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.

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.

Scenes from a Festival: Textile Traditions

Signage in Folk Craft & Foodways area

Entrance to folk craft area in Lucy Larcom Park

Kudos to all the textile artists who made the Folk Craft area of this year’s Lowell Folk Festival so vibrant! Here are some images from the two-day event.

Kathy Blake-Parker (far right) of the Cranberry Rug Hookers Guild
Kathy Blake-Parker (far right) of the Cranberry Rug Hookers Guild
Fatima Vejzovic of Hartford demonstrating Bosnian rug weaving
Fatima Vejzovic of Hartford demonstrating Bosnian rug weaving
Jonas Stundzia holding a frame with Lithuanian pick-up weaving
Jonas Stundzia holding a frame with Lithuanian pick-up weaving
Jonas Stundzia (right) with friend Irene Malasaukas, who demonstrated Lithuanian pickle making in the Foodways tent
Jonas Stundzia (right) with friend Irene Malasaukas, who demonstrated Lithuanian pickle making in the Foodways tent
Entrance to Foodways demonstration tent
Entrance to Foodways demonstration tent
David Blackburn serving pickes at the foodways demonstration tent
David Blackburn serving pickles at the foodways demonstration tent
Samples of torchon bobbin lace by Linda Lane
Samples of torchon bobbin lace by Linda Lane
Sisters 'n Stitches quilting guild members
Sisters ‘n Stitches quilting guild members enjoying the crowd
Melissa Dawson of Chelmsford Quilters' Guild
Melissa Dawson of Chelmsford Quilters’ Guild
Elizabeth James Perry discussing Wampanoag weaving traditions
Elizabeth James Perry discussing Wampanoag weaving traditions
LFF2015_Patrisiya Kayobera with festival goer
Patrisiya Kayobera holding one of her Rwandan coiled baskets
Rwandan coiled basket by Patrisiya Kayobera
Rwandan coiled basket by Patrisiya Kayobera
Qamaria Amatal-Wadud with examples of her Islamic hijab and abaya
Qamaria Amatal-Wadud with examples of her Islamic hijab and abaya
Rosaline Accam Awadjie (on right) with two festival goers that she has dressed in African headwraps and dress
Rosaline Accam Awadjie (on left, standing) with two festival goers that she has dressed in African headwraps and dress
Jaya Aiyer and Lakshmi Narayan displaying South Asian saris
Jaya Aiyer and Lakshmi Narayan displaying South Asian saris
LFF2015_attendance at unstitched garment tent copy
Visitors checking out the “unstitched garments” in the folk craft area

We are just weeks away from the 2015 Lowell Folk Festival

banner of folk craft artists' work

The Lowell Folk Festival is coming right up on July 24-26th. In addition to checking out music and dance performances and sampling some of the best ethnic food served at a festival, consider spending some time in the Folk Craft area located in Lucy Larcom Park. This year we are featuring 13 different textile traditions. From noon until 5:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, artisans will demonstrate traditional techniques used in the making of textiles: twining, coiling, weaving, quilting, hooking, and lace making. Others will explore how textiles are used in what is called the “unstitched garment,” i.e., wrapping Indian saris, African headwraps, and Islamic headscarves.

You will discover how the pattern of a textile’s weave, its thread count, and the way it is worn can convey religious belief, marital status, wealth, or social standing. Come compare quilting traditions from African American and Anglo American quilting guilds. Watch how embellishments such as bobbin lace are created. See how you look in an African head wrap. Try your hand at hooking a rug . . .

Rug hooking detail. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

If you get hungry and tired and want to sit down, the Foodways demonstration area is close by. My colleague and friend Millie Rahn has put together a tasty program on pickling traditions.

Pickles. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

“Pickling is a method of preserving food that is found in many cultures and usually involves brine, vinegar, spices, and fermentation. Vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, and nuts are often pickled alone or mixed together in various ways to keep food for out-of-season eating. Traditionally, pickling was a way of ensuring food sources for those working far from the comforts of home on land and sea, no matter the climate. Today, many home cooks in the region use the bounty of their gardens and local markets to pass on favorite recipes and preserve their foodways throughout the year.”

The schedule is below.  As in past years, you will have a chance to ask questions and to taste samples once each demonstration is over.

12pm: Refrigerator Pickles Mill City Grows/UTEC; Lydia Sisson
1pm: Jamaican Pickled Pepper Sauce, Nicola Williams
2pm: Northern Indian Cholay, Yogesh Kumar
3pm: Lithuanian Pickles, Irena Malasaukas
4pm: New England Bread Butter Pickles, Jackie Oak with Tricia & Gerard Marchese



Recycling festival T-shirts to make paper!

