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.

All in a Folklorist’s Day

Noureen Sultana Indo American weddings

On occasion, I get out of the office to visit with, observe, and interview people carrying on traditional arts practices around the state. This time of year, it’s often to meet with craftspeople who will be demonstrating in the folk craft area of the Lowell Folk Festival. This was the case several weeks ago when my intern, Nora Martinez-Proctor, and I met with mehndi artist Noureen Sultana and her husband Waheed Khan. The couple, originally from Hyderabad, India, settled in the Metro Boston area in 2002. Noureen has built up a thriving henna business, providing beautification to approximately 85 brides per year.

At the end of our interview, Noureen kindly offered to apply a unique henna design to each of us.

  Noureen Sultana and Nora Martinez-Proctor  Noureen Sultana painting henna

A few weeks later, I headed to Lowell, Massachusetts, with several stops on the agenda. The first was to interview luthier Chris Pantazelos at his shop, Spartan Instruments. Adam Schutzman, who had asked if he could shadow me doing some fieldwork, met me there. A musician with many years of experience working with audio-visual archives and folkloric materials, Adam was right at home as we walked into Chris’ shop. So I put him to work.

Adam Schutman recording ChrisPantazelos being interviewed

Chris opened Spartan Strings last year, after having spent 30 years working with National Heritage Fellow Peter Kyvelos at Unique Strings in Belmont. Chris currently has several building projects underway. He recently finished this highly ornamented jazz guitar.

Pantazelos holding jazz guitar  detail of Pantazelos inlay

In addition to interviewing Chris about his work in building and repairing stringed instruments, we talked about ideas for demonstrating at this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival craft area. Wouldn’t it be great to have a musician there to demonstrate the sound of various guitars, bouzoukis, and ouds?

It was around noon when we left Spartan Instruments. I invited Adam to join me for a stopover at Ruben Arroco’s home. Ruben will also be demonstrating fruit carving in the folk craft area this summer. Back in 2013, Phil Lupsiewicz and I had interviewed Ruben in his kitchen, while he demonstrated his expert skills in carving fruit and vegetables. (Phil edited a short video, which you can find here.) Ever since, Ruben gave us a standing offer to come back for coffee and dessert. A treat that was hard to resist . . .

Ruben Arroco serving guests

We arrived at Ruben’s home around 12:14 p.m.. He welcomed us in and we made our way into the dining area. Ever the consummate host, Ruben brought out fresh brewed coffee and two plated desserts for us. The decadent mousse and cream  cake was topped with fresh mint and surrounded by colorful cut fruit, including dragon fruit looking like wee dice. We talked about the growth of Ruben’s business, Culinary Arts, Inc, including his recent work in servicing local Cambodian weddings. We also learned that Ruben plays electric guitar and is a big Pink Floyd fan.

The last stop of the day was serendipitous. I had read that Yary Livan was going to be opening the wood fire kiln, which he and his students had fired a few days before. It takes a good 30 hours for the ware inside to cool down. When I arrived around 1:30 p.m., Yary was operating the wood splitter. (OMG, be careful with those hands . . . ) Several students and fellow ceramicists were helping out carrying and stacking wood.

Yary at splitter

By 1:45 p.m., it was time to open the kiln. Diane peeled away the plastered paper and others took turns pulling out the bricks on the face of the kiln opening.

Diane unpapering kiln Removing bricks

Kneeling beside the kiln, Yary carefully examined a teapot, and the glaze on a vase and a teapot.

  Yary holding teapot Yary holding vase
But the prize piece of the day was Yary’s naga, which he cradled in his arms.

Yary holding naga

Not bad for a day in the life of a public folklorist.

Yary and Maggie

 

Interested in applying for a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship?

Kieran Jordan and Emerald Rae Dimitrios Klitsas at his workbench Ivelisse Pabon de Landron with apprentice John Kristensen and Jesse Marsolais Karol Lindquist and Timalyne Frazier Qianshen Bai and Mei Hung William Cumpiano with apprentice Isidro Acosta David Hawthorne teaching bowmaking

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 nearly 100 artists in a vast array of traditions, both old and new to Massachusetts. Applications are now available.

Recent apprenticeships funded by MCC’s Folk Arts and Heritage Program include mentorships in Madhubani painting, Irish uilleann piping, urban sign painting and gold leaf, Chinese seal carving and calligraphy, Carnatic singing, and European architectural and ornamental woodcarving, to name a few. The deadline for applying is April 12, 2016.

Khmer Ceramicist Yary Livan Honored in Nation’s Capitol

Yary Livan receiving National Heritage Award, posing with NEA Chairwoman Jane Chu
Yary Livan receiving National Heritage Award, posing with NEA Chairwoman Jane Chu.

What a delight it was to be present for the 2015 NEA National Heritage Fellowship awards in Washington, DC last week. The stellar “class” of master traditional artists were recognized and feted in the nation’s capitol. The events culminated in a dazzling and moving concert most ably emceed by PRI The World’s Marco Werman.

Photo by Michael G. Stewart, courtesy NEA
Photo by Michael G. Stewart, courtesy of the NEA

We congratulate all of this year’s heritage fellows, but are especially proud of Lowell, Massachusett’s Yary Livan; his stunning artwork and life story should make us all proud of the opportunities this country continues to provide immigrants. Here’s to Yary, a gentle and humble soul. We look forward to the work he has yet to create and the efforts of the many students who will benefit from his dedication to passing on this incredible, endangered Khmer art form.

