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.

A new round of Apprenticeships are awarded!

We  are delighted to announce the next round of Traditional Arts Apprenticeships funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Master artists will work one-on-one with apprentices in the following traditional art forms: wooden boatbuilding and restoration, the design and making of wooden steering wheels, Cambodian traditional ornamentation, West African dance and drumming, Cape Breton and Scottish fiddle, Cape Breton step dance, and North Indian Mithila art. Apprenticeships last for ten month and culminate in some sort of a public event.

Wooden boatbuilding and restoration:  Harold A. Burnham, master artist and Alden Burnham, apprentice.

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Wooden ship steering wheels: Bob Fuller, master artist and John O’Rourke, apprentice

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Cambodian traditional ornamentation: Yary Livan, master artist and Panit Mai, apprentice

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West African dance and drumming: Sidi “Joh” Camara, master artist and Tiemoko Camara, apprentice

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North Indian Mithila art: Sunanda Sahay, master artist and Anindita Lal, apprentice

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Cape Breton and Scottish fiddle: Emerald Rae Forman, master artist and Elizabeth Kozachek, apprentice

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Cape Breton step dance: Mary C. MacGillivray, master artist and Jennifer Schoonover, apprentice

    Mary MacGillivray     Jen Schoonover dancingd

Traditional Arts Apprenticeships are awarded every other year. If you are interested in applying, the next deadline won’t be until April of 2018.

Six New Apprenticeships Funded by MCC

We are delighted to announce this year’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants. The following six traditional art forms will be taught by master artists to their apprentices: Irish uilleann pipe playing, South Indian carnatic singing, sign painting and gold leaf, ornamental and architectural wood carving, North Indian Madhubani painting, and South Indian carnatic drumming.

Irish uilleann pipe playing: Joey Abarta, master artist and Caroline O’Shea, apprentice

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South Indian carnatic singing: Tara Anand Bangalore, master artist and Pratik Bharadwaj, apprentice

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Sign painting and gold leaf: Josh Luke of Best Dressed Signs, master artist and Corinna D’Schoto, apprentice

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Ornamental and architectural wood carving: Dimitrios Klitsas, master artist and Spiro Klitsas, apprentice

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North Indian Madhubani painting: Sunanda Sahay, master artist and Sanjana Krishna, apprentice

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South Indian carnatic drumming on mridangam: Gaurishankar Chandrashankar, master artist and Kaasinath Balagurunath, apprentice

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Apprenticeships are a long-standing method by which an individual learns skills, techniques, and artistry under the guidance of a recognized master. Applicants were reviewed by a panel of experts who evaluated the artistry of the master artist, skill level of the apprentice, rarity of art form, significance of the tradition,  appropriateness of the pairing, and work plan. Grantees are expected to offer a community presentation at the end of their 9-month long apprenticeship.

To see a list of all MCC-funded apprenticeships since 2002, click here.

Pitch perfect color

Marbled paper by Regina St. John. Photo by Maggie HoltzbergGenie and Dan St. John run Chena River Marblers in the Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, a region known for book arts. Working out of a home studio, they produce stunning marbled patterns on paper and silk.  The marbled paper is used by book binders and paper artists, the silk in the making of scarves and ties. 

The process of marbling is almost magical.  (fitting then, that Regina goes by the nickname “Genie”). A bath of water and a thickening agent, such as carrageenan (dried seaweed) is prepared, onto which droplets of paint are applied. Genie explains that it is the thickened liquid that allows the paint to float on the surface.

Regina St. John. Photo by New England Guild of Book Workers  Dan holding sheet of marbled paper

“You put all these colors on your bath and you manipulate them. Comb them this way and that, and the colors don’t get mixed up. The pink stays pink, the white stays white, and you end up with these beautiful patterns right on the surface of your bath.” Next, the image is carefully transferred to an absorbent surface, such as paper or silk.

Genie works mostly using acrylic paints for her silk and paper marbling. Dan points out one of Genie’s enviable talents, saying, “Genie has got a perfect pitch for colors.” Complimenting this is Dan’s background as a physics and chemistry teacher which gives him a grounding in the chemical makeup of materials and processes. Teachers at heart, they suggest that by using the marbling process, a whole curriculum could be created to explore basic chemical properties, such as viscosity, density, acidity, and surface tension. “Just take the different properties of fiber. Take the chemistry of ligans, which make one organic thing stick to another. That’s why colors stick to a fabric. . .” Genie adds, “Once they’ve learned all of that, they can use their papers to make books and write it all down.”

books for sale made with marbled paper

Dan builds much of the equipment, including the many different styles of combs, which when pulled through the bath, create unique patterns.

Two combs made by Dan

Because no paint company manufactures colors specifically for marbling, Chena River Marblers create their own paints (grinding up pigments, adding binders, mulling them together), which allows them more control in how the paint will spread on the liquid surface. Dan favors the old style marbling; using watercolors, he creates what are called “tiger eyes.”  Below are some examples which look like images from the natural world.