  Drew Matott with portable Hollander Beater  

Drew Matott had an “aha” moment when he first realized paper could be made from old clothes. He and Margaret Mahan have gone on to bring the transformative experience of hand paper making to people all over the world. In order to pulverize rag into pulp, they use a machine designed and built by papermaking engineer Lee McDonald of Boston. Not only is it portable, it is bicycle powered. Pulling sheets of paper is a fun and messy business. To form a piece of paper, a screen is dipped and submerged in a vat of pulp and pulled through the fibrous water. A thick wet sheet of paper forms as the water drains away. Sheets are stacked, pressed, and hung up to dry.  

In addition to hand paper making and bookbinding, Drew and Margaret founded the Peace Paper Project in 2011. Through paper making workshops, survivors of war and terrorism have been guided to pulp the clothing they associate with their traumatic experience, including military uniforms. The clothing is cut up, beat, and formed into sheets of paper. Working with certified art therapists, participants use the paper to begin the process of adjusting and recovering from their experiences.

At a recent Lowell Folk Festival planning meeting, Millie Rahn and I brought up Drew and Margaret’s request for textiles that could be recycled for making paper at the festival. We talked about approaching a local textile mill but Pat Bowe (of The Lowell Festival Foundation) had the brilliant idea to recycle surplus festival T-shirts from festivals past. Last week, Pat mailed them bundles of brightly colored cotton T-shirts.

Margie Mahan pulping T shirts

Drew wrote to us saying, “We received the t-shirts! We love all the colors! I think it is the perfect amount- Margie and I cut them all up and started processing them into pulp. Over the next three days we will make 12lbs of it into paper to hand out to participants. We will pulp the remainder for use with the bike operated beater and sheet forming during the festival.”

Drew Matott working with beater

Come by to meet paper makers Drew Matott and Margaret Mahan this weekend at the Lowell Folk Festival. You’ll never look at old clothing the same way again.

From Head to Toe: Adorn & Protect

These are just some of the craft artists and traditions you will find at this year’s Lowell Folk Festival in the Folk Craft area of Lucy Larcom Park. They craft a variety of gear to progect and adorn the head and the feet.  Using an array of materials, techniques, and styles, each craftsperson works within well-established traditions. Some  creations express religious devotion or ethnic identity, others sheer practicality. Many fulfill a cultre-based license to be “on display.”


 For more info on the 2012 Lowell Folk Festival click here.  Hope to see you on July 28 & 29th!







Under One Tent: Duck Decoys and Fishing Flys

The Folk Craft area at this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival focuses on the role apprenticeships have played in helping to sustain traditional art in New England. Below are two master artists and their apprentices that will be sharing a tent in Lucy Larcom Park. We are thankful to our friend and collegeague, Lynn Graton of New Hampshire Folklife  for connecting us with these talented craftsmen.

Making a beautiful decoy starts with being a keen observer of wildlife, in order to mimic the postures and grace of a variety of wildfowl and songbirds. Skills in carving must be matched by skills in painting. Layers of carefully applied paint help create the sheen and luster of feathers. Fred Dolan, of Strafford, New Hampshire,is a nationally recognized wood carver, specializing in waterfowl and songbirds. In addition to having studied under master carvers both in New England and in the Chesapeake region, Fred has studied ornithology and  worked with New Hampshire Fish and Game officials to band geese as a way of studying the birds at close range.

Fred works primarily with cedar, basswood or tupelo wood. He uses a variety of techniques such as combing to simulate wavy lines;  stippling to diffuse light and provide texture;  airbrush techniques to create iridescent highlights and shadows;  as well as hand painting of feather details. Gary Trotter is one of several apprentices Fred has mentored through a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant awarded by the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts.

Fly fishing has been around for centuries, but the greatest advancements to the tradition were made in19th-century England. Flys are a combination of feathers, fur, and wire to imitate the look, color, wiggle, and silhouette of a bug or bait for fish. As Lynn Graton writes, “Classic Atlantic salmon flys are considered by many to be the king of the ornamental flys and are collected and displayed for their jewel-like beauty.” With up to 30 or 40 steps and taking several hours to complete, they represent the pinnacle of fly tying art. The distinction between working flys and classic Atlantic salmon flys, with their exotic feathers, is akin to that between working decoys and decorative decoys.

As a child, Bob Wyatt watched his father tie Atlantic salmon flys on family fishing vacations in Nova Scotia. The fly is used to catch “the king of fish,” says Bob, who now preserves fly tying as part of New Hampshire’s outdoor heritage. In 2009, Bob  was awarded a grant from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts to mentor Chris Clark, who runs an outdoor adventure guide business.