Blessing ceremony for kiln building

A blessing ceremony for the new Cambodian wood fire kiln took place in Lowell on June 28. In order to ensure a successful project, the potters Yary Livan and Proeung Kang made offerings and prayed to the designer of Angkor Wat, King Suryavarman II, whom Yary calls “the hero of construction.” Proeung just arrived from Cambodia where he teaches at the Secondary School of Fine Arts. He and Yary both grew up in the same village along the Mekong Delta and have known each other since childhood. 

Two Buddhist monks in bright orange robes from the Wat Khmer Temple in Lowell came for the occasion. On the altar, Yary prepared offering of grapes, apples, cherries, and a whole roasted chicken (complete with dipping sauces!), next to a vase of freshly picked flowers. 

 

Marge Rack, professor of art at Middlesex Community College  (MCC), gave a welcoming address, translated by Tooch Van, International Student Advisor at MCC, to the approximately fifteen people attending. She said that this project was “a dream come true,” and it was her vision to build a ceramics community that not only included Lowell but Cambodia as well.

Celeste Bernardo, the new Superintendent of Lowell National Historical Park, said that “heritage is made strong by the many cultures in our community,” and that the Lowell community helps spread and continue traditions of the Cambodian people.

 

A clergyman, or achar, lit three tall white candles placed on an orange brick, and gave an introduction in both Sanskrit and Pali, the liturgical language of Buddhism. The two monks chanted the Dhamma in Sanskrit while dipping flowers into pottery bowls of water and sprinkling water over the kiln’s foundation.

 

 

At the altar, Yary lit a candle,while Proeung poured pinot grigio over the chicken. Holding a bundle of incense sticks, Yary prayed and chanted over the offerings, then placed one burning incense stick each into an apple, a grape, a cherry, and the chicken.

  

Cambodian customs are a mix of animism, Hinduism, Buddhism. The altar incorporated the symbolically important Hindu number of seven. Yary said traditionally the altar holds seven different kinds of food and seven kinds of fruit, what he called “seven times seven.”

 

The art department of MCC had generously presented Yary and Proeung with a hand truck so they wouldn’t hurt their backs! They will be helped by Samnang Khoeun, an architect and Yary’s former apprentice, and Vanny Hang, a sculptor from Lawrence who is a specialist in Khmer ornamentation. The artisans collaborate together in their studio in the Western Studios building in Lowell.  To follow progress on the kiln project, click here.

Photos by Maggie Holtzberg. Group shot by Samnang Khoeun.

Lithuanian Summer Solstice

I’m delighted to be working with state folklorist Maggie Holtzberg in Lowell this summer.  On the summer solstice, Maggie and I went to visit Jonas Stundzia at his home in Lawrence to learn about Rasos Svente, the Dew Festival, and the ways Lithuanians celebrate the longest day of the year. He will be demonstrating how to make floral head garlands at this year’s Lowell Folk Festival. Garlands, or wreaths, are an important part of this solstice festival, also known as the festival of Saint John.

Jonas is a wealth of folklore. When we got to his house, he welcomed us with a traditional Lithuanian greeting. From a decorative ceramic pitcher, he poured water over our hands, and held out a woven Lithuanian cloth to dry them. He then offered us cucumbers dipped in honey and small cups of samagonas (rye moonshine). He said that cucumbers dipped in honey are eaten as a summer treat only in the northeast area of Lithuania.

Jonas showed us his garden blooming with plants native to Lithuania, including wild sorrel, used in making soup; ruta (rue), the national flower; wild onions; and lavender. His garden also had winter rye, used for Christmas decorations; parsley; mint; wild straw; and wild dahlia. He showed us a large oak garland he had made. Oak is considered a male tree and oak garlands are usually reserved for men. We tried it on anyway, and it was heavy! In Lithuania, garlands made of wild flowers, healing herbs, and grasses are used in the solstice festival to adorn the head, decorate the homestead, float candles on the water, and burn in the bonfire.

Jonas had made another large circular garland with linden and yellow flowers which symbolize the sun. Lithuanians consider linden a female plant; this wreath could be worn by a woman, or decorated with lit candles to be floated on the water on the evening of the Rasos Svente festival. The points of light guide the sun back home to earth. Wreaths symbolize the circle of life. Circles and wheels are important in Lithuanian mythology. In one pre-Bronze age myth the sun travels across the sky pulled by a goat. Jonas told us that Lithuanian rituals and language go back to proto Indo-European times. They still survive today because Lithuania was geographically isolated far up north on swampy land that nobody else wanted. Lithuanian is an ancient language, but still living, unlike Sanskrit or Latin.

