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.

“The Beautiful Music All Around Us”

Stephen Wade holding a copy of his book

Last week I had the good fortune of introducing Stephen Wade at the Cambridge Forum in Harvard Square. Like an archaeologist revisiting a dig site 75 years later, Wade went back to 13 Southern towns where folklorists working for the Library of Congress had recorded locally known singers and musicians.  These field recordings went on to become iconic of Southern old time banjo and fiddle music, blues, children’s lore, cowboy songs, and other forms of American folk music.

William Stepp on horseback

In addition to doing some serious library research, Wade was able to track down living relatives or acquaintances, finding himself in places where everyday people made music:  living rooms, front porches, church pews, prisons, and dance halls. During his November 13 presentation in Cambridge, he told stories from his travels in researching and writing The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience. He also performed on a number of banjos, including one originally belonging to musician Hobart Smith. Take a look and listen —


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.


Massachusetts shipwright wins national honor

  Harold Burnham standing at home: 2006:

We first nominated Harold A. Burnham for a National Heritage Award back in 2001.  This year’s fellows have just been announced and we are delighted to see Harold among those receiving the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.  Having built a number of timber-framed schooners, Burnham holds true to traditional materials and techniques. Using hand tools familiar to a nineteenth-century shipwright, he works out-of-doors through New England winters, and launches vessels the old way using wedges, grease, and gravity. 

  Launch of Isabella; Apprenticeship - wooden boat building; 2006: Essex, Massachusetts

Burnham has essentially revived a once dormant shipbuilding technique and in doing so has reconnected the town of Essex to its own shipbuilding heritage. He credits place as much as family legacy for enabling him to do what he does, “. . . it’s hard to imagine a place on earth where shipbuilding is more deeply embroidered into the fabric of the community.”

For more info on this year’s National Heritage Fellows, click here.





Cambodian elders tour Lowell National Historical Park

The Cambodian community has become an important part of Lowell’s ethnic urban history. During the 1980s, Lowell was one of a handful of official resettlement communities for Cambodian refugees fleeing war, genocide, and famine. Coming with little in the way of material wealth, many settled into a community known locally as “The Acre” — an area that has served as a gateway neighborhood for generations of immigrants coming to Lowell in search of a better life — Irish, Greeks, Poles, Scots, Portuguese, French Canadians, Italians, and Puerto Ricans. 

This section of Lowell got its name back in the 1840s when mill owners, who were concerned about having immigrant Irish workers living in their midst, donated an acre of land southwest of the city’s center. Today’s Acre is larger than its name implies and is home to many Camobodians. 

Last week, we hosted a group of Cambodian “elders” from the Coalition for a Better Acre  at Lowell National Historical Park. Chief of Cultural Resources David Blackburn pointed out the Acre and several Park and downtown destinations on an orientation map in the Visitor Center. 


Some members of the group had immigrated to Lowell in 1985, others more recently. Only two had visited Lowell National Historical Park, and no one had ridden the trolley. They were excited! 

Ranger Joanne Marcos shared Lowell’s history through stories of mill girls, labor conflicts, and new immigrants settling into ethnic enclaves — all of which were translated into Khmer by Rasy An, staff member at Coalition for a Better Acre, and Duey Kol, Assistant Director of Cultural Programming at the Park.

The group of visitors was especially animated when entering the Boott Cotton Mill Museum. Standing around a water-powered loom, one man recalled his mother weaving by hand in Cambodia. They marveled at how hard the mill girls worked, the heat and humidity, the long hours, the deafening roar and clack of machinery.

Our last stop was a visit to the Boarding House exhibit where they saw what the mill girls ate for breakfast, the tight sleeping quarters, and the clothing they wore. On the way out, we stopped briefly into the immigration exhibit — where the last panel of a timeline focused on some of Lowell’s more recent immigrants. There on the wall was a black and white photo from 1985 of a Cambodian family taken at the TWA terminal in Boston. One women in the group pointed to a man in the photo, who turned out to be her brother-in-law.  What a welcome surprise for them to see their story on the wall, for all to see.

