Announcing The Mary Celestia Parler Project

Parler recording musicians in the Oriole Barbershop, Bentonville, Arkansas; University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections flickr page

Last week Art of the Rural launched Middle Landscape, a series of projects that combine releases of artistic and cultural material with digital work and on-the-ground action to facilitate a collaborative space that creates relationships between ideas, individuals, and communities. Today we are excited to share the inaugural project, one that we feel will evolve over the course of many years and will connect across multiple fields and conversations. The Mary Celestia Parler Project is directed by Rachel Reynolds Luster, a founding member of Art of the Rural and the guiding force behind the The Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Coop and the much-celebrated Mrytle, Missouri Public Library.

By Rachel Reynolds Luster

Mary Celestia Parler was born in South Carolina in 1904, the daughter of a country doctor and farmer, Marvin Lamar Parler, and a local historian, writer, and teacher, Josie Platt Parler. By 1948, she was a Chaucer scholar on a winding path to the Arkansas Ozarks. Less than a year later, she would design and launch the Arkansas Folklore Research Project through her Arkansas Folklore courses at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. From 1949-1965, Parler, her research assistants, and students amassed a tremendous collection of cultural treasures, over 3,640 audio recordings, and tens of thousands of aphorisms dealing with everything from colorful limericks to herbal medicine, weather, superstitions, farming, and more. She cataloged and organized the sayings, which she referred to as “Ozarkisms” into 19 volumes of materials, which have yet to be published. In addition, her students added over 820 reports to the collection with interviews, photographs, and drawings on a wide-range of topics including recipes, vernacular architecture, wild edibles, early commercial jug band music, and more.

All of these materials are acessible in her archives, the University Folklore Collection, housed in Special Collections at the Mullins Library at the University of Arkansas. There, researchers explore manuscript material generated through the Arkansas Folklore Research Project as well as Mary’s own papers and photographs, alongside correspondence in the Mary Celestia Parler Papers and the collection of Vance Randolph, Mary’s husband. For decades, Parler’s life and work has been overshadowed by the rightfully-celebrated legacy of Randolph; this Middle Landscape project will communicate the poetry and cultural import of Parler’s work to new generations of scholars, artists, and communities – and, in the process, celebrate the wealth of material in this collection while also connecting it to the contemporary cultural expression in the places once visited by Parler.

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Mary Celestia Parler with Fred High; University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections flickr page

We believe the multidiscplinary genius contained in Parler’s collection can attract everyone from folklorists, poets, visual artists and comedians, to gender studies scholars and ethnobotonists. Of course, Parler’s field recordings also lay out a powerfully compelling survey of the cultural and musical landscape of Arkansas and the Ozarks. This is the only collection that fully represents Arkansas’ varied cultural geographies and that also documented its diverse traditions during a flurry of technological advances between World War II and the hippie generation. Indeed, her recordings represent the first fifteen years of magnetic tape technology, so even their physicality offer a material history worth considering. We look forward to sharing more exciting news about the audio and transcriptions within her Collection in the coming months.

We are in the middle of The Year of The Rural Arts and I feel like it is also, unofficially, shaping up to be The Year of Parler. The stars seem to be aligning to finally give Mary Celestia Parler her due. We look forward to widening her circle of influence and inspiration through this Middle Landscape project and the first stage — most literally — will begin with our partners in Fayetteville in late August. As part of the activities for this year’s Fayetteville Roots Festival, I will be curating a multi-media interactive exhibit focused on Parler, including a live music stage within the exhibit that imagines what Parler might find if she walked the streets of her old haunts today. Art of the Rural is partnering with The Fayetteville Roots Festival, The Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies, and the University of Arkansas Special Collections department to continue working to expand the reach of Parler’s life work through a series of community events, workshops, and audio releases. Please stay tuned!