An apprentice strikes out on his own

 

Jesse Marsolais has spent the last six years working alongside master letterpress printer John Kristensen at Firefly Press. In 2009, the two were awarded an MCC-funded Traditional Arts Apprenticeship to work specifically on Jesse learning to use and maintain 19th-century Linotype and Monotype typecasting machines.

This past June, Jesse also had the rare opportunity to apprentice under master carver Nick Benson at the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island.  The latter apprenticeship (letter carving in stone) was supported by a  Southern New England Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship, a unique program administered by Lynne Williamson which funds master artists and apprentices to work together across state lines in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.  The latter grant culminated in an open house this past June at the John Stevens Shop (JSS), which Jesse writes about in his own blog post.

Jesse’s nascent skills in letter carving are valued at the JSS, and he continutes to do occasional jobs for them when needed.  If it weren’t for the fact that Jesse just opened his own printing and stone carving business in Millbury, MA, he might very well have been offered full time work in Newport.

Marsolais Press & Lettercarving, Inc.  is located in a free-standing brick building which once housed a textile mill.

Jesse shares the space with blacksmith Derek Heidemann, who began learning his craft at age 14 at Old Sturbridge Village. “When I found out about the space I was really intrigued by the presence of a traditional blacksmith,” Jesse said. “Derek works for Old Sturbridge Village by day but then comes here and does his own things at night.”

Derek happened to be at the shop on the day I visited. His work at the forge gave the space a wonderful smell of burning coal and red hot iron, and the occasional clinking sounds of metal on metal.

 

Jesse offered this: “To be able to work in a space that has another traditional craftsman  is really exciting and generative for me because it keeps the space alive with making. We’re vying for the same sensibility – for people that actually want the traditional process, the traditional level of quality.”

Jesse’s half of the work space is home to his newly acquired Chandler & Price Press, a 400-pound Miller saw, some type cases, a galley cabinet, his grandfather’s engineering drafting table, and a collection of typography and printing books. I ask him to talk about how the allied trades of letterpress printing and stone carving relate.

“For me, it seems like a really obvious bridge. [They are] two very related fields.” A self-proclaimed antiquarian, Jesse naturally has pursued learning more about the history and tradition of typography. “I think the more I researched and the farther back I went, the more I realized the debt modern typography owes to traditional Roman letterforms. Brush-driven letterforms.  Obviously, these are two totally different methods of typographic or lettering reproduction but there is a continuum that’s very much alive in the over-arching tradition.”

There, lying on the drafting table was proof. A slate slab beautifully carved with a Roman alphabet – the letters chiseled in V-cut against the buttery smooth dark slate.

Nearby, was a large beach stone, looking to weigh some 50 pounds. Jesse had begun to design lettering of my father’s name for a memorial stone I’d commissioned. I asked him to talk about finding this particular stone. “Because I was able to learn a little bit about your father, I had some personal information at hand. . .  Searching for a stone can be a fairly emotional and moving moment. . . I knew he was a man of science. It was important to me to find a stone that I thought I could carve.”

“This stone has a purplish hue and it has these beautiful bands of what looks like quartz and some darker stone. I look at this and I just think pressure and time. There’s a fluidity to it. There’s a flow inherent in the surface of the stone. So there’s this play of solid and liquid.”

 Jesse’s shop will be easier to find once Jesse finishes his sign for the exterior of the building.

Two days later, I went to meet Jesse at the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island.  The shop has been in operation since 1705; walk inside and history speaks. Beautiful letterforms are everywhere you look.  Jesse greeted me and showed me the piece he wass working on – an impression of a cancelled stamp, carved in white marble. I met Paul Russo, who was chipping away on a slate memorial, carving daffodils in relief. Nearby was a huge piece in progress for Yale University, acknowledging benefactors for their contributions to art, and a number of gravestones in various stages of completion.

Jesse shares with me that he couldn’t imagine better guys to work with and learn from. “They’ve been incredibly generous, not at all guarded with the secrets of the trade.”

As a folklorist working in the public sector, it is gratifying to help support a young man with skills and passion seek out mentors willing to pass on their knowledge in hand-wrought craftsmanship and receive priceless, one-on-one guidance. It is also affirming to see that a small investment of public money in the arts can play a part in growing small business developtment, while preserving age-old New England crafts.

Traditional Arts Fellows and Finalists, a Diverse Group

Every other year, the Massachusetts Cultural Council awards  Artist Fellowships in the traditional arts, recognizing individuals for their artistic excellence, authenticity, and deep roots in traditional culture. Among the awardees this year is Irish-American button-accordion player Joe Derrane (Randolph, MA), who is also a National Heritage Fellow.
JOE DERRANE, Irish American accordion player

Joe Derrane is a living legend in the Irish traditional music community. Born in  Boston to Irish immigrant parents, Derrane developed an early affinity for the button accordion and Irish traditional music. At age 14, he was playing regularly in the ballroom dance scene that was booming in the Dudley Street section of Roxbury. At age 17, Derrane recorded the first in a series of 78-rpm recordings, which have since become legendary in the Irish music world. Decades later, Derrane’s musicianship is marked by his unique ornamentation, vigor, and flawless execution.  In addition to his virtuosity on the button box, Derrane is known for his tune compositions, many of which have entered the repertoire of Irish musicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

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YARY LIVAN, Cambodian ceramicist

An MCC Artist Fellowship also went to  Yary Livan (Lowell, MA), master of traditional Cambodian ceramics and kiln building. His 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. Livan recently served as master artist in MCC’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, passing on what he knows of kbach, the basic element of design in Khmer art, to apprentice Samnang Khoeun. The two are building a smokeless wood-burning kiln on the grounds of Lowell National Historical Park.

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In addition to these two Artist Fellowships in the Traditional Arts, four Finalist awards were announced.

VERÓNICA ROBLES, Mariachi musician

Verónica Robles has Mariachi music in her blood. “I first learned the traditoinal music of my home country, Mexicao, from my grandmother, whom I would spend hours with in the kitchen as she prepared dishes such as chicharron prensado, con calabazas, elote y nopales.  .  . ” It was in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi, the cradle of Mariachi music, where Verónica was introduced to the Mariachi group led by El Chiquis. She began working with his group at age 15, learning hundreds of songs and musical styles. Robles has made Massachusetts home since 2000, where she specializes in performing for young audiences through school assembles, residencies and dance workshops. Her television show, Orale con Verónica, has been on the air since 2002.

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KHENPO CHOPEL, Tibetan torma maker

Khenpo Chopel was born in Tibet and became a monk at the age of 14. Holding the title of “khenpo” (a spiritual degree given after three years of intensive study in Tibetan Buddhism), Chopel is a master torma  maker and tantric practitioner.  Tormas (pictured above) are a traditional art form essential for everyday practice in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and households. These ritual forms — in conical shapes of bright colors — are made both as an offering to a deity and as a representation of a deity.  Since 2009, Chopel has been living at the Drikung Meditation Center in Arlington, Massachusetts, where he serves as a master torma-maker and tantric practitioner.

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JORGE ARCE, Afro Caribbean percussionist and educator

Jorge Arce grew up in the Bélgica, a working class neighborhood of Ponce, Puerto Rico. Ponce is known as the wellspring of bomba, plena, and danza, traditional Afro Caribbean styles of music and dance. Born into a family of dancers and singers, Arce grew up with Plena folk groups and musicians.  Arce credits Don Rafael Cepda and family with expanding his knowledge of bomba. In addition to his life-long work in Bomba and Plena, Arce is an experienced actor, dancer, and cultural historian. He is considered an expert on the history of Puerto Rican’s African people and their descendants. Touring the United States since 1975 as a musician and educator, Arce continues to give workshops, lectures, residencies and performances at schools, festivals, and community organizations.

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DANNY MEKONNEN, Ethiopian American musician

By the time he was an accomplished saxophonist, Danny Mekonnen sought out master Ethiopian musicians to learn to play the traditional instruments of his Ethiopian heritage. In 2006, Mekonnen founded Debo Band, an Ethiopian music collective melding traditional East African polyrhythms, American soul and funk, and the layered instrumentation of Eastern European brass bands, to form a sound that is a jubilant reinvention of music that once rocked Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. He also performs for events within the Ethiopian community, such as weddings and adoption community gatherings for American parents of Ethiopian children.

Apprenticeship Grants Available

Are you interested in applying for a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council? Applications are now available.

Recent apprenticeships funded by MCC’s Folk Arts and Heritage Program include Puerto Rican musical instrument making, Irish fiddling, Cambodian kbach (basic element of design), Irish stepdancing, bladesmithing, and Puerto Rican dollmaking, to name a few. Check them out.

Traditional Arts Fellowships Available

  

Cape Breton fiddler Joseph Cormier, rhythm tap dancer, James Godbolt, a.k.a. Jimmy Slyde, wooden boat builder Harold A. Burnham, Malian balaphon player Balla Kouyaté, and Irish step dancer Kieran Jordan  . . . these are just some of the individuals who have been awarded MCC Artist Fellowships in the Traditional Arts since 1999.  All were recognized for their artistic excellence within art forms that are deeply rooted in tradtional and ethnic culture.

These fellowships are awarded biennually.  The postmark deadline to apply is October 7, 2012. Guidelines are available online.