This was the first of what we hope will be many interactions with the Cambodian community through our new partnership with the Coalition for a Better Acre. Through this visit with us, it was apparent that, despite the language barriers, they came away understanding Lowell’s importance in America’s industrialization and how they fit into the city’s story. In the future, the Park plans on nurturing relationships with other ethnic communities throughout the city.

Foodways Lectures, Film at Lowell National Historical Park

It’s not every day that someone’s kitchen becomes a museum exhibit. But then again, Julia Child is not your every day cook.  When she relocated from Cambrdige to California, her kitchen – the cabinets, appliances, utensils, pots, and pans – found a new home at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. The exhibit remains popular with visitors since it opened in 2002.  


To explore the kitchen’s journey to the Smithsonian, join us on Friday April 30 for a talk by Dr. Rayna Green, folklorist and Smithsonian’s curator of Julia Child’s kitchen. She will also touch upon the French Chef’s impact on the home cook in the 1960s and 70s through her cookbooks and her legendary television show produced by Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. The program is free and will be offered in the auditorium of the Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center, 246 Market Street,  at 7:30 pm.

In case you missed it, consider joining us on Tuesday, April 27 for Julie and Julia. The feature film (2009) is a comedy-drama written and directed by Nora Ephron. The film depicts events in the life of Julia Child in the early years in her culinary career, contrasting her life with Julie Powell who aspires to cook all 524 recipes from Child’s cookbook during a single year, a challenge she described on her popular blog that would make her a published author. Being screened in partnership with the Lowell Film Collaborative, the film will be shown at the Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center,246 Market Street, at 6:30 pm. The film is free.

Native American Foodways in New England, May 1

On May 1, Dr. Rayna Green will give a presentation on Native American foodways of New England. She will provide a broad overview of Native foodways in New England (coastal cultures versus inland, seasonal food, agriculture, etc.) and talk about the impact of Native American foodways on what some would define as “traditional” New England cuisine. This free presentation will be offered at 1:30 pm in the Boott Event Center located on the second floor of the Boott Cotton Museum at Lowell National Historical Park, 115 John Street.


This trio of events inaugurates a new series of foodways programming at Lowell National Historical Park.

Changes Afoot …


As the Folk Arts and Heritage Program begins its 12th year at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, we are excited to tell you about some changes. Through a unique partnership with Lowell National Historical Park (LNHP), state folklorist Maggie Holtzberg has been temporarily assigned to the Park to support the development and expansion of traditional arts programming serving the public. We will continue our work in running a vital state folk arts program — doing field research, maintaining an archive, database, and website, and providing grants to individual artists. This new endeavor is an exciting opportunity to explore cross-cultural understanding within in the context of a National Park based on ethnic heritage, occupational folklore, immigration, and industrial history.  


The goal is to engage visitors and more of the region’s immigrant and ethnic populations by offering a robust variety of culturally-relevant public programs at the Park year-round. Though the MCC Folk Arts and Heritage Program has worked with the Lowell Folk Festival for over a decade (providing potential crafts artists and musicians, emceeing on stages, etc.) we will be more actively involved in the planning and presentation of folk arts than ever before. This summer, look for “Folk Craft and Foodways” in Lucy Larcom Park where we will showcase some of the extra-musical aspects of traditional folk culture.

The plan is to build on the energy of the festival — the high-quality, traditional arts performances that are the hallmark of the Lowell Folk Festival — and offer similar experiences throughout the year. Special exhibits and interactive presentations of craft, foodways, performing, and expressive traditions will be developed based on both previous and new folklife field research within the region’s many diverse communities. There is even the possibility of re-establishing a folklife center at the Park.

 Keep your eye on this blog for further postings from Lowell . . .

