Bringing a Skill Forward: Apprenticeship in Ship Wheel Making

February 2nd, 2017

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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

January 23rd, 2017

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

December 1st, 2016

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“[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.”

 

Diwali goes Mainstream

November 4th, 2016

What does it mean when ancient holdidays, grounded in ethnic identity and religious belief and celebrated by cultural insiders for centuries, are brought to mainstream, high profile venues to be shared, celebrated, and interpreted? Who benefits? What is gained and what is lost when a festival moves from private space (a temple, a home) to a public space (a state house, city hall, or museum)?  How is cultural meaning negotiated?

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For the last five years, Amit Dixit, the leading light behind the South Asian Arts and Cultural Council, has organized an annual Diwali lighting ceremony at the Massachusetts State House.

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The invitation to attend describes Diwali, popularly known as The Festival of Lights, as  “. . . the most sacred of Indian holidays celebrated by Hindu communities throughout the world, including those in the Indian diaspora together with worshipers of Hinduism in Nepal, Singapore, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. The holiday is the embodiment of the supremacy of divine light over spiritual darkness, of knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. Diwali is associated with great optimism, generosity and, most importantly, new hopes for the future.”

Those attending the State House event on October 29, 2016  were a mixture of cultural insiders, government employees, and members of the general public.

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An official from The United States Postal Service was present to help unveil the Diwali forever stamp.

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Diwali is celebrated for seven days every autumn. This year Diwali officially began on Sunday, October 30 and ran through Saturday November 5. Mid-way through, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston held its own celebration of  the Festival of Lights. On offer was a splendid variety of South Asian expressive traditions including music, dance, Madhubani and Mithila art making, and a moderated discussion about Diwali in Boston and around the world.

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Having the MFA celebrate Diwali helps legitimize the expressive traditions of lesser known cultural communities. As Saraswathi Jones (second from left), who grew up in one of the only Bengali families in Grand Rapids, Michigan put it,  “It’s meaningful. It’s validating.”

panel-discussion

In writing about Washington DC’s Latino Festival (1991), Olivia Cadaval says, “The festival transforms physical space into a means to cultural identity. As a temporary center of power, the festival brings together large numbers of Latinos, unifies space, and generates action, during which symbols and traditions are manipulated, cultural forms are given expression, relationships are negotiated, and new social identities are forged.”

Although it’s a vastly different culture and a different time, I believe Cavadal’s observations still hold true. In addition to introducing cultural outsiders to Diwali, the public acknowledgement of  an ancient holiday rooted in Sanskrit and prayer trumps linguistic, regional, and national differences, creating solidarity among South Asians who make Massachusetts home.

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Things work best when ethnic self-representation and institutionally curated presentations are done collaboratively. It’s a win win.The MFA’s event planners are to be commended for working with cultural insiders to interpret and present expressive traditions that might otherwise be little understood by cultural outsiders.

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Making Math Relevant, Maritime-Style

October 17th, 2016

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The other day, we stopped by Lowell’s Boat Shop which is situated along the banks of the Merrimack River in Amesbury, Massachusetts. The establishment dates back to 1793 and is credited with being the birthplace of the seaworthy fishing dory, once the mainstay of the fishing industry in New England.

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The first floor of the rambling clapboard building houses exhibits on the shop’s storied history and the vital role that dories and skiffs have played throughout time. Sawdust still clouds the air on the second floor where skilled craftspeople build and restore dories and skiffs.

Staff and dedicated volunteers pass their maritime skills onto the next generation. Graham McKay, master boat builder and executive director, gave us a brief tour of the buildings and docks.

On our way through the shop we observed an older volunteer (retired electrician) working with small group of young people with developmental disabilities – one was carrying a toolbox he had just completed. In addition to simple wood working projects, they do general shop chores.

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LBS does a good deal in educational programming for grades K-12 including boatbuilding apprenticeships and internships. A group from the local high school had already been by at 8:30 that morning. As we finished up talking about MCC grants available to cultural organizations, a big yellow school bus pulled up and dropped off 12 Amesbury high school students.

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We were invited to shadow them as they learned to use navigational sextants (modern plastic ones) to measure the distance between any two visible objects, for example, a dock and a flagpole further down the shore. The students each had their own sextant, took sightings, and then wrote down figures in their composition notebooks.

