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.

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.

Yary Livan named National Heritage Fellow

Yary Livan holding elephant pot. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

We are thrilled to announce that Yary Livan, a Cambodian ceramicist living in Lowell, Massachusetts, has just been named a National Heritage Fellow. Given by the National Endowment for the Arts, these fellowships are the nation’s highest award in the folk and traditional arts.

Yary Livan is one of the only known Cambodian master ceramists to survive the Khmer Genocide and still actively creating Cambodian ceramics and temple ornamentation. Yary’s training in the classical art of Cambodian ceramics at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh was disrupted when the Vietnam War spread to Cambodia in the early 1970s. After three years of unspeakable hardship, Yary was granted the status of political refugee; he left Cambodia on July 13, 2001, for Lowell.

Yary carving in clay

Yary is currently teaching school residencies in Lowell, infusing traditional arts into curricula for elementary, high school, and community college students. He continues to make artistic contributions to community celebrations like Cambodian New Year and the Southeast Asian Water Festival.

Material culture has been a life line, connecting Yary to vital resources and linking him to students to whom he is passing on the ancient and endangered tradition of Khmer decorative art. He recently fulfilled a decade-long dream of building and firing in a wood burning kiln.

Yary Livan loading wood into firebox

The hope (and beauty of it) is that the kiln, and the ware fired inside of it, will help insure the tradition of Khmer ceramics continues and thrives, along with one of its finest practitioners.

Yary holding brown bowl

2015 has been a banner year for Yary Livan. He gave his first public talk at a NCECA [National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts] conference. He returned to his homeland for the first time since emigrating in 2001. On October 1 and 2, 2015, the 2015 fellows will be feted in an awards ceremony and concert in Washington, DC, on October 1 and 2, 2015. I smile just thinking about Yary being recognized and honored as one of our nation’s national heritage fellows.

Watch Live webcast of National Heritage Fellows Concert

We are coming up on the last week of September, which means it’s time for the annual feting of our country’s National Heritage Fellows. This year’s fellows include former Massachusett’s resident and Irish fiddler extraordinaire, Seamus Connolly.

The National Council for Traditional Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts produce a spectacular evening performance September 27th at Lisner Auditorium on the George Washington University campus. Fortunately, for those unable to attend the concert, the event will be live streamed at arts.gov,  with an archive available following the event. Viewers can share comments and photos on
Twitter using the hashtag #NEAHeritage. You may also request copies of
the concert program by emailing heritage@arts.gov.

Seamus Connolly named National Heritage Fellow

We are delighted to share the exciting news that Irish-born and longtime Massachusetts resident  Séamus Connolly has been named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. Though he recently moved to Yarmouth, Maine, we still like to claim him as one of our own.

In drafting his nomination letter, Irish music journalist Earle Hitchner writes, “I can think of no Irish traditional musician more qualified and deserving than Séamus Connolly for a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His achievements as an Irish traditional fidder, music school organizer, and music teacher are long and lustrous. . . First and foremost is his fiddling, a combination of virtuosity and vitality that stamps his style of playing as original, unique, and highly influential . . . Every time he picks up the fiddle — whether on stage, in a recording studio, in a class, or in an informal session —  Séamus both preserves and advances the Irish tradition. His zeal and love for this music are as ardent now as they were when he was a boy in Ireland, and the body of art and work he has created is exceptional and formidable.”

Séamus Connolly grew up in a home filled with music in Kilaloe, County Clare, Ireland. He won his first All-Ireland National Fiddle Championship only ten months after initially picking up the fiddle and it wasn’t long before he gained national prominence. He joined the famous Kilfenora Ceili Band, traveling throughout Ireland and Britain playing for dances, concerts, and radio broadcasts and television programs.

Séamus came to the United States in 1972 as a member of the first Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann (CCE) tour, an ensemble of 26 musicians, singers and dancers. He then returned in 1976 and settled in the Boston area. At the request of the Boston branch of CCE, Séamus agreed to teach and pass on to American-born students the various regional styles of Irish fiddling.

Séamus directed the highly acclaimed Gaelic Roots Summer School and Festival at Boston College from 1993 – 2003. In 2004, Boston College named Connolly the “Sullivan Artist in Residence.” He also coordinates a Gaelic Roots Series of free concerts and lectures by visiting artists throughout the academic year. In 1990 and 2004, he was awarded a Fellowship in Traditional Arts by the Massachusetts Cultural Council;  he was also awarded three Master/Apprenticeship Grants for teaching traditional Irish music.

Séamus often performed and recorded with two stellar musicians —  Irish button accordion player   Joe Derrane, who won a National Heritage Fellowship in 2004, and guitarist John McGann, a gifted guitarist and mandolin player, who passed away unexpectedly in 2012.

Indeed, it has been a momentous year for  Séamus — On May 11, 2013, he was awarded another highly prestigious prize: the Ellis Island Medal of  Honor, given by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations to American citizens for their outstanding contributions to the United States. An exhibition titled ” the Musical Roots of Seamus Connolly” recently ran at Boston College’s Burns Library.

We are so very proud of you  Séamus.

 

Model Making: Ship Models & Pipe Organs

On Sunday afternoon, April 21st, the Lowell Folklife Series will present an intriguing program featuring three master craftsmen.  Joining us will be National Heritage Fellow and shipwright  Harold A. Burnham, noted maritime historian and ship modeler Erik Ronnberg, Jr., and Greg Bover of CB Fisk, Inc.  With hand-crafted models up on stage, they will talk about the role of model-making in the building of world class pipe organs, 60-foot wooden schooners, and historic miniatures of seafaring vessels.

For Burnham, a half-hull ship model is a design tool. Bover’s company, CB Fisk, Inc., creates scale models to ensure that each pipe organ complements the architecture that surrounds it. For Ronnberg, the full-hull ship model is a historical representation, a form of visual storytelling. All three individuals are well-known to each other, and hold each other’s skills and knowledge in high regard. Their discussion will no doubt be full of fascinating details, tricks of the trade, and little-known facts about the importance of model-making.

This event is free and open to the public. It will take place in Lowell National Historical Park’s Visitor Center theater on Sunday April 21, 2013 at 3:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/lowe or call 978-275-1719.