Traditional Arts Apprenticeships Announced!

We  are delighted to announce the awarding of 10 new Traditional Arts Apprenticeships.  These Mass Cultural Council grants support the transmission and vitality of our state’s traditional arts by funding a master artist to mentor an apprentice in a 10-month learning experience.

Here are the 2018-2019 year recipients:

Nepalese sarangi playing: Shyam Nepali, master artist and Pranawa Phuyal, apprentice, Watertown, MA

Cambodian folk dance  Tim Chan Thou, master artist and Maddox Yang, apprentice, Lowell, MA

Odissi dance Shipra S Mehrotra, master artist and Priya Bangal, apprentice, Framingham, MA

Guitar making:  Benjamin Pearce, master artist and Deitrich Stause, apprentice, Cambridge, MA

Westfield whipmaking:  Carol Martin, master artist and Stephanie Harder, apprentice, Westield, MA

Music of Epirus: Vasilis Kostas, master artist and Lysander Jaffe, apprentice, Boston, MA

Carnatic violin: Surya Sundararajan, master artist and Bharath Ramesh, apprentice, Westford, MA

Kathak dance: Urmi Samadar, master artist and Anishka Yerabothu, apprentice, Southborough, MA

Carnatic vocal Tara Anand Bangalore, master artist and Diya Godavarti, apprentice, Framingham, MA

Carnatic mridangam: Mahalingam Santhanakrishnan, master artist and Shivendran Vytheswan, apprentice, Lexington

Apprenticeships are awarded every other year. The next application deadline will by April 2020.

“Festival Moments” by folklorist Millie Rahn

Carl Close Jr. at Hammersmith Studio. Photo: Maggie Holtzberg

Recently my colleague Maggie Holtzberg and I were interviewing ornamental blacksmith Carl Close, Jr., in West Newton as part of fieldwork for the 2018 Lowell Folk Festival. I met Carl in 2001, when arranging for him to demonstrate his smith work at that year’s event, where the theme was The Arts of Preservation and Conservation.

Another artisan, Jim Ialeggio of Shirley, was a window restorer for historic houses and buildings. When Carl’s wife Susan, co-manager of their Hammersmith Studios, looked at a lock on one of Jim’s windows, she said, “This looks like Carl’s work.” Indeed it was. Carl and Jim met, the two artisans began doing business directly, and cut out the middle broker. It’s festival moments like this—when artists meet, admire each other’s work, and forge bonds—that we folklorists live for.

The 20th festival in 2006 featured crafts traditions from across New England. Abenaki basketmaker Jesse Larocque, from Vermont, was pounding black ash to make the splints for his baskets. He started out Saturday pounding a large log and by Sunday afternoon it was merely the size of a walking stick. I happened to go past as two women were commenting, “Now I know why baskets are so expensive,” seeing the amount of physical work, as well as artistry, that goes into them. Another festival moment for me, a visual teachable moment.

Jesse Larocque pounding black ash at Lowell Folk Festival

The 2003 festival showcased regional textile traditions. Quilter Sally Palmer Field, of Chelmsford, was a native Lowellian whose father brought her scraps from the mills during the Depression to make her dolls’ clothing. Later, she collected and incorporated mill scraps into her quilts and other fabric art works.

Sally Palmer Field at the entrance to her home. Photo: Maggie Holtzberg

Her wall hanging, “Mile of Mills,” sewn with Meyer’s thread, drew many comments of recognition from women who’d worked in the mills and at the Ideal Dress Factory, in particular. Not only did Sally’s work incorporate her Lowell roots, but it was a collective commemoration of the city’s textile past, including pieces of nylon woven for parachutes during the Second World War. For those women, Sally’s work wasn’t just art or history; it was the stories of their lives. If only I’d had my tape-recorder running.

 

 

The power of a custom-made religious garment

Detail of embroidered attarah saying, “Hear our voices” on tallit by Amy Lassman

I first met Amy Lassman in November 2017 at a craft fair held at the Hyde Center in Newton Highlands. The artistic craftsmanship and depth of meaning in her work stood out from the rows of vendors offering beaded jewelry, crocheted blankets, and felted critters. Amy’s table displayed a combination of Judaica (Jewish ceremonial art) including tallises (prayer shawls), yarmulkes and kippot (head coverings), coverings for challah (braided bread), and afikomen bags used to hold matzoh during the Passover Seder, as well as secular handbags and scarves.  It was only when I visited with Amy at her Needham home and studio that I learned she recently decided to focus strictly on the Judaica.

Amy’s Judaica work involves custom design, selection of fine fabrics and notions, sewing, embroidery, lettering, and knot tying — all of Amy’s work is deeply informed by her practice of Judaism, familiarity with the sacred sartorial objects of religious ritual, and her educational background in psychology and family dynamics.

In addition to my recording gear, I had brought my late father’s tallit, tefillin, and yamulke as a way of reconnecting with these religious objects and to learn something of how tallises dating back to the mid-1930s differ from ones custom made today.

Tallis, tefillin, and velvet bag belonging to Maggie’s father

For a folklorist, I am remarkably uninformed about my own heritage. Unlike Amy, who attended Jewish Day school and high school, worships at a local synagogue, and is very involved in the Jewish community, I was raised without formal religious education and self-identify as a “secular Jew.”  Although I  have fond memories of attending Passover Seders with extended family and friends, I have never stayed home from school or work on Jewish holidays.  And although my father’s family attended a conservative temple, the rabbi there was a socialist. My mother’s father was anti-organized religion and felt more affinity with socialism and unionism than Zionism. So it was especially meaningful to get tutored in the meaning of the contents of my father’s velvet tallis bag.

Green velvet bag to hold tefillin

Amy looks at my father’s tallis with care. She says that it is typical of the early 20th century and most likely commercially made, noting that the edges are beautifully knotted. “The tassels mean nothing,” she explains “they’re just pretty. The only [tassels] that count are tied into the four corners of the garment and are called tzitzit.”

Corner of tallit belonging to Maggie’s father, showing tzitzit .

She goes on to explain that although Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews have different ways of tying tzitzit, the combination of the number of strings, knots, and twists must equal 613. The sum represents the original number of mitvot (commandments) in the Torah (Jewish written law).  “Honestly, nobody really can fulfill all 613; that’s the ideal. That’s perfection. It includes the number of times you pray each day. It includes kashrut (keeping kosher). It includes the way you treat your fellow man. It’s not just good deeds, it’s intentions – who you are as a person and how you relate to the world around you, and what your connection is to God.”

Amy Lassman holding up the corner of a tallis with tzitzit

Once Amy finishes a tallis and the client returns to pick it up, she purposely leaves two of the four corners untied. “I will teach them how to tie and I will talk to them about the meaning of tying. And they will tie them themselves. So, it’s not just the design piece;  the concept of it, it’s actually physically creating the garment . . .  And so many times, when it’s a parent of a grandparent, and a Bar Mitzvah, then they’re all tying together. So that ’s going to be part of that memory as well.”

(Youtube provides an instructional video on YouTube for how to tie tzitzit.)

Amy holding up afikomen bag embroidered with Hebrew letters for Pesach.

Having sewn all of her life, it was just a few years ago that Amy began making challah covers and afikomen bags.

Soon after, people started asking Amy to make a prayer shawl or head cover. She admits it was intimidating at first. I ask why and she responds, “Because it’s a lot of responsibility. A tallit is something that once you have you’re going to wear for the rest of your life. It  represents your foray into Jewish adulthood. . .  So now, I have this responsibility of bringing all of this to a piece of fabric. And because of this, it’s a daunting task.”

It is a task Amy Lassman is  undeniably up to.

  

Through the many stories Amy told of working with clients, the most moving were those recounting her work with individual families with children who are preparing for a Bar or Batmitzvah, and adults who missed out on the experience. The process of making custom tallises reveals the power they hold as personal and ritual objects. Amy tells me of working with a family over the creation of the young man’s tallit. His favorite color is red, but his father preferred the more conservative and typical white and blue. The story is also recounted on her website:

“A family arrived in my studio to create a tallit for the upcoming Bar Mitzvah of a very bright young man. Before our appointment, he let me know that his favorite color is red. Armed with that fact, I shopped for silks that had red tones for him to use in the creative process. Meeting the expectations of mother, father and son can be a challenge. Combining the tradition of simple blue and white prayer shawls with a more contemporary vision that includes a variety of colors, Hebrew embroidery and symbols, we came up with a design that everyone loves. The attarah (neckband) is embroidered with the Priestly Blessing, the red silk is a subtle highlight on a finely woven cream woolen shawl and in the inside corner, his Hebrew name is embroidered in gold thread. When this young man came to pick up his tallit, I taught him how to tie the tzitzit (woolen strings) at the corners of his garment. When he wears his tallit, hopefully for many years of good health and happy occasions, he will always remember that he inspired the design, that his parents worked with him to create something meaningful and he is wrapped in his families’ love.”