This is the way Lowell’s Boat Shop describes their “Math on the River” activity: In response to the age-old question ‘When will we ever use this?,’ LBS formed a partnership with Amesbury High School to develop and implement the Math on the River Program. In this innovative high school math program, students experience practical, hands-on applications of math beyond the classroom. Students first learn to row as a team and to use sextants and other navigational tools; they then apply their knowledge of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry to determine the Merrimack River’s velocity, depth, distances, or tidal variations. In doing so, these hands-on, place-based activities further develop skills such as data gathering, variability analysis, and teamwork.”

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Then it was time to get into the water. While the students, four to a dory, rowed across the Merrimack River to the opposite shore, we joined Graham in the motorized dory/skiff.

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Once “docked” in the reeds, the students were instructed to do another exercise with the sextants. Then they rowed back to the shop’s dock, some miscalculating the strength of the current. Not a bad way to spend a few hours outside of school learning about the practical side of geometry and calculus!

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A new round of Apprenticeships are awarded!

August 31st, 2016

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.

Snapshots from a Festival: Folk Craft & Foodways Celebrate 30 Years

August 5th, 2016

Watermelon carving of festival logo by Ruben Arroco

It’s not every year that you see a festival’s logo carved into a watermelon. Indeed, this was a very special year for the Lowell Folk Festival. We celebrated 30 years of presenting the best in traditional music, craft, and foodways. Here are some images from the Folk Craft & Foodways area which featured a sampler of traditions.

Signage for folk craft area

Fruit carver Ruben Arroco of Lowell, was a generous presence, creating stunning carvings in melons and continuously handing out refreshing watermelon slices to parched festival goers.

Carving of John Lennon's portrait by Ruben Arroco Ruben Arroco carving watermelon

The craft area featured a few other ephemeral arts, including the daily ritual of kolam that adorns the thresholds of homes, temples, and streets throughout India. The practice is carried on here in New England by members of Tamil Makkal Mandram, Inc.

Display of kolam by Tamil Makkal Mandram, Inc.

Sridevi Karthikeyan and Karthigai Priya Govindarayan doing kolam

In addition to demonstrating kolam using colored stone dust, the artists provided an opportunity for visitors to try their hands at it.

Festival goers trying their hand at making kolam

Traditions of folk beauty from around the globe were on display. Festival goers could get their hair braided in cornrows or have their skin temporarily tattooed with henna. Sellou Coly, a native of Senegal, and her niece Aissatou-Ba Dieme, and Margy Green, and her niece KK braided hair. Lujuana Hood of the Pan African Historical Museum in Springfield, shared her wisdom about hair culture from Africa to America.

Sellou Coly braiding a young worman's hair

Sellou Coly and Inuit throat singer Samantha Peoyuq Kigutaq

Late morning on Sunday, two young Inuit girls from Ottawa sat down to have their hair braided. They were due to perform Inuit throat singing at St. Anne’s stage at noon. Their aunt explained traditions of Inuit hair braiding, while Lujuana regaled us with stories and folklore about African American hair culture dating back to the time of slavery in this country. As a way of thanks, the girls gave a private performance of throat singing for the hair braiders and then they all posed together for a picture.

Hair braiders and Inuit singers

Noureen Sultana and her 13-year old son Danish Khan shared their skills in applying mehndi, also known as henna. This ephemeral art form is customary for brides in India, Pakistan, and parts of the Arab world. When applied, the henna is 3-dimensional. After a few hours, it flecks off, leaving a rust colored stain which lasts for up to two weeks. Danish’s younger brother also pitched in. The line of people waiting to be adorned never let up. In fact, late on Sunday, when Noureen and her family was packing up, a father came by with his four-year son in his arms. The boy’s mother and sister had gotten henna tattoos earlier in the day. It was well after 5:00 p.m. Noureen and her sons, who must have created over 200 henna designs, had pretty much packed up their tools and supplies. The father told his son it was too late to get henna and he broke into tears. Noureen, a mother and dedicated artist, kindly made an exception, giving the boy a floral henna design on his tiny hand.