NEA_HYary Livan and Nary Tith. Photo by Tom Pich
Yary Livan with his wife and “life assistant” Nary Tith. Photo by Tom Pich.

Folk Tradition in Good Hands: A Visual Reminder

Anahid Kazazian inspecting Armenian Marash embroidery
Anahid Kazazian inspecting Armenian Marash embroidery

Anahid Kazazian inspecting Armenian Marash embroidery

Violin bowmaker David Hawthorne chiseling mortise
Violin bowmaker David Hawthorne chiseling mortise

Violin bowmaker David Hawthorne chiseling mortise

origami rose by Richard Alexander
origami rose by Richard Alexander

origami rose by Richard Alexander

Linda Lane making bobbin lace
Linda Lane making bobbin lace

Linda Lane making bobbin lace

Fisherman Marco Randazzo holding one of his rope sculptures
Fisherman Marco Randazzo holding one of his rope sculptures

Fisherman Marco Randazzo holding one of his rope sculptures

Ruben Arroco carving fruit
Ruben Arroco carving fruit

Ruben Arroco carving fruit

Dottie Flanagan cooking pierogi
Dottie Flanagan cooking pierogi

Dottie Flanagan cooking pierogi

Cambodian ceramicist Yary Livan carving clay
Cambodian ceramicist Yary Livan carving clay

Cambodian ceramicist Yary Livan carving clay

Alma Boghosian making Armenian needle lace
Alma Boghosian making Armenian needle lace

Alma Boghosian making Armenian needle lace

Karol Lindquist making a Nantucket lightship basket
Karol Lindquist making a Nantucket lightship basket

Karol Lindquist making a Nantucket lightship basket

Chent  Chow holding Chinese chop
Chent Chow holding Chinese chop

Chent Chow holding Chinese chop

Hands of Sicilian strega Lori Bruno
Hands of Sicilian strega Lori Bruno

Hands of Sicilian strega Lori Bruno

Cambodian Kiln Fires Up!

A few months ago, we told you about a blessing ceremony  held for the building of a Cambodian wood fire kiln in Lowell, Massachusetts. We are excited to announce that the kiln is completed and will be fired up for the very first time on Saturday September 22, 2012.

As one of only three master ceramicists to survive the Khmer Rouge genocide, Yary Livan is one of only two still actively creating pottery. The other is Kang Proeung, visiting artist from Cambodia. He and Yary grew up in the same village along thet Mekong Delta and have known each other since childhood.

 

Together they have built a Cambodian-style wood fire kiln in Lowell, on the grounds of the National Park Service maintenance facility. Their hope is that this kiln, and the ware that is fired inside of it, will help insure that Cambodian ceramics can continue and flourish. It is a tradition that dates back to the Angkor Kingdom, which was at its height during the 11th century.

 

Livan, Proeung, and others will be on hand to explain the kiln’s design, the firing process, and features of the Khmer ceramic pieces that will be burning inside. For more information, click here.

 36 hours left before the kiln is lit . . .   Stopped by this afternoon to see Proeung busy glazing ware and Yary inside the kiln making measurements.

Traditional Arts Fellows and Finalists, a Diverse Group

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

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

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YARY LIVAN, Cambodian ceramicist

An MCC Artist Fellowship also went to  Yary Livan (Lowell, MA), master of traditional Cambodian ceramics and kiln building. His work draws on the rich heritage of Cambodian culture, including influences from ancient imperial Khmer kiln sites, such as Angkor Wat, and incorporates Khmer imagery, relief carving, and design. Livan recently served as master artist in MCC’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, passing on what he knows of kbach, the basic element of design in Khmer art, to apprentice Samnang Khoeun. The two are building a smokeless wood-burning kiln on the grounds of Lowell National Historical Park.

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

VERÓNICA ROBLES, Mariachi musician

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

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KHENPO CHOPEL, Tibetan torma maker

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

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JORGE ARCE, Afro Caribbean percussionist and educator

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

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DANNY MEKONNEN, Ethiopian American musician

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

Making art for everyday life

After finding refuge in Lowell eight years ago, Yary Livan and his family finally own a home with a yard. Beside their light blue house on Franklin Street is a welcoming green space where Yary has created a peaceful sculpture garden. Just to the left of some blooming echinacea sits Livan’s 38-inch tall ceramic spirit house. He had patiently loaned it to us for the Keepers of Tradition exhibition, where it sat encased in a plexiglas vitrine for over a year, along with other sacred pieces of folk art.

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Now the spirit house has found its rightful home. Yary’s wife, Nary Tith, had explained to us that in Cambodia, where Buddhists pray on a daily basis, temples, and pagodas are often built far from villages. Therefore, many people construct their own spirit houses for their yards. Typically, spirit houses are highly ornamented wood or cement structures limited to a handful of standard designs. Yary chose to make his spirit house of clay because he wanted to combine his skills as a ceramist with his Khmer heritage.

Their home is filled with Yary’s ceramic work — elephant pots, vases, and cooking vessels.

Indeed, even the kitchen table is a work of mosaic art.

This tiny grandchild is certainly growing up in a home rich in Cambodian material culture. Perhaps she will one day carry on the tradition.

Where to buy ware?

Yary Livan is seen working his magic on a potter’s wheel. The Cambodian ceramicist had examples of his ware on display at this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival. Many festival goers asked about purchasing his ware, but the crafts area was not set up for sales. Turns out, Yary has not found a place to sell his work locally. But that is about to change. He will soon have some of his work for sale at the Heritage Shop at the National Heritage Museum. Yary is one of over 70 artists represented in the museum’s exhibition, Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts.