When Delores “Dee” Nierman received a call last month from Jon Kay at Indiana University, she didn’t think anything of it.
She thought maybe he wanted to buy a rug from her, not tell her she was a winner of the 2020 Indiana Heritage Fellowship Award, recognized by Traditional Arts Indiana.
“I’ve known Jon for about 15 years and have done some weaving demonstrations for him through the arts program,” Nierman said. “So I was surprised when he said that I was one of two winners of the award.”
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Kay directs Traditional Arts Indiana at Indiana University, which is a statewide program to identify, document and promote the folk and traditional arts. This is the second year the program has presented the Traditional Arts Indiana Award.
“The awards raise the visibility of folk art traditions in our state, and part of their hope is that by recognizing people with a state award, then there might be the possibility of actually nominating them for the national award,” Kay said.
He said there are a few things about Nierman that are worth noting. One is that she is the fourth generation and her niece, Margaret Luckey, is the fifth to do loom weaving. Luckey lives near Jonesville and was the one who nominated Nierman for the award.
“Margaret lives near Jonesville and works on the loom from my father’s side of the family,” Nierman said. “I’ve demonstrated at the fairs and have been to craft shows in Ohio, Illinois and mostly Indiana with Margaret. We usually go together.”
Besides demonstrations, Nierman also sells her weaved rugs at craft fairs and festivals. Last year, she set up shop at Fort Vallonia Days, which she has participated in for more than 20 years, and Christmas craft fairs in Milan and Plainfield.
“It’s really hard to find people in Indiana who have kept a tradition in their family from one generation to the next,” Kay said. “It’s especially rare when the generations don’t take a break and work on the same looms, so it’s pretty amazing.”
Kay said people also should know Nierman is known as the “Rag Rug Lady” in this region, where she goes to sell her rugs at Fort Vallonia Days, fall festivals and similar events.
“It’s quite humbling and quite an honor, and right now, all I have is the letter saying I was a winner,” Nierman said. “Me and the other winner will receive our awards in Bloomington next month.”
Master woodcarver Bob Taylor of Columbus is the other winner. He began whittling when he was 8 and carved as a pattern-maker as an adult. In retirement, he has impressed many with the photographic detail of his memory carvings, Kay said.
For their prizes, Nierman and Taylor will each receive a $1,000 honorarium to honor their participation in the arts for all of these years and for participating in video interviews Kay will conduct.
Also, Indiana artisan Tom Wintczak, known for working in a style of pottery called redware that dates back to colonial America, will make a plate for each winner.
“I learned how to weave when I was 7 years old and owe all of my success to my ancestors, who taught me how to weave,” Nierman said. “I took a couple of classes with some friends, too, but that was for weaving on a different kind of loom, not this big rug loom that has been passed on through generations.”
Neirman said she has worked on two weaving looms — one from her mother’s side of the family and one from her dad’s side, which is the one she learned on before she was married.
“The big barn loom from my mom’s side of the family is downstairs at our house and bolted to the floor,” Nierman said. “Mom was the third generation that has worked on that one. I’m the fourth, and my niece, Margaret, is the fifth.”
The loom in Nierman’s basement was built in 1864 by John Reickers, a grandfather of Clarence Reickers, who lived around Dudleytown. The loom was built for her great-grandma, Sarah Ann Cox Collins, when she was 13.
Jesse Kovener, Dee’s uncle, has repaired the loom over the years. Her cousin, Gary Kovener, is a Seymour native and was happy to learn of her arts award.
“Her mother and my father were siblings, and I remember from my youth visiting Dee at their rural home, the log frame house with no running water,” Gary Kovener said. “The front room was occupied by a quilting frame with the women sitting at the edges and stitching patterns. The men sat in a separate room with a stove furnace in the center for heat, and they shared stories. As a young boy, I was an attentive listener.”
Regarding the award, Kovener said he is pleased that Indiana University with its Mathers Museum of World Cultures is cooperating with the Indiana Arts Commission to honor and preserve the folk arts of Indiana.
“Beyond Dee’s craft of weaving, she has consistently shared her knowledge with others who are either practicing weavers or persons beginning to weave,” Kovener said. “Recently, she traveled to northern Indiana to help an individual set up an old loom and begin weaving. It is this craft sharing that makes Dee a worthy recipient of the award.”
Nierman said she and her husband, Glen, still own her childhood home in White Creek, a cabin over in Bartholomew County, but no one lives there. Her parents were Albert and Sarah Enzinger.
“My sister and mother are deceased, and my dad was killed when I was 2 years old, so I didn’t really know him. I just have two nieces that are left,” Nierman said. “After my father passed away, my mom paid the bills by weaving for people, and she also wove for the woolen mills.”
The rag rugs Nierman weaves are constructed from leftover fabric scraps or old tarnished clothes and rags and is a good way to recycle and repurpose. Nierman gets her materials mostly from woolen mills on the West Coast, and she also uses old denim jeans.
Nierman’s husband sometimes helps out with the rug making by cutting up strips of denim for his wife to weave.
The Niermans, both 83, live in Brownstown with their dog, Toto. The couple will celebrate their 47th anniversary this year. At one time, the couple raised llamas, but the animals passed away several years ago.
“I was born and raised about a mile from our current home, where an old house originally stood,” Glen said. “I bought the house, and then several years later, we tore it down and built a new one in 1980.”
Glen graduated from Brownstown High School and Dee was a 1954 graduate from Columbus High School, back when there was just one high school.
Nierman said she has had a lot of different jobs during her lifetime and lived in California about 10 months, then came back and worked at Cummins and Schneck Medical Center, but that was before she and Glen were married.
“I’ve been a homemaker for about 47 years, and that’s a full-time job. We got married late in life and don’t have any children,” Nierman said. “Just our little dog, Toto, that was abandoned on our road several years ago. We looked for his owner and had him scanned, but he didn’t have a chip, so we kept him.”
Nierman said besides weaving, she has dabbled in a lot of handwork and tried quilting, crocheting and knitting.
“I remember when me, my mom and grandma would sit in rocking chairs and piece quilts together,” she said. “I’m thankful for all the things I’ve learned from them, especially weaving, because it’s a hobby I really enjoy.”
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Event: Indiana University’s Traditional Arts Indiana will recognize two master traditional artists as 2020 Indiana Heritage Fellows
When: 1 to 4:30 p.m. March 28; it will begin with demonstrations at 1 p.m. with the awards ceremony from 2 to 3:30 p.m. and a reception following
Where: Mathers Museum of World Cultures, 416 N. Indiana Ave., Bloomington
Who: Open to the public
Details: There will be a musical performance by Jim Smoak and Johanna Rippey and demonstrations by master artists and apprentices from the TAI Apprenticeship Program. Demonstrations will include African American quilting, glassblowing, Miami ribbonwork and Miami plant lore.