Author Q&A: Book explores elders’ art and life stories

Jon Kay’s newest book began as his dissertation, and it covers more than 20 years of research and work with senior artists.

“Folk Art & Aging: Life-Story Objects and Their Makers” examines how and why senior citizen artists make, use and display the art they make, to recall, reflect upon and share their life stories.

Kay is an Indiana University professor and the director of Traditional Arts Indiana, a statewide folk arts program based at IU’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures.

“I work to identify, document and present the folk and traditional arts of our state,” he said.

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This is his first full-length book.

“I wanted to explore how art-making impacts an elder’s life and helps them as they age,” he said. “Having worked with dozens of artists over the years, I began to see recurring patterns in their lives that I thought deserved greater attention.”

Readers will be introduced to five “elders” who work in different art mediums: weaving, pattern-making and carving, painting, walking stick-making and instrument-making.

“Each of these artists will teach us how their creative work assists them in making sense of their lives, connecting with others, forging a new identity in their later years and making commentary of the changing world around them,” he said.

Q: What are your connections to Brown County?

A: I grew up in Brown County. I graduated in 1985 from Brown County High School. I moved away in 1995 to attend graduate school, but returned in 2004, after several years of working as a folklorist, to direct Traditional Arts Indiana. My son, Zelton Kay, is a sophomore at BCHS, and my wife, Mandy, works at the Brown County YMCA.

Q: What’s your writing ritual? In what environment do you work best?

A: I work a lot, so much of my book was written between 3 and 6 a.m., when I couldn’t sleep. I would get up, go to my living room with my laptop and start writing. I gave myself one year to write the book. It is based on years of fieldwork with artists, but once I started writing, I had to have a goal, and I stuck to it.

Q: What’s the last book you read? Do you have a favorite?

A: In preparation for a class at IU that I am teaching on “The Beauty of Indiana Folk Art” I just re-read Henry Glassie’s “Spirit of Folk Art.” It is a beautiful and thoughtful work about everyday aesthetics and art-making. For aspiring writers, I love Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art” and Stephen King’s “On Writing.” Since my job often requires me to drive around the state, I listened to the audiobook for both of these works and they were the kick in the pants I needed to keep working and complete the project.

Q: Where can people buy this book, and for how much?

A: My book is published by Indiana University Press and is available both online and at area bookstores. The book costs $30, but there is a free PDF version that can be downloaded from IU after Aug. 25 at

Q: Do you have any book signings or related events planned?

A: None that are local, but would love to. I hope to do one at the Brown County Public Library. The (Indiana University) Press is hosting a big release at the American Folklore Society meeting this fall in Miami, Florida.