Noureen Sultana and Danish Khan applying henna

Noureen Sultana applying henna to child

In the realm of more permanent art forms, stone carver and letterpress printer Jesse Marsolais demonstrated the age-old craft of carving letterforms in stone.

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Stephen Earp, a redware potter from Shelburne Falls, demonstrated turning plates, vases, and bowls on his hand built treadle wheel. In addition to working at the wheel, he shared his vast knowledge of the history of pottery production in New England.

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The musical instrument maker’s tent featured the work of luthiers William Cumpiano and Chris Pantazelos. They displayed cuatros, guitars, requintos, ouds, and bouzuokis in the making, as well as finished instruments.  An added treat was having musicians Kacho Montaluo, Brian Ausbigian, and Kinan Adnawi playing music in the back of the tent.  Throughout the weekend, a few musicians from the audience joined in the informal jam session.

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LFF2016_Kacho Moutaluo   LFF2016_Kinan and Kacho

With any luck, the next generation will be inspired to play.

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With exception of redware vase, all photos by Maggie Holtzberg, 2016

The Irish Music World has Lost a Local Legend

July 25th, 2016

Joe Derrane outside his home, 2006. Photo: Tom Pich

We were deeply saddened to learn of Joe Derrane‘s death this past weekend. A brilliant musician who was highly regarded in the world of traditional Irish music, Joe Derrane had a heart of gold.

In 2003, I had the good fortune to sit down at Joe’s kitchen table in Randolph, MA to interview him for our archive. The interview became source material for a radio feature that aired on WUMB in 2003. For those who knew Joe, it may bring some small comfort to hear his voice. For those who never met him or heard him play, you missed a gem.

 

Joe Derrane's button box. Photo: Jason Dowdle

Celebrating 30 Years of Presenting Folk Craft Artists at Work

June 16th, 2016

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Now that the weather is finally warming up, it’s time think about festivals. This year, the Lowell Folk Festival will celebrate 30 years of presenting craft artists at work. Their work is inspired by the human urge to make music, to celebrate, to commemorate, to worship, to adorn, or to delight the senses. Like the music heard on festival stages, these craft traditions have been handed down within families, ethnicities, occupations, or apprenticeships. Visitors may see some familiar faces as we feature some of the most skilled and engaging individuals who have demonstrated over the years and welcome new ones to the festival.

To read about who will be demonstrating in the Folk Craft area at the Lowell Folk Festival this July, click here!

 

 

Kolam Art: An Afternoon with Tamil Makkal Mandram

May 19th, 2016

Nora interviewing Priya about kolam

As promised, here is a guest blog from MCC intern Nora Martinez-Proctor.

In early April, I set out to learn about the art of kolam and to find an artist or group who could show me what goes into creating these fabulous pieces. Kolam are designs made by dropping lines of colored rice flour on the ground at the thresholds of homes and temples throughout India.  In the north, they are called rangoli and they have other names in other regions. They can be geometric and pattern-based or freehand, incorporating various types of iconography. The daily practice of creating kolam is a tradition that has reached across India for hundreds of years with mentions dating back to the Ramayana.

After several unsuccessful leads, I found my way to Tamil Makkal Mandram, Inc. TMM is a social and cultural group dedicated to preserving the arts and traditions of Tamil culture.  The president of TMM, Karthekian Ramu, quickly set me up with several members of the group who were able to answer my questions and we had a wonderful afternoon with them in late April, observing their work and talking with them about their designs.

Priya, Nora, and Sridevia

We met at the home of Maggie Holtzberg in Newton on a windy day (although, thank goodness, it didn’t rain!) Maggie and I weren’t sure what to expect, but as soon as Priya, Geetha, Sathya and Sridevi arrived dressed in beautiful, sparkling sari with everything they needed to create their kolam, we knew we were in for a fantastic afternoon! The artists immediately set to work figuring out the best spaces for their designs. Wanting to show us a range of kolam styles, they each planned to each complete one so that we could see examples from the most traditional to the most secular and celebratory. We talked with them as they worked and it was a pleasure to see the way these ephemeral pieces were created at close range.