On the summer solstice, Lithuanians give kupole staffs to friends and neighbors to protect and bless their homes. Jonas showed us a kupole staff he had made with healing herbs: nettle (good for healing arthritis and a relaxation); wormwood (good for the nerves); southern wort (a nerve relaxant used to make absinthe liquor); mountain ash (considered a male plant, used in the celebration of St. John); and belladonna (a medicinal nightshade).

Next, he showed us decorative iron saule, which means “sun.” One had a circle, which represents the sun; branches which represent the tree of life; jagged thunderbolts; curved snakes; and roots representing the earth. In Lithuania, snakes are symbols of life. Gyvate means snake; gyvas means life. The first animals to appear from Mother Earth in the spring are the toad and the snake. Thunderbolts allude to the god of thunder who creates rain, and therefore gives life.

Other saule he showed us had Christian crosses. He said that Roman Catholics had adopted and reinterpreted the form of the saule and used them in cemeteries to decorate gravestones.  In the same way, the pre-Christian kupole staff transformed into a similar, but smaller and more compact staff used on Palm Sunday. The rituals of the Rasos Svente festival also were adopted into Saint John’s Day celebrations. We look forward to hearing more of his stories at his demonstration tent at the folk festival in July.

All photos by Maggie Holtzberg.

Massachusetts shipwright wins national honor

  Harold Burnham standing at home: 2006:

We first nominated Harold A. Burnham for a National Heritage Award back in 2001.  This year’s fellows have just been announced and we are delighted to see Harold among those receiving the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.  Having built a number of timber-framed schooners, Burnham holds true to traditional materials and techniques. Using hand tools familiar to a nineteenth-century shipwright, he works out-of-doors through New England winters, and launches vessels the old way using wedges, grease, and gravity. 

  Launch of Isabella; Apprenticeship - wooden boat building; 2006: Essex, Massachusetts

Burnham has essentially revived a once dormant shipbuilding technique and in doing so has reconnected the town of Essex to its own shipbuilding heritage. He credits place as much as family legacy for enabling him to do what he does, “. . . it’s hard to imagine a place on earth where shipbuilding is more deeply embroidered into the fabric of the community.”

For more info on this year’s National Heritage Fellows, click here.

 

 

 

 

Yary builds a wood-burning kiln

 

We last wrote about Cambodian ceramicist Yary Livan when he received an Artist Fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council this past Spring. Livan’s work draws on the rich heritage of Cambodian culture, including influences from ancient imperial Khmer kiln sites, such as Angkor Wat, and incorporates Khmer imagery, relief carving, and design. 

The big news in his life is that after having no decent place to work or fire his ware, Yary not only has studio space at Western Avenue Studios , he is in the process of building a wood-burning kiln on land owned by the National Park Service. Middlesex Community College, who is sponsoring the project, has created a blog : “On this blog one can follow events at Yary’s Kiln, 220 Aiken St. Lowell, MA, with photos and interviews; find out when the kiln will be fired; learn how to sign up for workshops, to visit, view exhibits or find sales of traditional Cambodian woodfire pottery.”

We’ll be stopping by from time to time as well, to see how things are progressing at the kiln site. Come September, the Lowell Folklife Series will host a firing of the newly finished kiln.

Next Lowell Folklife Series features RUMBAFRICA

The Lowell Folklife Series  is pleased to support the headliner band, Rumbafrica at the 2012 African Festival in Lowell, MA. The festival takes place Saturday June 16, 2012 at the Sampas Pavillion along Pawtucket Boulevard. Rumbafrica is led by Congolese guitarist/singer Tshibangu Kadima. They play a rumba dance music called Soukous (derived from the French word meaning “to shake”), which originated in the 1930s. The group features a variety of African percussion and several dancers.  They will  be performing sets at 2:00 pm, 4:00 pm, and 6:00 pm.

In addition to live music and dance performances throughout the day, there will be traditional African crafts and food. Below are some photos from our visit to the festival in 2009

African Festival, Ethnic festival, 2009; African Festival of Lowell; Lowell, Massachusetts; Photography by Signe Porteshawver

Drummer in Mamadou Diop band; Ethnic festival; 2009:

Young boys in African Festival t-shirts; Ethnic festival; 2009: Lowell, Massachusetts

Woman selling African fabrics; Ethnic festival; 2009: Lowell, Masachusetts

Festival photos taken by Signe Porteshawver for the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at Massachusetts Cultural Council.