’s also currently executive director of the Blackstone River Theatre, recalls the thrill of hearing the group’s first album played on WRIU. That’s all because of Travis, who helped promote Pendragon and other local musicians throughout the region, he said. Drouin agreed. “With her radio show and her various activities, she certainly helped bring people together and make more things happen . . . she’s really been quite a force in the Celtic music community.”
Around this time, she and a friend decided they wanted to take up Irish step dancing, but there were no classes for adults back then, Travis recalled. They had to convince a skeptical dance teacher to let them join a class for teens.
Soon, she was the one teaching step dancing. She helped found the Providence Ceili Club, which sponsored ceilis, or get-togethers, throughout the region, giving musicians and dancers a chance to share their love of the music and dance. They also sponsored the annual Irish Festival on Smith Hill in Providence every June, until it was eventually overshadowed by a similar festival at nearby Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., which was scheduled around the same time. Travis also began to travel to other well-known Irish festivals, including one at the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis and Elkins College in the mountains of West Virginia. It’s a week-long celebration of Irish music, dance, folklore and crafts.
That’s where she was introduced to the ancient art of stone carving, by one of the artists there. Once again, she was smitten. “There was just an immediate connection there,” Travis recalled. Though she’d worked with a variety of materials and media during her years of art studies, “stone was special — very definitely special,” she said.
She was among a dozen or so students in the class, and when she returned home, she pursued stone carving with a passion. “I was totally bitten by the bug,” she said.
Travis took a stone-carving course taught by Gail Whitsitt-Lynch, a well-known artist and sculptor, offered through the Rhode Island School of Design’s extension. Soon, she was creating her own stone carvings. She lived in Providence at the time, and recalled filling her tiny backyard with stone carvings. She also opened a studio at AS220 in Providence.
She was teaching by then at the Sackett Street School, a public elementary school in Providence, and she’d been accepted into a graduate program at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where she was to spend the next four summers working on her master’s degree in fine arts, which she received in 2000. Travis by then was a full-time teacher in Providence, moving from the Sackett Street School to her current position as an art teacher at Hope High School on the city’s East Side. She was named high school art educator of the year last year by the Rhode Island Art Educators Association.
As part of her thesis for the Maryland Institute College of Art, she created sculptures for a garden at the Blackstone River Theatre in Cumberland. Her goal was to reflect the local history, dating to the days when entire villages of people would immigrate here from Ireland and Scotland and re-create their communities here while working in mills. Those sculptures are still on display there, in a garden called The Grove.
Meanwhile, a friend invited her to the annual Celtic Roots Festival in Goderich, Ontario, where the lakeside beach was littered with limestone rocks. She’d of course brought her stone carving tools with her, so she carved her friend a paperweight. And she told her friend: “You know what? I’m going to teach here next year. I’m going to teach people how to carve these little beach stones.” So she put together a week-long class, to expose people to the skills, tools and materials needed for stone carving. And she’s been doing it there and at other festivals and events, as well as through local continuing education programs, ever since.
Locally, Travis offers stone-carving courses through the Young Artists Program at the Rhode Island School of Design, and at the Blackstone River Theatre. She continues to offer courses at the Celtic Roots Festival and at the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, N.Y., which she described as “another world — it’s just great.”
Meanwhile, she teaches dancing at ceilis around the state — includingmonthly ceilis held at the Blackstone River Theatre on the third Sunday of each month. “She’s got her hands — and feet — in this Irish culture,” Gusetti said.
How things have changed since Travis settled here, 30 years ago. “The area has just exploded with what I would call traditional Irish culture,” she said. Gone are the days when she’d have to travel to Boston to see Irish artisans and musicians. They’re as likely to be right here in Rhode Island, especially at the Blackstone, she said. And the Irish arts and music are much more mainstream than ever, thanks in part to shows like Riverdance and Celtic Woman.
That’s what Travis has been trying to do, here in Rhode Island. She said she sees herself as being among “a large group of interesting people who have the talent and skills necessary to bring it out and get it to a place where people can recognize and enjoy it.”
It’s the teacher in her, Gusetti suggested. “Whether it’s through the airwaves or going out and doing classes . . . she’s really out there bringing it to the people, and that’s a very important thing.”
Drouin agreed. “If you have to point to one person who put it all together in this area, to say it’s Laura. . . . She’s certainly one of the most prominent people responsible for having such a lively Celtic scene here in Rhode Island.”Radio host, event organizer, teacher and more
•Laura Travis hosts a weekly radio show, The Celtic Realm, on Wednesdays from 6 to 9 p.m. on WRIU- FM, 90.3.
•She’s among a group hosting a St. Patrick’s Day “ceili” — or gathering with music and dance — at Local 121, 121 Washington St., Providence, tomorrow from 5 to 9 p.m. Admission is $5.
•They also hold monthly ceilis at the Blackstone River Theatre, 549 Broad St., Cumberland, which features an outdoor display of Travis’ stone carvings in a garden-like setting she calls The Grove.
Travis teaches a variety of stone-carving classes at the Blackstone River Theatre and at Irish festivals. See http://www.riverfolk.org for classes at the theater. See the Web site