Amy described how clients often come in with an old tallit, saying they would really like their son or my daughter to wear something that had belonged to somebody in the family. “So, we will take something – we may just take the attarah, the neckband, and create an entirely new garment and just use that.  We may only take the corner fabric.”

At Amy’s workbench

Amy prefers the word “integrate” rather than “recycle” or “re-purpose” to describe this use of a relative’s old clothing, wedding dress or veil in a chuppah (wedding canopy), or the embroidered attarah of one’s grandfather’s tallit.  Stressing the importance of creating something new, she says, “I want [the old piece] to have a new life. And I want the person who is using it to feel connected to it, not just because it was in their past.”

Amy continues,  “In some traditions, a person will be buried with a tallit . . .  what some people will do is they will actually cut one corner, they will cut one of the tzitzit out. And that will be something that the person closest to them will keep as a memory. I have had the honor of creating a tallit  from this cherished string. I’ll actually stitch a little pocket underneath the attarah and put the tzitzit inside. Whenever the tallit is worn, you’re actually carrying your loved one with you.”

Tallit created by Amy Lassman for a Cantor in New York. The text reads “Right by the side is the Eternal to all who call out, seeking truth for all who desire it”

Maggie Holtzberg is Folk Arts & Heritage Manager at Mass Cultural Council.

 

Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Opportunity

Apprenticeships are a time-honored method by which an individual learns skills, techniques, and artistry under the guidance of a recognized master. Since its founding in 2001, the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s  Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program has funded  over 100 artists in a vast array of traditions, both old and new to Massachusetts. Applications are now available.

Recent apprenticeships funded by Mass Cultural Council’s Folk Arts and Heritage Program include mentorships in Cape Breton step dancing,  design and building of wooden ship’s steering wheels, Cambodian traditional ornamentation, wooden boatbuilding and restoration, West African dance, Scottish & Cape Breton fiddling, and Mithila and Warli arts.

The deadline for applying is April 12, 2018. Guidelines and applications are now available. 

2018 Fellows & Finalists in the Traditional Arts Awarded by Mass Cultural Council

We are delighted to announce the 2018 Artist Fellows and Finalists in the Traditional Arts, awarded by Mass Cultural Council. Fellows each receive $12,000 and Finalists each receive $1,000. The next opportunity to apply for these awards will be October of 2019.

ARTIST FELLOWS:
Kieran Jordan, Traditional Irish step dance

At the age of five, Kieran Jordan watched Irish step dancing for the first time in a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Soon after, she was taking lessons in her parish hall on Saturday mornings. Thus began her life-long journey to becoming not only a renowned Irish step dancer, but also a cultural activist and an invaluable resource within the Irish-American community.

Jordan is a gifted dancer, choreographer, and teacher of old style Irish step dances, a tradition that is intricately tied to Irish history, local culture, and traditional music. She displays the aesthetic assurance that naturally evolves from the dedication of a gifted artist who has danced competitively within the Irish traditional step-dancing sphere.

Panayotis League, Greek lauto playing and oral poetry

Panayotis League specializes in traditional Greek music and oral poetry indigenous to the Greek island of Kalymnos, Crete, and their diaspora communities. With family roots in the Greek community of Tarpon Springs, Fla, League pursued his interest in traditional music by journeying to the Greek islands to study laouto and tsabouna, with older master musicians on Kalymnos in 2001 and violin on Crete in 2003.

Today League is one of the few in the US who specializes in the laouto music of Kalymnos. In addition to concerts and festivals, he is a frequent performer at local marriage celebrations, baptisms, and feast days in the Greek diaspora community. He is also a scholar of Greek music. His dissertation focused on the music of Boston’s Anatolian Greek diaspora. League is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature, where he is managing the digitization and cataloguing of James Notopoulos’ field recordings from his 1952-53 trip to Greece and Cyprus.