A Folklorist’s Folklorist: Bess L. Hawes (1921-2009)


Addressing the American Folklore Society at the 1988 Centennial Meetings, Bess Lomax Hawes told a story about doing fieldwork, the sine qua non of the folklore profession. When she was teaching years ago, a student of hers had done an excellent term paper based on some folk curing beliefs which he had collected from an old lady in his neighborhood. By semester’s end he complained, “You taught me all about how to collect, Mrs. Hawes. What you didn’t teach me was how to stop collecting. That old lady lives on my block and every night when I come home, she runs out on the porch and says, ‘Hey boy, I just remembered another one!’  I keep trying to explain to her that my project is all finished, but she just won’t stop, and I’m starting to go up the alley when I go home just so I won’t run into her.”

“My dear young man,” Bess responded,  “welcome to the grown-up world. It’s a place where real actions have real results, where real people have real feelings as well as real information. And it’s a place where old ladies actually think that people who say they are interested in what they know really are interested, and issues like course requirements and semesters and quarters are really irrelevant. You’ve gotten your A. Now you start to pay back.” (excerpt taken from Public Folkore, edited by Robert Baron and Nicholas R. Spitzer, 1992, page 68.)

Bess Lomax Hawes, a folklorist of national renown, died last Friday. Today’s Boston Globe pays tribute to her and the little piece of local folklore she left behind. During the 1940s, while raising her family in Cambridge, Bess sang with local folk groups and tried her hand at songwriting. Today’s Boston Globe story focuses on “Charlie and the MTA,” a song Bess co-wrote with her friend Jacqueline Steiner. The political ditty poked fun at the Massachusetts Transit Authority’s complicated fare system and went on to become a hit.

In addition to a career as a performer and teacher, Bess Lomax Hawes was a remarkably effective arts administrator. Rocco Landesman, current Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, reminds us that, during her 16-year tenure as Director of the NEA’s Folk & Traditional Arts Program, Hawes inspired her colleagues to re-imagine how a federal agency might serve often overlooked artists and communities across the nation. Hawes was largely responsible for creating this country’s version of the Japanese Living National Treasures program. The first National Heritage Fellowships were awarded in 1982 and they continue to be the country’s highest honor awarded to individual artists working in the traditional arts.

Finding, documenting, presenting, and honoring traditional artists is work that is carried out at the grassroots level. Bess was the driving force behind establishing the network of public folklorists we have in the United States today. My colleague Jeff Titon recalls the United States map Bess kept in her office: “Whenever a folklorist got a job in one of those states, a colored push pin went into the location. She used to point to the map with great pride as the number of pins, and states, and public folklorists, increased. It was as if this gentle lady was mapping an occupying army moving into positions around the country.”

Indeed it was Bess who took Jeff aside in the early 1980s and began asking him why there wasn’t a position for a state folklorist in Massachusetts. Jeff writes, “It wasn’t long before Jane Beck [founder of the  Vermont Folklife Center] and I were lobbying at the state arts council, telling them that the NEA would fund a position for a state folk arts coordinator for three years, and that when the arts council saw how valuable it would be to have one, they would surely pick up the funding from then on. . . That is how the position that Maggie Holtzberg now holds with the Massachusetts Cultural Council originated. The pattern had been established before Massachusetts, and it was repeated in state after state.”

Many public folklorists, like myself, who were lucky enough to enter the field in the 1980s, were mentored by Bess.  We looked to her for advice and wisdom. This is why, during the past few days, my email box has been overflowing with “Bess stories” — moving memories of this pioneering, principled, formidable, feisty, fun-spirited woman. We are often reminded of her in our daily work and will miss her presence in the world profoundly.

NEA Heritage Award Fellows

Ever since 1982, The National Endowment for the Arts has awarded National Heritage Fellowships, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Although this year there are no Massachusetts artists in the mix, there have been in the past. Fellows from the Bay State include: Cape Breton fiddler Joe Cormier (1984), tap dancer extraordinaire Jimmy Slyde (1999), Irish American button accordionist Joe Derrane (2004), and folklorist Nancy Sweezy (2006). Be sure to check out their profiles on our online archive.

We have also nominated several other individuals. In fact, if you want to nominate someone, you can by submitting a letter and support materials to the NEA.