Swallowtail School founder Lauren Sheehan offers American Folk Blues

by: COURTESY PHOTO - Guitarist  Lauren SheehanThe winner of the 2012 Portland Music Award for outstanding achievement in folk music, guitarist Lauren Sheehan, will perform in Forest Grove on Saturday, Oct. 19. Sheehan, who has four albums to her credit and has been featured on National Public Radio and reviewed in the Huffington Post, lends her voice to the fundraising effort to install a world-class glass sculpture at the Forest Grove City Library.

Sheehan began playing the guitar when she was growing up in Connecticut. During her freshman year of college she was drawn to New England fiddle music, and then guitar, seeking out folk festivals. “They were gatherings, they were accessible. That music just suited me. You can dance to it. There’s more separation in a concert,” she noted recently.

Don’t expect much separation when Sheehan performs at Pacific University’s Taylor-Meade Performing Arts Center. Given her strong connections to Forest Grove and the surrounding area, it promises to be more of reunion and celebration. She’ll be joined by Mona Warner, who played in a local band with Sheehan in the early 1980s.

The sculpture is designed and donated by Sheehan’s husband, architectural sculptor Ed Carpenter, whose glass works can be found throughout the world. The project includes work by local artists Greg Kriebel and Eric Canon.

“It’s a family endeavor to do something meaningful for the community. It’s a civic responsibility to bring public, world-class art to the library,” she explained. Her mother-in-law, Molly Starbuck, was a long-time volunteer at the library.

Though Sheehan and Carpenter now live in Portland, they met in the late 1970s at a Thanksgiving dinner in Forest Grove and lived in western Washington County for many years. When their daughter, Zoe, was nearing school age, Sheehan found the area didn’t have the kind of progressive education she wanted. With an advanced degree in education, she started Swallowtail School, first in Gales Creek, training teachers and developing a curriculum.

“I could have done home schooling,” she said. “But I felt a civic responsibility to create something that would outlive my own needs.” Indeed, now in Hillsboro, the school will be 20 years old next year, and is thriving, though Sheehan describes herself as a cheerleader for the school, and no longer a teacher or administrator there.

“The school and my family were my primary focus,” she said. “Music was my personal hobby and private love. It gave me needed balance.” It also overlapped. She taught music at Swallowtail, and with summers more or less free, she could take her two children to music festivals. “I returned to the Northeast often, but I also found I liked Southeastern blues and bluegrass. There’s a melting pot quality to it. It’s real life without the sugar coating.” As her children grew and Swallowtail became more sustainable, music became something she shared more, releasing her first album, “Some Old Lonesome Day,” in 2002.

The fourth album, “The Light Still Burns,” was done in conjunction with a book, “Kalamazoo Gals” by John Thomas, about women who made Gibson guitars during World War II. They produced guitars called Banners because of a decal on the headstock of each one. The story of these women moved Sheehan and reminded her of her own grandmother. “She was first generation Scotch, living in Massachusetts. I felt very close to her. She was hard working. But she was not a ‘woe is me’ person. The women who made those guitars had that quality.”

For Sheehan, what she learned in the beginning from her grandmother has been a cumulative effect of understanding what ethics mean. “Do I care, do I take responsibility? I’ve come to understand ethics as an opportunity to participate. I’ve been given gifts. Other people have different gifts. I can’t speak for my husband, but I think he’d agree that one contributes in and to community. And if what you can do is make music to help people forget their pressures for a couple of hours, you do that. If you have the energy to start a school, you do that.”

With a busy music career, no formal role at Swallowtail and her own children launched, Sheehan is still passionate about education. “I wish there was a k-12 curriculum that included social justice. People could claim their own freedom, claim equal pay for equal work. We can’t give up. There are those who would cloak truth rather than reveal truth. It’s insidious. That brings me back to the concert Saturday. Molly, my mother-in-law, represents that one ordinary person can make a difference.”

Sheehan said the music will be funky and will include songs by Hank Williams and Stephen Foster. Will she be playing one of the Gibson Gal guitars? You’ll just have to come to find out.

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