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Carroll County’s Common Ground on the Hill online this year, putting traditional arts in a digital space

Split Woven Basketry instructor Keith Taylor shows off projects for different levels of students during a virtual class at Common Ground on the Hill.
Split Woven Basketry instructor Keith Taylor shows off projects for different levels of students during a virtual class at Common Ground on the Hill. (Courtesy Photo)

During any other July, it’s not hard to know when Common Ground on the Hill fills the campus of McDaniel College — it can be easily heard.

Drums, strings, voices in songs, crackling fires, wood being sawed, passionate discussions drifting out of a classroom window. These are just a few snippets of the annual Traditions Weeks, three weeks of classes, concerts, dances and other activities in the traditional roots-based arts.

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This year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Common Ground moved as much as was possible online, still offering three weeks of classes by artisans and scholars as well as gallery talks, music concerts and lectures, with the final week beginning Monday, July 13.

Founder Walt Michael said Director of Promotions Maria Wong had sent the class catalog to the printers and they were picking up 4,000 copies for local distribution.

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“And that day, everything shut down,” he recalled.

He has been amazed by the staff and volunteers who did “double-duty” to make Common Ground happen this year.

A big factor was the partnership with Carroll County Public Schools, whose employees can earn continuing education credits through participation in Traditions Week classes. The folks from CCPS were still eager to participate this year, and help make up the “backbone” of attendance.

The program’s organizers hope that the work done to bring Common Ground online will open up more possibilities in future years.

“We also believe that we can extend our reach to a world community,” Michael said.

In the future, this could mean a hybrid Common Ground that welcomes participants virtually who can’t travel to Westminster.

Wong led a lot of the coordination with instructors to see which classes could make the transition to being taught over Zoom. One factor was materials, she said. A lot of classes require equipment and materials that would be expensive or difficult for students to source on their own.

One of the arts classes that continued was Split Woven Basketry. Instructor Keith Taylor took over teaching the classes for the first time this year, after taking basketry classes for many years as a student at Common Ground.

To prepare, he cut reeds and supplies and packaged them into kits for each student. Whether by mail or personal delivery, they reached each student in time.

On a Thursday afternoon’s class, the group wove together, though scattered across the country. They chatted and asked questions. Taylor’s set up his phone as an extra “participant” in the video call, and used it to show close-ups.

In a Bluegrass Banjo 2 class taught by Pau Barjau, the instructor shared sheet music through PDF and by sharing his screen over the video call. When the class played a piece together, Barjau left his sound on and the students muted their microphones.

They popped in to speak with questions about finger placement or technique.

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Not every instructor was able to make the change to Zoom. Some didn’t have the internet capability in their homes or didn’t feel comfortable using a computer to teach.

“For the students, we also provided a lot of instructions for them. Because a lot of our students don’t use the computer too much. They’re hands-on people. So they’re used to doing everything in person,” he said.

Discussions and lectures also brought participants together online.

In the “Search for Common Ground,” the flagship class in which participants discuss challenges in the community and divides in society, some topics included the search for racial healing in the United States and the future directions of Common Ground.

What actions could actually move the needle toward change in the country, participants asked. And with teachers making up many in the group, the discussion turned to the role of schools and education in how children learn about American history, race and government.

Michael said that before getting started, they were worried what would be lost when people couldn’t gather in person.

“We’re finding that the sense of community is definitely intact,” he said. People have needed, have wanted to be part of a community. ... What we’re offering is a creative environment in which to interact. And it’s really been great. I’ve, I’ve enjoyed it. I think everyone has.”

The general public is invited to join in on Common Ground’s evening concerts and keynotes, which are broadcast on Youtube and then archived there to watch later, but classes are only for those who have registered.

For the performances especially, “It’s been interesting translating that kind of stuff to an online forum, because the concerts really are such a time for everybody to just come together into the same room and celebrate the different artists that we have.” Michael said.

The live chat during the concert has brought some of that contentedness back. Audience members can chat and leave compliments for the performers during the stream.

“We find ways to be together, even though we’re not physically together,” Michael said.

A screenshot of the Common Ground on the Hill Search for Racial Justice Through Story and Song shows a performance by American Bluesman Guy Davis.
A screenshot of the Common Ground on the Hill Search for Racial Justice Through Story and Song shows a performance by American Bluesman Guy Davis. (Courtesy Photo)

Each Thursday brings a broadcast of “Common Ground’s Search for Racial Justice Through Story and Song,” which features Black faculty members in performance with storytelling, poetry and music.

The next keynote, coming up on July 13 at 8 p.m., is David Carrasco sharing stories about Toni Morrison.

The public events, including gallery talks, keynote lectures, and evening concerts can be found on the Common Ground on the Hill YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/channel/UCRvlpnse6g73KSVMx-SlCog/. For more information about Common Ground on the Hill and the Traditions Weeks, visit www.commongroundonthehill.org.

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