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.

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.