Sidi Joh Camara, Malian dance and drumming

Sidi Mohamed “Joh” Camara grew up in Bamako, Mali surrounded by musicians, praise singers, and story-tellers. He began his formal training with Mouvement Pionnier, and then went on to work with Troupe Sewa and Troupe Districte de Bamako before relocating to the United States in 1996. He has experienced West African dances in their purest traditional form, where a particular dance is unique to that village and the movements have remained unchanged for centuries. Though West African dance companies in urban centers keep the traditions alive, often the context and meaning in which these village dances originated gets lost. “Once they are performed by dance companies in the cities, they are taken out of context. . . As a ballet, it is no longer a part of the ceremony it accompanies.”

Joh’s research has taken him all over Mali to see the dances in the ceremonies of which they are a part. He and his young son Tiemoko were awarded a 2017 MCC Traditional Arts Apprenticeship They focused on the learning of  four dances (Didadi, Korodjuga, Mandiani, and Madan), the songs that accompany these dances, as well as why and in what context they are danced. Father and son will also take part in ceremonies within the Malian and Guinean diaspora community both here and in New York.

FINALISTS:

Geoffrey Kostecki, liturgical painting

Geoffrey Kostecki excels at the sacred art known as liturgical painting. As a young man, he was inspired by the powerful imagery of Catholicism, first created for the Church during the Renaissance. Kostecki moved to Italy to study at University Lorenzo Di Medici in Florence. There he gained advanced painting techniques required for liturgical painting which include site-specific design, fresco painting, figurative sculpting, stencil design, gilding, and marbleizing.

After returning home and earning an MFA, Kostecki apprenticed under  figurative painter Graydon Parrish, who himslef had trained through the Atelier method, and with trumpe-l’oeil painter Robert Bock.

Kostecki’s original work and restorations can be seen in churches throughout Central Massachusetts and upstate New York, including  St. Paul’s Church in West Warren, St. John’s in Worcester, and the 30 x 40 feet nave mural depicted here,  commissioned by St. Agnes Church in Lake Placid, NY.

Fabian Gallon, Colombian tiple player

Fabian Gallon grew up in Pereira, the mountainous coffee region of Colombia, where he learned to play the tiple from his father and brothers. He went on to study with Maestro Benjamin Cardona before entering the conservatory of Universidad Technologica of Pereira.

Similar in shape but distinct from the guitar, the 12-stringed tiple is considered the national instrument of Colombia. It recently gained a renaissance when it began to be played more as a solo instrument. The style Gallon developed went from simple strumming to a complex blend of sophisticated picking and rich variations of strumming figures.

Before moving to Boston, Gallon was very active in Bogata’s musical scene, performing and recording with Trio Ancestro, as well as dedicating himself to bringing up the next generation of leading Colombian tiple players.  He recently recorded with several Latin American musicians in Boston. He continues a tradition of well-known tiple players like Gonzalo Hernandez, Pacho Benavides, and David Puerta. Eduaro Carrizoa, Orquestra Conductor says, “Colombian tiple has in Fabian Gallon its best passionate and knowledgeable interpreter.  In his hands lay the responsibility of keeping the path of the development of the technique and interpretation of the instrument.”

 Emerald Rae Forman, Cape Breton & Scottish fiddle player

The distinctive fiddling style of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia has roots in the strathspeys and reels brought to Canada by early 19th century Scottish immigrants. Emerald Rae Forman has mastered both Scottish and Cape Breton fiddling. She began her study with Boston based Barbara McOwen, renowned for her private library of Scottish music books. Emerald went on to compete in the US Scottish Fiddling Championships, winning the US National Champion title at 18 years old. She went on to earn degrees from Berklee College of Music and the University of Glasgow.

Fiddle and dance are closely related; to become a great traditional fiddler, it helps to know the dance steps the fiddle tunes accompany. In 2011, Emerald Rae completed a Mass Cultural Council Traditional Arts Apprenticeship in Irish step dance with Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellow Kieran Jordan. In 2016, she was awarded a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship to mentor Elizabeth Kozachek in Scottish and Cape Breton fiddle playing. Emerald Rae works as a professional performer and teacher of multiple styles of fiddle and step dance. She leads workshop at the Boston Fiddle Club and has served on the Boston Celtic Music Festival

Soumya Rajaram, Bharatanatayam dancer

Soumya Rajaram performs and teaches Bharatanatyam dance, a South Indian classical tradition with strong spiritual connections to Hindu religion and mythology. Although originally a hereditary tradition, the teaching of Bharatanatyam has become institutionalized. Indeed, Soumya came up within a deep lineage of dance teachers trained at the Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai, India. In addition to her years of dedicated training in the technique and expressive elements of Bharatanatyam, she has extensive training in Carnatic music, which is integral to Bharatanatyam dance.

Known for her exacting standards, Rajaram is skilled in nritta (abstract dance) and abhinaya (emotive aspect). She performs regularly at festivals and concerts and is thought of highly by senior dance teachers who first brought Bharatanatyam to southern New England. Soumya is an active contributor to the India arts community in Greater Boston. She continues to enhance her learning under the mentorship of Sheejith Krishna, spending a few months a year at his studio and home in Chennai.

 

 

Apply for an Artist Fellowship in the Traditional Arts

Mass Cultural Council is pleased to announce that guidelines and applications are currently available for the next round of  Artist Fellowships in the traditional arts.

Recent recipients include architectural woodcarver Dimitrios Klitsas, Cambodian ceramicist Yary Livan, Irish flute player Shannon Heaton, wooden boatbuilder Harold A. Burnham, and Malian balaphon player Balla Kouyaté. To see a complete list of past fellows in the Traditional Arts category, see here. All were recognized for their artistic excellence within art forms that are deeply rooted in traditional and ethnic culture.

The traditional arts include music, craft, dance, and verbal arts that are created and preserved within communities defined by cultural connections such as a common ethnic heritage, language, religion, occupation, or geography. Whether sung or told, handcrafted or performed, traditional art forms reflect a community’s shared sense of aesthetic heritage. The folk and traditional arts typically are learned during the course of daily living from someone steeped in the tradition, rather than through books, classes, or other means of institutional instruction. Artist Fellowships are for individuals not groups.

Fellowships in the traditional arts are awarded biennially. The postmark deadline to apply is October 2, 2017.

 

 

Restoring the Maria

 

One of the MCC Traditional Arts Apprenticeships being funded this year is to master shipwright and National Heritage Fellow Harold A. Burnham and his son Alden Burnham in wooden boat restoration — a skill that is becoming increasingly endangered. As Harold pointed out in his application, “Since the advent and acceptance of modern materials (mainly fiberglass and steel) for boat and shipbuilding, the wooden shipbuilding industry has all but disappeared, and many of the supporting industries, the requisite skills, and means of passing them on have gone with it.”

The goal of the apprenticeship is to rebuild and restore The Maria, a 23-foot vessel based on the lines of a historic Maine lobster smack. Named for Alden’s grandmother, she was the first vessel Alden’s grandfather built in 1971. The Maria was the perfect size for the young family to sail up and down the New England coast. But in 1972, she was sold out of the family to fund an overseas vacation. When Harold was in high school, he tried to buy her back, offering a more than fair price, but the owner wouldn’t sell. Harold was patient, finally buying the sloop in an estate sale in 2008. By that time, she was in pretty rough shape; large amounts of rot were found in her keel. The MCC apprenticeship was just the incentive Harold and his son Alden needed to finally get to work on rebuilding and restoring Maria.

The family connection was one reason to salvage her, but Harold pointed out others, “There are compelling reasons for repairing or rebuilding an old boat, and as important as the reasons are the lessons that can be learned. Old boats teach you about the materials, the techniques, and the culture of the people that built them.”

Harold A. Burnham’s life revolves around building or operating boats. He started building and restoring boats in the family shipyard in Essex, where boatbuilding has been not only a family tradition, but part of the culture, dating back to the early seventeenth century. This black and white portrait shows three generations of Burnhams, with Alden in the center.

Although building full-scale historic representations of indigenous fishing vessels for use in cultural tourism has helped rekindle an interest in the region’s maritime traditions, Harold is the first to admit that it has not been a lucrative or easy way of life. “People always used to ask [my father] why he thought he could build boats,” Alden recalls. “His answer to them was simple and yet profound; He knew that he could do it because his father had done it, and he knew people that had done it, and through their efforts, they found a way.”

Alden Burnham, who is now one full year out of college, has grown up around boats. He recalls that when he was 14 years old, an old gray skeleton of a wooden sailboat was dropped in the mud behind their family house on the marsh. He rebuilt the 11-foot turnabout and had a front row seat as the double sawn frame, trunnel-fastened schooners Fame, Isabella, and Ardelle came together outside his house in the shipyard. He appreciates, now more than ever before, what he is father and grandfather can teach him.

We paid a visit to the Burnham shipyard on an unseasonably warm late February morning. Muck and snow melt all around the yard foretold the mud season soon to come. We entered the “barn” where The Maria took up three quarters of the space on the ground floor. We gathered around her to take a look at the progress being made.

Harold, in his characteristic dry humor, remarked, “And you can see, it’s nice and neat in here. No trip and fall hazards.” We watched our step.

“So tell us what we’re seeing right here,” I said.

“Well, you can see that the keel is new. The first thing we did was take the whole keel off and put a new keel in it. All the ribs are getting sisted.”

“Sisted,” I repeated, not familiar with the term. “How do you spell that?”

Alden, who was nearby by a board through the table saw, piped up, “Sistered.” (Sistering is basically a construction term meaning to strengthen or reinforce a structural member by attaching a stronger piece to a weaker one.)

While we were there, Harold and Alden worked independently. Alden was busy preparing new ribs, using the planer and the table saw.  The day before, Alden had steamed, bent, and installed seven ribs.

In this photo below, you can see the recently installed ribs which are untrimmed.

While Alden concentrated on planing and sanding ribs, Harold was busy threading and painting a piece of pipe that will connect to the rudder. “That’s really the trickiest part — the mechanical end. Like how to connect the metal to the wood — the engine to the boat, the rudder to the boat.”

 

It turns out that working on The Maria is the perfect learning situation. In Harold’s words, “This boat is a nice size . . . The nice thing is is that all the installation of an inboard engine, the rigging, the propeller shaft and shaft log and the rudder and all of the geometry of how to put all the metal and wood together, is the same on this as it is on a large boat. This is great learning tool. . . If he falls in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, this boat will be too small for him in fairly short order.”

Five months into the project, Harold and Alden have replaced the keel, sternpost, and worn timber for Maria as well as many frames. They’ve gotten the shaft log ready and the hole prepared for the rudder port. Now that the weather is warming up and the daylight hours longer, they will make real progress. Next up is sistering all of timbers, re-planking her hull, replacing her deck and cabin, installing an engine and systems, building new spars and rigging, and making sails for the vessel. They’ve set a launch date of May 27th.

 

Bringing a Skill Forward: Apprenticeship in Ship Wheel Making

FullerApp_Bob_holding_wheel  FullerApp_cranberry

Master craftsman Bob Fuller was fortunate to have grown up in a boat building family, where he apprenticed under his father and grandfather. The family developed the Edson Yacht Wheel and has been making wheels for Edson International in New Bedford, Massachusetts since 1965.

FullerApp_wheel_detail

In 1990, Bob founded his own shop,   South Shore Boatworks, which specializes in custom boat building, finishing and restoration work, and handmade wooden ship’s wheels. In fact, Bob Fuller may be the only craftsman in the country today who is still making wooden ship wheels by hand. This highly specialized maritime craft involves pattern making, metal working, marine joinery, and fine woodworking. There are only a limited number of places to learn marine joinery. Although a few boatbuilding schools exist along the New England coast, one of the best ways to learn is one-on-one under the guidance of a skilled master.

FullerApp_portrait

Bob Fuller and John O’Rourke were awarded an MCC Traditional Arts Apprenticeship last fall. They typically meet on Sunday mornings from 8:30 to noon. We were there to check in on their progress and observe some of the In late January, Russell Call and I paid a visit to his South Shore Boatworks in Hanson, Massachusetts. You might expect such a place to be situated on the water, but it’s located in an Industrial Park, 30 miles from the coast!

FullerAPP_outside  FullerApp_inside

John is a recent graduate of the North Bennett Street School where he earned a degree in preservation carpentry. “I learned mostly historic buildings, nothing about maritime woodwork or marine joinery. In preservation I learned to restore historic structures, historic windows. Try to keep things that were made by hand a long time ago around. So this is very similar. And trying to keep the craft alive.” In contrast, Bob adds, “I don’t work in houses. I chose to work on things where nothing is ever straight. And generally on boats, if something looks straight or looks plumb, it’s wrong.”

Before showing us what they were currently working on, Bob oriented us by explaining the terminology of a ship’s wheel. “Basically, you’ve got the hub, it’s either bronze or it’s chrome plated, but it’s a piece of bronze. And then you have the spokes. The spokes go from inside the hub out. And then you have the pieces in-between here. I call them segments. Some people call them fellows, which is a word that has more to do with wheel making, like for carts. And then on the top of it, this is a band – it kind of bands things together. And then beyond that, on the spoke, you have the king spoke, which that designates, gives you a reference to where the steering should be neutral.”