Close-up of Sridevi making kolam

As a violinist (my other day job), I particularly noticed the loose and yet efficient sweep of the women’s arms as they created the long, curved lines of the kolam. The amount of flexibility, relaxation and control needed is similar to what string players look for in their own arms, something that became especially interesting when I found out about the connection between kolam and cymatics. Cymatics is a visual-vibrational phenomenon where geometric patterns are derived from rhythmic motion (think about putting sand on a plate and then tapping the bottom of it and seeing waves appear). Geometric kolam designs are closely linked to cymatics in the idea that their patterns are similar to naturally occurring cymatic patterns, and that these “visual vibrations” are calming to the mind and encourage meditation.

One of the kolam with deep meaning was Geetha’s “Sikku” kolam. Sikku, meaning “knotted” is a traditional “everyday” kolam done without any color and made of a pattern of white lines curling around each other.

Geetha finishing up Sikku kolam

One of the most interesting things to learn here was that although the organized designs look impossibly complicated to create freehand, they are actually laid on a grid of rice flour dots which are then disguised or incorporated into the design as the artist follows the dots like a map. In India, Geetha explained to me, mothers teach the technique to their daughters starting with these counted dot patterns, which easily can reach over fifty dots per line and can then involve adding and subtracting from other lines to create the shape of the grid. I realized that all over South Asia, mothers are teaching their daughters math at a very young age through this technique. Pretty fantastic!

Geetha doing Sikku kolam Watching Priya make kolam

The interaction between mothers and daughters, and between all the women of the family, was something that all four women stressed as an extremely important part of creating kolam. I learned about this while watching Sridevi create a wildly colorful freehand design of peacocks and flowers that would not adorn a temple, but would be done in the streets.

Sridevii working on peacock kolam

During December and January, the gala season of Marghazi Maadham celebrates the art of kolam. For an entire month, the women of each household arise in darkness together and bring lanterns out into the chilly street, where they lay out their kolam and work to complete them by dawn. This is seen as a treasured time for the women to bond as they work. Mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts all create the kolam and at dawn, Sridevi told me, they finish and go bathe before attending temple. Before temple, however, the street becomes an informal competition to see whose kolam is the biggest, the most colorful, and who was finished first.  Sridevi added that the dawn bathing ritual is considered very healthy, and repeating it for a month is thought of as a cleansing and purifying ritual that is beneficial for women’s health in many ways. The designs during Marghazi are unique and creative and might appear in front of houses or even, as Sathya told me, in the road as a way to say “Happy Holidays,” to everyone!

In contrast, Priya created a holy design that is traditionally used at the threshold of temples or in front of deities.  The design was done only in white and red, because these are the colors most closely associated with the colors of the temple. The central part, she explained, is the most important and the borders can be embellished or left simple, depending on the wishes of the artist and how much time they have to create.

Priya working on kolam

Kolam vary widely and are often modified depending on the day, because they are a part of daily life and therefore designed to fit in with the other demands of the day.  A busy day still requires a kolam, but it might be a small and simple design that takes a few minutes, whereas a holiday or other celebration would include more time set aside for a bigger and more complicated work.

The last design was splendid! Blending the aesthetic styles of several of the kolam, it was large in size, geometric and full of color.  Sathya laid out a huge grid of dots to begin the design and then connected them into a pattern of flowers and butterflies.

Sathya layinhg grid

As she worked, Sathya talked with me about what creating kolam means to her. Whenever she travels home to India, she told me, she tries to go during Marghazi so that she can have the pleasure of participating in creating kolam every morning with her family.  She remarked that in New England, it is particularly difficult to practice this art because kolam are normally created outside – a tricky thing to do during a Massachusetts winter! In addition, the pace of American life is different from life in India, and does not lend itself as easily to a daily meditative art.

All four artists from the TMM expressed how pleased they were to set aside time on the day they met with us, not just in order to show us the kolam, but in order to enjoy creating the kolam themselves, something they rarely get to do in their American lives.  Although a few solid days of rain soon washed away their fabulous work, Priya, Geetha, Sathya, and Sridevi were able to teach us that the joy of kolam is not only in its visual beauty but in the connections it keeps for them – connections of country and of family, of spirituality and all the meanings of home. As Sathya perfectly articulated gazing at her finished kolam, “I’m very happy today. My heart felt very happy today.”

Photos: Maggie Holtzberg


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