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.

Massachusetts Artist’s Work Featured in New Smithsonian Exhibition

The detail is mind boggling. And the engineering, craftsmanship, and design are just what one would expect from maritime historian and ship modeler Erik Ronnberg, Jr. He called a few months ago to invite me up to Rockport to see a model he has been working on for the past two years. The Smithsonian Institution commissioned Ronnberg to design and build a Pacific Coast factory trawler. The piece is an incredible rendering of a working factory trawler, with exacting detail. Though the hull is made of very thin wood, the majority of pieces are cast out of metal. She is modeled after the real ship ” Alaska Ocean,” which routinely catches and processes 50-100 tons of Alaska pollock in a single haul. Every fish that comes onto the factory deck is weighed and measured to ensure that the ship doesn’t exceed her quota.

Once the fish are released, they spill out into one of three holding tanks. A conveyer belt brings fish to their ultimate fate, where they end up as packaged and frozen surimi (imitation crab/lobster), rectangular fillets, or highly profitable roe. The majority of the work on the processing deck is automated. Erik has machined parts to represent the many processes that take place on this factory-on-waves: sorting, scaling, skinning, filleting, gutting, deboning, washing, cooking, compacting, freezing, bagging, loading, and storing.

Examining the many fish processing stages, you can see where the infatuation with technology comes from. The model is six feet long (scale: 3/16 in. = 1 foot) and is part of the new exhibit, On the Water: Stories from Maritime America, which opened May 22 at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum. Erik Ronnberg’s hope is that a few kids will see his model of Alaska Ocean and out of that will come the next generation of naval architects.