In Lowell, a culturally diverse city with the second largest concentration of people of Cambodian origin in the United States (after Long Beach, Calif.), there is concern among some in this ethnic group that cultural traditions could become obscured as assimilation occurs. Yary Livan, a master of traditional Cambodian ceramics and kiln building, came to the United States in 2001.
He was one of only three people trained in these folk skills at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh who escaped the persecution of the genocidal Khmer Rouge. He survived by applying his craftsmanship toward the utilitarian purpose of producing clay roof tiles for the regime’s benefit.
When he arrived in Lowell, Livan didn’t know how to establish himself. With help from the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, he acquired the studio space he needed to begin working and producing prolifically. Public recognition and appreciation of his resultant oeuvre led to his eventual affiliations with Middlesex Community College and Harvard University’s Office for the Arts, as well as with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (SMFA), where he taught.
During his tenure at the SMFA and involvement in youth programs, he began to see a disturbing trend among the younger, up-and-coming artists. Livan says he makes art to “simply share the love of creation with others, making people peaceful.” In the fledgling artists of today, Livan sees the pursuit of fame and riches as their major incentive.
“When gain is not the focus, there is no cheating, just pure, honest expressiveness,” he says. “Artwork is no liar.”
Livan remembers that his chief inspiration as a child was the sense of awe inspired by the ornate detail of the carvings at the Angkor Wat temple, where the sculptors worked primarily for spiritual recompense. He was overwhelmed by the synergy of the many artists who must have worked together seamlessly on a project of that scale.
Livan is afraid that in the narcissism of the modern age, the sheer wonder and spiritual elatedness in his fundamental motivations could become extinct.
Maggie Holtzberg, who serves as the director of cultural programming at Lowell National Historical Park and is the folk arts & heritage manager at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, says that Livan’s unease caused by the “tension between tradition and innovation” could have its roots in his experiences from childhood. She explains that in traditional arts, “the focus is not on the individual, but on the tradition.”
As dissolution of the ego and absorption into “oneness” are elemental tenets of Buddhism, it makes sense that Livan’s worldview as formed in the temples is projected in his opinions and execution of art.
To help resuscitate an appreciation of the connection between heritage and art, Livan brought fellow surviving master ceramicist Kang Proeung to Lowell to help him build a traditional Cambodian brick, wood-fired kiln. The kiln is housed at the National Historical Park’s maintenance facility on Aiken Street, and is a host site for frequent demonstrations. This is also where the lintel relief will be displayed upon completion. “Tradition is the pinnacle of importance,” Livan says.
There was a time in Cambodia, Livan says, when temples were the sources of learning and art was one of their primary teaching tools. Therefore, Livan places extreme importance on education, reaching out to youths who are most lacking in custom and unsettled in their ways, still as malleable as the clay with which he works.
To better position himself to make a difference in the lives of young people, Livan partnered with SMFA’s Youth Art in Action, a program for youth leadership through the arts. The projects he spearheaded in Dorchester produced ceramic tiles for a community park in Fields Corner and provided assistance in the design and painting of a large stage mural in Ronan Park. The collaboration was so successful that it received a “Coming Up Taller” award at the White House, via the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
The triumph of such endeavors led to Livan’s eventual involvement with the Lowell Community Charter Public School, where he teaches after-school programs in both contemporary and traditional Cambodian sculpture. He also instructs his mostly fifth-grade students in set design for the school’s stage.
In addition to focusing on young people, Livan believes a strong and confident sense of community is at the apex of retaining value in traditional arts and crafts. He sees such a paradigm in the Merrimack Valley arts scene.
“There is a sharing of ideas here that takes away the focus on competition. Everyone acknowledges the identity in what everyone else is doing, and there being more good artists overall attracts more visitors,” he says.
Livan’s concerns are by no means idiosyncratic. An October 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project notes that “there are widely shared concerns about the free flow of people, ideas and resources that globalization entails. In nearly every country surveyed, people worry about losing their traditional culture and national identities, and they feel their way of life needs protection.”
Livan says that although naturalization has innumerable merits, propagation of the traditional arts is anthropologically paramount; he believes it is his vocation, through modeling and example.
( Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine )