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Maryland Folk Artists Claim National Fame

Two of 10 National Heritage Fellows 


photo by Edwin Remsberg / Rich Smoker was honored for his lifelike decoys, which have won more than 500 ribbons and 100 best-in-show awards

     The Old Line State is rich when it comes to art and culture. At least that’s the way we see it by having not one, but two Maryland artists named recipients of the 2019 National Heritage Fellowships. Only 10 were chosen nationwide.

     Decoy carver Rich Smoker of Marion Station and Linda Goss of Baltimore have both been awarded the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.

     The pair are the latest in a long line of honorees hailing from Chesapeake Country. Our fair state is home to 14 previous Fellows since 1983, ranging from a master shipwright to an Irish button accordionist.

    Since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts has awarded $25,000 to our nation’s master folk and traditional artists, recognizing the ways these individuals demonstrate and reflect our nation’s living cultural heritage and their efforts to share their knowledge with the next generation. Recipients will be honored at two events in September in Washington, D.C., where their talents can be witnessed in person.

      In his shop on the banks of the Big Annemessex River on the lower Eastern Shore, Rich Smoker works as many as 12 hours a day carving wildfowl decoys. 

      Why decoy carving?

      “I’ve been asking myself that question for over 50 years now,” ­Smoker told Bay Weekly. “I have always been fascinated with water, and the creatures that live above and below it. The first time I went duck hunting by myself, I took the only decoy we had at the time and floated it on our local creek. Then I was hooked.”

     Smoker learned the craft from his father. “My dad was the industrial arts teacher at the local high school,” Smoker says. “That was wood shop. And I loved wood shop and loved making things with my hands. This became a natural labor of love for me.”

     His lifelike birds have won more than 500 ribbons and 100 best-in-show recognitions, including a World Championship and a Living Legend award, both bestowed by the Ward Foundation. Lem Ward of Crisfield, for whom the Salisbury wildfowl art museum and foundation are named, was himself a 1983 National Heritage Fellow. Smoker honed his craft with inspiration from both Ward brothers and now he serves on the Ward Foundation’s board of directors as well as a judge at the Ward Museum’s World Championship, the largest bird carving competition in the world.

      “This is one of the biggest honors I will ever achieve in my life, to have my name on the same list as Lem Ward,” Smoker said. “The Wards were phenomenal persons, and their work speaks volumes. You get to know a person thru their work.”

     Smoker has also been honored with a Maryland Traditions Heritage Award, recognizing outstanding achievement in the stewardship of living cultural traditions. He teaches carving classes regularly and at last count has taught nearly 2,600 people. He has also passed on the decoy love to his children and grandchildren.

     Linda Goss’s work speaks loudly, too. Goss grew up listening to tales at the feet of her Granddaddy Murphy and on the knee of her Uncle Buster in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in Alcoa, Tennessee. Mama Linda, as she is known, was a forerunner of the Black Storytelling Movement in America during the 1970s, when she rang her bells and told her stories on the streets of Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. She helped found the National Black Storytelling Festival and Conference in Baltimore and developed what later became the National Association of Black Storytellers. She is the author of seven books and two albums of storytelling with Smithsonian Folkways.

     “The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to recognize these artists and the important role they play in our nation’s vibrant cultural landscape,” said Mary Anne Carter, acting chair of the Endowment.