Dan's tiger eyes seen in asymetric pattern

Tiger eye with coral background

Another technique is called edge marbling, which was more commonly used in the production of 18th and 19th century books. With marbled edges and end sheets, a book would end up looking like a piece of marble.

Dan holding a edge marbled book. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg  Dan St. John edge marbling. Photo courtesy of New England Guild of Book Workers

Together, Genie and Dan St. John convey a passion for the marbling craft, a facility for teaching, and a dedication to passing on the tradition. It’s our good fortune that they will be demonstrating marbling at the 2014 Lowell Folk Festival, where the theme of the craft area will be paper traditions.

Old style marbling with lace effect by Dan St. John. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

More tiger eyes by Dan. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

 

The Art of Folding Paper

Alligator by Michael LaFosseAmerican Alligator, designed by Michael LaFosse; folded by LaFosse and Richard Alexander (50 hours total) from one, uncut, 6′ square of handmade paper by Alexander

It’s the time of year when we start thinking about selecting a theme for the folk craft area of the Lowell Folk Festival. The idea of paper traditions seems full of potential; possibilities include origami, Polish wyncinanki, Chinese paper cutting, kite making, Italian marbled paper, decorative paste papers, wallpaper, piñatas, Turkish Ebru, and a variety of children’s folklore (cootie catchers, fortune tellers, gum wrapper chains, spitballs, and paper airplanes. . . )

I decided to start my search with origami — the art of folding paper from a single, uncut sheet — and soon discovered there are a world of paper folders out there, doing everything from paper cranes to extreme origami. How thrilled I was to learn about Origamido, a commercial design studio, hand papermaking facility, and fine art gallery founded by Michael LaFosse and Richard Alexander in 1996, and located in Haverhill, Massachusetts, just a twenty mintue  drive away.

Michael LaFosse

Above: Michael LaFosse at Origamido

Below: Richard Alexander holding origami Afican Pangolin, designed and fronded by Eric Joisel from a single, uncut 2 m square of wrapping paper

Richard Alexander

Michael designs, diagrams, and folds. Richard Alexander designs,  specializes in making handmade paper, and shoots photography and video. They are probably the only origami artists in the world today who routinely make custom paper. In fact, other master origami artists prize their papers, which are made with permanent, finely ground pigments so pieces will last hundreds of years. They make a living by publishing books of their work and by teaching in-school residencies.

  Cormorant by Michael LaFosse Origami Cormorant Drying it’s Wings, designed and folded by LaFossse in handmade paper by Alexander

Both Michael and Richard have backgrounds in science, which explains the strong natural history focus to their work. Whereas a majority of origami is geometric, Michael is drawn to living subjects, rather than the intricate geometric forms. He was inspired by the work of  Master Akira Yoshizawa, a key figure in modern Japanese origami, who originated the wet folding technique. Wet folding allows shaping that will stay in place when the paper dries.

Origamido horse headAlexander holding Zodiac Horse designed and executed in “roundfolding” technique by Roy Iwiki, from distorting scored curves in card stock

Orchid by Michael LaFosse

Cattlyea Orchid designed and folded of crepe paper by LaFosse

Today, mathematicians and computer programmers have created a system that largely prescribes crease patterns. “You get greater complexity,” Michael concedes, “but you also get a lot of things that can look like they evolved from the same technology.”

One is said to “perform” a piece of origami. Michael elaborates, “The very best origami begins in the design stage, where the folding, from start to finish, is elegant.  Because it’s often the little touches – the paper you choose, how you place the folds, and the little details. It’s amazing how a millimeter off at one end magnifies out at the other end, and it will change the look. Even people who do not know anything about origami can tell if something is off.People even who do not know much about origami will look at something like that and they will know something is off. And that’s like singing out of tune or not having the right color in your voice. The subtleties that shade performance are also there in the folds.”

Wilbur by Michael LaFosse, 1991

Wilbur the Piglet, origami designed and folded by LaFosse from his own handmade paper

An elegant fold is one in which the geometry works naturally. The finished piece has to look alive. In preparation for making Wilbur the pig (1991), Michael spent many hours at the Topsfield Fair, observing piglets. Having the right paper was critical. Experimenting, he came up with the perfect handmade paper —  pale pink in color, fairly stiff, with a fuzziness to its finish.  The actual folding of the piece took approximately six  hours.

When I ask if he would ever make another Wilbur the pig, he responds, “If I did, I would be trying to copy the magic in the bottle that I captured when I made Wilbur. Or I would become a student, in a torturing sort of way. Sort of, like, how did I get that just right? And then, you know, it’s just brittle. It doesn’t work.”

