Former University of Arizona anthropologist and folklorist James S. Griffith, whose career has been devoted to celebrating and honoring the folkways and religious expression found along the U.S.-Mexico border, has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts for his efforts.
Griffith is among nine people who have been awarded the 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellowship. In particular, the NEA singled out Griffith for the Bess Lomax Hawes Fellowship, which "recognizes an individual who has made a significant contribution to the preservation and awareness of cultural heritage," and calling him "the personification of the intent of the fellowship."
A native of Santa Barbara, Calif., Griffith came to Tucson in 1955 to attend the UA and earned three degrees, including a doctorate in cultural anthropology and art history. In 1979 he started the Southwest Folklore Center at the UA as a way to preserve and give light to the dozens of cultures that live in the region.
"Big Jim," as he is known, is perhaps most familiar as the founder of Tucson's annual community ethnic heritage festival, Tucson Meet Yourself.
Begun in 1974, the three-day fall festival draws musicians, artists and ethnic cuisine from at least 60 cultural groups, both indigenous and imported. The festival has grown over the years and currently draws more than 100,000 people to downtown.
Griffith has written several books on southern Arizona and northern Mexico folk and religious art traditions, including "Hecho a Mano: The Traditional Arts of Tucson's Mexican American Community" and "Saints of the Southwest." He also hosted "Southern Arizona Traditions," a series of vignettes that aired on Tucson's PBS affiliate, KUAT-TV.
He also has curated numerous exhibitions on regional traditional arts including "La Cadena Que No Se Corta/The Unbroken Chain: The Traditional Arts of Tucson's Mexican American Community" at the UA Museum of Art.
Griffith has been honored for his distinguished service to folklore and the state of Arizona with awards that include the 2005 Henry Glassie Award and the 2009 Pima County Library Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2010 he served as the Grand Marshall for the 2010 Tucson Rodeo Parade.
"Big Jim Griffith is a titan in American Folklore – an enormous, enduring presence here in southern Arizona," said Joseph C. Wilder, director of the UA Southwest Center. Wilder said now that Griffith is retired, the essential functions of the Southwest Folklore Center have been incorporated into the Southwest Center, part of the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and being carried forward by folklorist and research scientist Maribel Alvarez.
"We're proud to be associated with Jim, grateful for the Jim and Loma Griffith Endowment that is supporting folklore at the UA and delighted that he has been honored with the Beth Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship Award. We're delighted to be able to bask in the reflected glory that Jim brings to his beloved Tucson. Jim is an absolute national treasure – and he is all ours."
Elizabeth Stark, a public affairs spokesperson for NEA, said Griffith also will be part of a free annual public concert on Friday, Sept. 23, at 8 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Md., one of a series of events for the 2011 awardees hosted in Washington, D.C., by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Bernard Fontana, a retired UA ethnohistorian, said don't be surprised if Griffith brings his banjo to the concert. Fontana, a long-time friend and neighbor, said Griffith
several years ago was voted one of the top banjo pickers in the country at the Uncle Dave Macon Days festival in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Tickets to the NEA festival are free and the event will be webcast online. Stark said details will be announced later this summer.