Celebrating 30 Years of Presenting Folk Craft Artists at Work

Folk craft banner

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!



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


Customized fruit carver comes to the Lowell Folk Festival

Earlier this spring I was searching for someone who specializes in the tradition of carving fruits and vegetables to demonstrate at the folk craft area of the Lowell Folk Festival.  This year the theme is carving traditions. After following up on a few leads, all within the Asian community, I eventually gave up on trying to find someone to demonstrate this culinary skill.

Then, just six weeks shy of the festival, I received an email from Craig Gates of the Lowell Festival Foundation. He’d been contacted by Ruben Arroco inquiring whether he could demonstrate fruit carving at the festival this summer. Serendipity? As it turns out, Ruben recently demonstrated fruit carving at the Rock ‘N Ribfest in Merrimac, New Hampshire. When someone came up to him to ask if he would be at the Lowell Folk Festival this July, he thought to himself, “Why not?” Hence, his inquiry. Craig passed him on to me, with the thought that it was probably too late and that I could “let him down gently.” Instead, I was thrilled to learn of this local chef who had trained in the Philippines, has been an executive chef for 30 years, and now specializes in customized fruit and vegetable carvings.

So last week, Phil Lupsiewicz and I drove over to the Highlands neighborhood of Lowell to interview Ruben Arroco. Ruben, his wife, and daughter live in a newly built enclave of condominiums tucked into some lush foliage just off a busy street. Ruben welcomed us in, offering us freshly brewed coffee and slices of tiramisu cake. Presentation was done with the utmost care; the cake was served on white porcelain plates decorated with mango carved to look like roses. Amazed at the trouble he had gone to and delighted in sitting down to this unexpected afternoon treat, Phil and I readied our recording equipment.

Ruben placed a round watermelon on a rotating board, securing its base with a rolled dishtowel. Then he picked up a very sharp tool and began to work. “I just start by looking for a nice surface and just make a little peel. I peel that until I see a little red color. Like so. . .  I’m going to make the center petals of the flower. Most of the time they use a knife to make a circle – but I just use a cookie cutter to make a round shape. This is how it’s started. See, I love that color right there, it’s coming out, the red color. Then you start making the petals. . . ”


Ruben makes most of his own carving tools out of specialized stainless steel. I ask if fruit carving is a relatively rare skill to have. “It is. This is actually a 700-hundred year old art that originated in Thailand.”

Ruben learned to carve fruit during his training as a hotel chef in the Philippines. “There is a place in the Philippines — Paete, Laguna — where people there make a living out of carving wood. Some of those guys, I was lucky enough to work with in the hotel. . . If you see a chef doing this, most of the time, if you ask, ‘Are you from [Laguna]’ the answer is yes. If you can carve wood, you can carve this — so I kind of learned it from them.”

Ruben picks up a specialized tool he made which creates V-cuts in one movement. “Even just making simple V-cuts transforms it and gives it that nicer look. You go around making these V-cuts, like that. Separation of the petals from the part that you carved, that’s very important. The part that is removed, they call that the negative side in the carving world. If you don’t remove that, you won’t see what you just carved.”

I wonder aloud  if there is something hard about making art which is so ephemeral. It can take from seven to ten hours to create, yet it’s there to be consumed. Ruben says, “Even though it takes a long time to make, the best part of it is when we bring it to the party and everybody likes it. Even though it took me seven hours to make, it always feels like it only took me a half hour when everybody likes it.”

“Most of the time, we bring it to the party and then they call me back say, ‘We have a problem.’ ‘What? Why, what happened.?’  ‘Nobody wants to touch it!’  So I tell them to find a kid and tell him or her it’s for them. They won’t care; they’ll just start eating it.”

Come to the Lowell Folk Festival this July 27 and 28 to watch Ruben and 15 other traditional artists demonstrate their remarkable carving skills.