 

Learn from a Master Artist

Qianshen Bai lifting seal

The Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Folk Arts & Heritage Program offers a unique opportunity to learn first hand from a master traditional artist through its Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.  Apprenticeships are awarded every other year to a limited number of master artists. Priority is given to rare or endangered traditions. If you are interested in applying, please take a look at the program guidelines before contacting program manager, Maggie Holtzberg.

Pictured here are just a few of the apprenticeships that have been funded since the program was established in 2001.

David Hawthorne teaching bowmaking to Joel Pautz

Yary Livan and Samnang Khoen

Estefany Navarro and Sixto "Tito" Ayala on congas

Sekou and Balla Kouyate playing balafons

Chris Pereji and Nisha Purushotham

Kieran Jordan and Emerald Rae Forman Samnang Hor andSopaul Hem Cambodian dance

 

Learning to carve letters in stone

We first came to know Jesse Marsolais as an apprentice to letterpress printer John Kristensen. An old soul, Jesse has embraced the black art of printmaking and brings new life to the craft. So we were not surprised to learn that Jesse has the rare opportunity to apprentice under third generation stone carver, calligrapher, and designer   Nick Benson  at the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island. Lucky for us, Jesse is  blogging about his experience, “Six Weeks in the John Stevens Shop.” We suggest you give it a read.

Jesse’s six-week apprenticeship is funded by the Southern New England Folk & Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.  This unique tri-state apprenticeship program allows apprentices to work with master artists across state lines in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. The next deadline is October 4, 2012.

Life lessons through doll making

On July 12, 2011, Puerto Rican dollmaker, Ivelisse Pabon de Landron, and her apprentice Jamielette Figueroa will do a demonstration at 2:00 p.m. in the Ashland Public Library. They will be sharing skills passed on during their 9-month Traditional Arts Apprenticeship, which was funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Among the skills young Jamielette learned are hand sewing, joining seams for clothing construction, drawing, cutting fabric, paper pattern making, use of a thimble, color wheel, tape measure, and sewing machine, preparing fabric, stuffing techniques, shearing for skirts, making hair out of yarn, and hand embroidery. These are things that used to be taught in home economics classes, if not not something that most girls learned firsthand from their mother or grandmother. Nowadays, how many youngsters are adept at sewing?

Perhaps, more importanty, these sewing lessons were steeped in folk cultural context. In addition to working on the technical craft of doll making, Ivelisse made sure that Jamielette learned about the history of Puerto Rico and the folk culture of its people. She came to understand that many of the skills that were passed on from one generation to the next were honed during times of hardship, when many rural people could not afford to buy the necessary things to survive, let alone provide toys for their children. Years ago, mothers taught their daughters the craft of making dolls using socks, old garments, corn husks, and banana leaves. To bring this history to life, Ivelisse and Jamielette created characters from Puerto Rican folkore such as the nana (care taker of children) camadronas (midwives), jibaros (farmers) and African bomba y plena dancers.

Ivelisse was a demanding teacher in the way great teachers are. On occasion, Jamielette did not meet her expectations, turning in a half-hearted job. Ivelisse took the opportunity to teach Jamielette the importance of taking pride in what you do. Through hard work and attention, Jamielette grew to meet Ivelisse’s expecations. It helped that master artist and apprentice share the same heritage, Spanish language, and spiritual faith.

The July 21 public demonstration will serve as a dress rehearsal of sorts for a Ivelisse and Jamielette. They will be joining eight other master artist/apprentice pairs participating in the summer’s Lowell Folk Festival. Come by and see them in the Folk Craft & Foodways area along Lucy Larcom Park on July 29-31, 2011.

Free Traditional Irish Dance & Music Performance on June 4

 

Traditional Irish dance and fiddle music will fill the Merrimack Repertory Theatre on June 4 in a program sponsored by Lowell National Historical Park.

Fiddle player Laurel Martin and step dancers Kieran Jordan and Kevin Doyle are all recipients of 2010 MCC Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants. These publically-funded grants allowed these artists to provide a year of one-on-one teaching to talented apprentices Natayla Kay Trudeau, Emerald Rae, and Nicole Leblanc.

This free concert presents a unique opportunity for collaboration, as teachers and students come together to present the results of their apprenticeships and insight into their teaching methods.

Come join us for an exciting evening of solo, duet, and group performances revealing the history and shared languages which these artists express, preserve, and pass on.

Place: Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, downtown Lowell

Time: 8:00 p.m.

No tickets required. For more details:  click here

Event presented by Lowell National Historical Park and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Southern New England Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.

Local Learning through Folk Arts

 

In honor of National Arts in Education Week, we are singing the praises of a wonderful new web resource: Local Learning: The National Network for Folk Arts in Education.  Here you will find resources and best practices culled from the work of folklorists, folk artists, and educators around the country who have spent the past two decades working to integrate folk arts into classroom.  They make a compelling case for how educators can draw on traditional culture and local knowledge to enrich education and create stronger communities