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


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.

Blessing ceremony for kiln building

A blessing ceremony for the new Cambodian wood fire kiln took place in Lowell on June 28. In order to ensure a successful project, the potters Yary Livan and Proeung Kang made offerings and prayed to the designer of Angkor Wat, King Suryavarman II, whom Yary calls “the hero of construction.” Proeung just arrived from Cambodia where he teaches at the Secondary School of Fine Arts. He and Yary both grew up in the same village along the Mekong Delta and have known each other since childhood. 

Two Buddhist monks in bright orange robes from the Wat Khmer Temple in Lowell came for the occasion. On the altar, Yary prepared offering of grapes, apples, cherries, and a whole roasted chicken (complete with dipping sauces!), next to a vase of freshly picked flowers. 


Marge Rack, professor of art at Middlesex Community College  (MCC), gave a welcoming address, translated by Tooch Van, International Student Advisor at MCC, to the approximately fifteen people attending. She said that this project was “a dream come true,” and it was her vision to build a ceramics community that not only included Lowell but Cambodia as well.

Celeste Bernardo, the new Superintendent of Lowell National Historical Park, said that “heritage is made strong by the many cultures in our community,” and that the Lowell community helps spread and continue traditions of the Cambodian people.


A clergyman, or achar, lit three tall white candles placed on an orange brick, and gave an introduction in both Sanskrit and Pali, the liturgical language of Buddhism. The two monks chanted the Dhamma in Sanskrit while dipping flowers into pottery bowls of water and sprinkling water over the kiln’s foundation.



At the altar, Yary lit a candle,while Proeung poured pinot grigio over the chicken. Holding a bundle of incense sticks, Yary prayed and chanted over the offerings, then placed one burning incense stick each into an apple, a grape, a cherry, and the chicken.


Cambodian customs are a mix of animism, Hinduism, Buddhism. The altar incorporated the symbolically important Hindu number of seven. Yary said traditionally the altar holds seven different kinds of food and seven kinds of fruit, what he called “seven times seven.”


The art department of MCC had generously presented Yary and Proeung with a hand truck so they wouldn’t hurt their backs! They will be helped by Samnang Khoeun, an architect and Yary’s former apprentice, and Vanny Hang, a sculptor from Lawrence who is a specialist in Khmer ornamentation. The artisans collaborate together in their studio in the Western Studios building in Lowell.  To follow progress on the kiln project, click here.

Photos by Maggie Holtzberg. Group shot by Samnang Khoeun.

Yary builds a wood-burning kiln


We last wrote about Cambodian ceramicist Yary Livan when he received an Artist Fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council this past Spring. Livan’s 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. 

The big news in his life is that after having no decent place to work or fire his ware, Yary not only has studio space at Western Avenue Studios , he is in the process of building a wood-burning kiln on land owned by the National Park Service. Middlesex Community College, who is sponsoring the project, has created a blog : “On this blog one can follow events at Yary’s Kiln, 220 Aiken St. Lowell, MA, with photos and interviews; find out when the kiln will be fired; learn how to sign up for workshops, to visit, view exhibits or find sales of traditional Cambodian woodfire pottery.”

We’ll be stopping by from time to time as well, to see how things are progressing at the kiln site. Come September, the Lowell Folklife Series will host a firing of the newly finished kiln.