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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.