For Geoff Davis, the act of teaching and the act of creating go hand in hand. As a teacher at the Indianapolis Public School’s Key Community School, he shares his joy of creating with his elementary school students — they once built a full-sized, functioning boat in class. He is the founder of the school’s ukulele jazz band, the Key Strummers, whose gigs have ranged from weddings to the black tie opener for the Indiana State Museum. Davis is also the founder and director of Blue Stone Folk School, where he teaches people to construct and play ukuleles.
“I like to build things,” Davis says, “and building a school, to me, is the next logical process.”
In January 2007, Davis and his collaborators began laying the foundation for Blue Stone Folk School in Noblesville. Occupying two second-floor rooms of a stately, dark green Victorian house across from Noblesville City Hall, Blue Stone offers students the chance to make their own pieces of art. Students can construct books using an antique letterpress, learn embroidery or bring their own instruments to “porch swing open jams,” which take place on the house’s wraparound porch. Davis’ goal is to create an atmosphere of discovery and fun — what he calls “summer camp for adults.”
History of folk schools
The notion of a folk school might conjure images of a reunion scene from A Mighty Wind (Davis calls the film “a perfect parody”), but folk schools have a rich history. First appearing in 19th century Scandinavia, folk schools helped villagers learn new vocations as the Industrial Revolution changed the economic landscape. The concept of folk schools arrived stateside during the Great Depression, and in addition to teaching struggling farmers marketable skills they could use to support themselves, the arts and crafts produced at the schools became examples of American traditional culture.
Music was an integral part of early folk schools, and one of Blue Stone’s goals is to preserve the tradition of folk music. To Davis, folk music isn’t just Joan Baez or the Kingston Trio — it belongs to every culture whose music has survived throughout the years, passing from one generation to the next. “It’s not that it’s certain people or a certain genre, it’s how accessible it is to the people,” Davis says. “There’s a very personal relationship that moves the music on.”
Davis’ own history with music follows that tradition: His grandmother and parents all played ukulele, and he learned to play the instrument as a young boy. His youngest daughter, Phoebe, also plays the instrument in a ukulele/vocal duo called Pholly. “I’m a bragging papa,” Davis says with a big smile. “It’s not a kids’ thing — they really know what they’re doing. You’d think they were 10 years older if you heard them. It’s just really polished — they do their own arrangements.”
Arts and crafts classes are offered at Blue Stone, but music is what it does best. The school’s crown jewel event, the Meat ’n’ Taters Ukulele Intensive, is an annual week-long workshop that teaches students to construct, maintain and play the instrument. Along with drawing the country’s best ukulele players and builders to Noblesville, the event also attracts students from across the country. This results in a week of visitors wandering the town and building relationships with the locals — which fits Davis’ larger vision for the school.
“Meat ’n’ Taters is our model of what we want to do,” Davis says of the workshop. “We meet every morning in a diner and by the end of the week, the locals in that diner know all those people. I want to build those kinds of relationships — I want this really integrated relationship between our students and this community.”
Raising cash, forming partnerships
Davis wants Blue Stone Folk School to cultivate and maintain the kind of community partnership and success that other folk schools enjoy. Other schools, such as North Carolina’s John C. Campbell Folk School, have small plots of land on which nearly all classes are taught, giving students that “summer camp” experience. Of course, land and resources require funds — something Blue Stone doesn’t have just yet. They are on the verge of receiving 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, but Blue Stone still has to raise funds on its own. What Davis believes his school needs is a true partnership with the city of Noblesville and the Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Those partnerships don’t appear to come easily.
“It’s not that they’re ignoring us,” Davis says. “I think we’re just flying under their radar.”
Davis can recount several offers made to participate in various arts and music events around Hamilton County, but the invitations often came too late for Blue Stone to provide adequate performers, or little or no compensation was offered to performers. Davis believes the issue is a lack of understanding of what the community wants and what Blue Stone can provide; if Blue Stone could get a grant via organizations like the Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau, or at least begin a direct relationship involving the school in the planning of arts and music events for the city and county, the school’s financial future could become more solid.
“The neighbors love what we’re doing,” Davis says. “At the grass-root level, I think we’re doing great. I’m just into us developing a stronger economy downtown with grass-roots events.”
Brenda Myers, executive director of the Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau, agrees with Davis. “I hope he’ll come back in for grant funding,” she says. “Geoff is a very creative, passionate gentleman. I think what he’s doing is wonderful and relates to what we’re doing.”
When asked about the Blue Stone Folk School’s role in shaping and planning events in Hamilton County, Myers calls Blue Stone “one of our partners.”
In less than two years, Geoff Davis and the Blue Stone Folk School have built a community of artists that didn’t exist in Central Indiana, a place for tradition and history to thrive. That community still has room to grow, and while Davis appreciates the present, he keeps his focus on the future.
“I want to do everything I can to build synergy between these communities,” he says. Building is his passion, and Blue Stone Folk School is off to a strong start.