FullerApp_king pin

These three turnings along the top of the king spoke has always been the family’s signature. “It gives you a sense of feel, especially if you’re operating the boat at night where you can’t have a lot of lights on inside the cabin because it will just blind you, you can’t see out. This way you have a sense as to where the steering is.”

The wheel John was currently working on when we visited is about 2/3rd done. Twenty-eight inches in diameter, it has eight spokes. “There’s a lot that goes into the actual finishing of it, Bob stresses. “Sanding it, hand sanding and then lots of coats of sealer and varnish. . . The wheel I just finished for a customer, the process, the varnishing, was a total of two coats of sealer, and eight coats of hand varnish. And it was a big wheel. It took me roughly two weeks to finish it.” A wheel like this sells for between $2,800 and $3,000. The price can go up from there depending on its complexity, that is, whether is has additional brass band on top or custom engraving on the hub.

FulllerApp_placing_screws

In addition to building wheels for Edson, Bob Fuller has customers around the world. Last year he was commissioned to build a wheel for the 50-foot, passenger-carrying lobster boat that services Acadia National Park. High profile wheels include a replacement wheel for Robert Kennedy’s wooden yawl Glide. 

It was interesting to hear Bob talk about a recent wheel  commission for the new luxury fiberglass motor yacht Cakewalk, built by Derecktor Shipyards. “It was an afterthought. The whole bridge on this boat was set up for using computer settings and all that kind of stuff, but both the captains, an Australian and an American captain, they felt strongly that that boat need a wheel and it would have looked really funny without it. It’s kind of strange today because, with all the computerized stuff — the joy sticks, they call it ‘fly-by-wire’ — a lot of boats don’t have steering wheels anymore. But it’s such a part of our heritage and tradition, that I think it’s going to continue onward.

FullerApp_calipers

“We’re preserving the skills to move this forward for a couple of generations. It is just such a part of our maritime tradition, in Massachusetts especially. Shipbuilding, fishing, boat-building, that’s why I feel strongly about this. I learned from my grandfather and father, apprenticing with them. And, if it wasn’t for a situation like what I’m doing with John, I also have someone else that works with me too that’s learning, but not part of the official apprenticeship – where would someone learn this?”

“It’s a great atmosphere when you can teach people the skills that are required to do a craft. It’s been a great opportunity to show this to John in the apprenticeship, to bring a skill forward. . . . this is part of our heritage, as I mentioned before. This needs to be brought into the future. Largely, that’s what the [Massachusetts] Cultural Council is good at, whereas this is such a small niche, it’s hard to, you don’t really fit into someone’s idea of being an industry, but it really is a cottage industry. And that’s what’s kind of going along the wayside. Skills get lost for generations and then all of a sudden, no one knows how to do it anymore.”

Maggie Holtzberg runs the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the  Massachusetts Cultural Council. Photos by Russell Call.

Connecting Curator and Artist

On some days, my job as a folklorist is especially gratifying. This past week I had the pleasure of facilitating a meeting between Cambodian ceramist Yary Livan and Louise Cort, Curator of Ceramics at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer|Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Yary with Louise

It was dreary, cold, and wet on January 18th when I picked up Louise at Boston’s Logan airport. We drove the 30-odd miles north to Western Avenue Studios in Lowell where Yary Livan has studio space. Traveling with Louise was Danny Eijsermans, a Freer|Sackler Curatorial Fellow currently working on a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian art history. With deep respect and knowledge of the Khmer ceramic tradition, both Louise and Danny found an immediate rapport with Yary.

Yary pointing out blue glaze

Yary Livan listening to Louise Sort, while Danny Eijsermans inspects an Apsara in the making

I first met Louise Cort in 2014 at the annual meeting of NCECA in Providence, Rhode Island. I was part of a panel that Middlesex Community College Professor Marge Rack had organized featuring the work of Yary Livan. In addition to Yary’s voice, the panel included the perspectives of a folklorist, art professor, and secondary school art teacher. It was a memorable experience, not only because of the craft of this incredible artist, but because of the stories shared and the emotions triggered by his life story. Those present learned of Yary’s training in Khmer fine arts, his surviving the Khmer Rouge Genocide, his resettlement in Lowell where he slowly regained  access to clay, the building and firing of a wood-fired kiln, and his dedication to teaching the next generation.

A year following the NCECA panel, Yary Livan was named a National Heritage Fellow, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. He continues to produce a wealth of new work and to mentor students.

Pouring vessel in the form of a caparisoned elephant, with a spout on the shoulder Vessel

Louise and Danny  are preparing an exhibition at the Freer|Sackler titled “The Glazed Elephant: Historical Khmer Ceramics from the 11th-14th century.” The exhibit draws on the museum’s Hauge collection of glazed ceramics from the Angkorian kingdom in Cambodia. It will open April 15, 2017 and run through the first week of July.

In a happy convergence, the 2017 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which is celebrating its 50th year, will present  “American Folk: Celebrating the NEA National Heritage Fellows.” What perfect timing, to feature National Heritage Fellow Yary Livan, who on July 4-9 will demonstrate the current day practive of Khmer ceramics, a tradition that was nearly lost. His presence on the nation’s National Mall will be a reminder, not only of the value of our national museums as caretakers of art dating back centuries, but of our country’s recognition and support of immigrant artisans who are keepers of tradition.

Multi-colored jar

Our January visit ended with a stopover at the wood fire kiln, which Yary had fired over the weekend. Then it was time for a late lunch at Palin Plaza, where Yary ordered for us, family style.

Maggie Holtzberg runs the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Riding the Wave of Ukulele Popularity

magicfluke_sign

Drive along Route 7 in the Southern Berkshire town of Sheffield, Massachusetts and it’s hard to miss The Magic Fluke Company. Founded by Dale and Phyllis Webb in 1999, the company turns out several thousand musical instruments a year. All design, finishing, and assembly takes place inside a timber-framed manufacturing facility, whose solar panels provide electricity.

magicfluke_exterior

The Webbs and their half dozen employees pride themselves on making musical instruments that sound great, are well designed and affordable, and are assembled from mostly locally sourced materials and parts. “We are not luthiers,” Phyllis said, “although the instruments are all hand done. Dale’s design is innovative, bringing together injection molded parts and wood.” Phyllis credits her brother, Jumpin Jim Beloff, for the recent wave in popularizing and teaching the ukulele. Jim’s numerous instruction manuals line a shelf in the showroom. The ukulele’s wide appeal is easy to understand.  “It’s the easiest instrument on the planet to learn to play,” Phyllis say, adding that “it brings people together, it’s affordable, and because of the composite . . . it can take a beating.”

“Fluke” refers to the original style of ukulele the company makes. One with a different shape is called “The Flea.” A banjo ukulele is known as “The Firefly” and a violin-inspired instrument is named “The Cricket.”  All are extremely portable, ideal for traveling and camping.

magicfluke_ukes_in_showroom

Dale ‘s background in molded plastics, materials research, and acoustics has served the company well. It is the business aspect of running the company that remains the most challenging. “For a long time, we were the only serious manufacturer doing any kind of volum with an affordable instrument. But since it’s gotten so popular, so many of the larger companies are now producing overseas and they’re really putting the squeeze on our profits. . . But still, we’re hanging in there. We do a lot of colorful, unique designs. . . we work hard and tr to keep everything as local as we can.”

The main room of The Magic Fluke facility has a number of different assembly stations, each for different parts. Unfinished fingerboards,  ukulele tops, and assembled ukuleles ready for stringing hang on vertical posts and rafters around the well lit room.

magicfluke_assmembly

One of the more unique things about Magic Fluke is their ability to produce one-of-a-kind instruments using a process called dye sublimation. They can take an artist’s work and transfer it directly onto the face of the instrument, embedding it right into the wood using a heat process.

magicfluke_dye-sublimnation

Locally sourced and manufactured, Magic Fluke’s instruments find their way into the hands of musicians around the globe. They are also supplied to area libraries and schools, replacing the once ubiquitous recorder as a 3rd grade starter instrument. The Magic Fluke’s presence in the community has even inspired a multi-generational ensemble: the Berkshire Ukulele Band.

magicfluke_banjo-ukes

“[The ukulele] crosses generational lines — young, old, and socio-economic,” Phyllis notes. “In light of today, I often say, that if we were all playing the ukulele, I think that we’d have a better sense of community.”

 

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