Elaine Eff Wins '09 Folklore Prize

In Her Career, She Unearths The Roots Of State's Traditions

December 07, 2009|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch , arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

The American Folklore Society has just smiled on one of Maryland's veteran folklorists, even if news of an award makes for a season of mixed blessings for Elaine Eff.

She seems to be taking it all in stride, thinking about the next thing, and the next. Since the 1980s, she's been a champion of Baltimore screen painters, Smith Island cake bakers, crab pickers, muskrat skinners, watermen, crafts makers and mill hands - efforts that have earned her the Botkin Prize, considered the top honor the 121-year-old American Folklore Society gives to folklorists who are not affiliated with a university.

There's a token $200 prize, but Eff said she's most pleased with "winning the validation and the approval of your peers."

The award is a bit of good news at a time when Eff is in the midst of change in her professional life. She recently lost her full-time job with the Maryland Historical Trust, where she was director of the cultural conservation program and co-director of Maryland Traditions, a folk arts program. The cultural conservation program was shut down by state budget cuts, and Eff has moved to the Maryland State Arts Council, where she'll continue as part-time co-director of Maryland Traditions.

The award from the organization that publishes the Journal of American Folklore recognizes what many people in Maryland have long known about Eff's efforts to document, preserve and interpret local traditions through an array of means: brochures, books, documentaries, tours and exhibitions.

On a recent Sunday afternoon she had an appointment at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in downtown Baltimore. Folklorist/writer Alison Kahn and photographer Peggy Fox were appearing at the library's Poe Room, offering a presentation on their book, "Patapsco: Life Along Maryland's Historic River Valley" focusing on the communities of Oella, Relay, Ellicott City, Daniels and Elkridge.

The idea was conceived at the Maryland Historical Trust, which funded the 12-year project that was carried out in cooperation with the organization now called the Friends of the Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway Inc. It was Eff's idea to make this an oral history project and she also brought together Kahn and Fox.

"This is Elaine's baby," said Kahn, referring to the book. "Elaine has been our rock throughout. Our supporter, our touchstone ... our Mother Superior."

Eff "just has a talent for seeing the big picture," conceptualizing a project and finding the people to do it, Kahn said. "She's the most well-connected person."

Janice Marshall of Smith Island credited Eff for her efforts on behalf of the Smith Island Cake, a confection made of at least eight layers piled high and slathered with frosting. Eff's work in researching and spreading the word about the cake - declared Maryland's official dessert last year - helped "sell these cakes far and wide," Marshall said in an Arts Council release on the Botkin Prize. "If anyone deserves this award, it is Elaine."

Eff doesn't seem inclined to rest on her laurels. The work goes on.

"This is our next big thing," she said after the Pratt event, pulling out a brochure for the Painted Screens Pilgrimage. Published by the Painted Screen Society of Baltimore, Inc., of which Eff is founder and director. The illustrated pamphlet serves as a guide to 39 spots in several city neighborhoods that tell the story of the local screen-painting tradition that began in the city in the early 20th century.

Eff has been engaged with the subject in one way or another since she was in graduate school in upstate New York in the 1970s. There she stumbled upon screen paintings in storage in a local museum, throwing a new light on the tradition of screen painting she knew about from Baltimore, where she had lived. Later she came to traced roots of the practice to 18th-century London.

"I saw a thread. I realized at that moment I was seeing a 200-year connection," said Eff, who, in 1988, produced a short documentary film on Baltimore screen painting. "It wasn't just some eccentric guy painting his screen down in Baltimore."

Eff's work demands an eye for such connections, even if it sometimes takes a while to find out you have these gifts.

"I learned I was a folklorist in 1974," said Eff, who lives in Catonsville. She wasn't doing any work connected with folklore at that time, nor did she necessarily know what it was. She had graduated from George Washington University six years earlier with a major in international relations and Spanish, she was living in Cambridge, Mass., and casting about for a life direction. At one point, she started down the road to law school, but soon realized that if she persisted, in three years she'd be a lawyer.

That wouldn't do.

She recalled receiving a GWU newsletter in 1974 that mentioned a three-week program on folklore. The list of subject matter was striking, she said. She thought: "That's what I love. That's what I am."

She attended the program and a course was set: master's degree, doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, where she wrote her dissertation on Baltimore screen painting. Now, with the change to part-time work, she said she wants to fulfill her aspiration to write a book on the subject. If she can do that, and mount an exhibition in connection with the publication, she said, "Then my work is done. I can die happy."

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