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Helping Preserve the Ancient Art of Cambodian Ceramics

The article below is from Middlesex Community College’s Spring 2013 Profiles magazine. Additional information is available by clicking on these links:



Art Professor Margaret Rack and Lowell artist Yary Livan in front of the Cambodian ceramics kiln they helped build on the grounds of the Lowell National Historical Park.


While Art Professor Margaret Rack teaches foundational art courses at Middlesex and sculpts heavy metal in her own artwork – she has an undeniable soft spot for Cambodian  ceramics.

With the help of dedicated college and community partners, Rack has successfully completed a 10-year effort to build a smokeless, wood-fired Cambodian ceramics kiln in Lowell.

Constructed on the grounds of Lowell National Historical Park (LNHP), the kiln will help preserve an ancient art form that was almost wiped out by the Cambodian genocide. It also enables Lowell artist Yary Livan, one of the few surviving masters of Cambodian ceramics, to continue working and teaching a new generation of artists.

As an art form, Cambodian pottery dates back to the ancient Angkor Kingdom (802-1431), explained Rack. “Now that we have the kiln, our hope is that with Yary passing on his knowledge and skills, we’ll make Lowell an international destination for Cambodian ceramics,” she said.

Funded by Middlesex and the Theodore Edson Parker Foundation, and completed in September, the innovative kiln is located at 220 Aiken St. It was designed with guidance from Japanese kiln maker Masakazu Kusakabe, who modified Livan’s traditional kiln to be smokeless and more environmentally friendly.

An MCC adjunct professor of art and artist-in-residence at LNHP, Livan teaches ceramics to Middlesex and Lowell Public Schools students, as well as members of the community. All student work is fired in the new kiln under Livan’s supervision.

“Yary is believed to be one of two survivors of the brutal Pol Pot era who was educated and trained in the classical art of Cambodian ceramics,” explained Rack. When the Vietnam War spread to Cambodia in the early 1970s, there was a thriving ceramics department at Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), she said.

When the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, all colleges and schools were closed, and teachers and students were targeted for extinction. “You could not reveal that you were educated or you’d be killed,” said Rack. After years of struggle in the Cambodian killing fields and then in a Thai refugee camp, Livan eventually immigrated to Lowell in 2001. His family was able to follow three years later. The seeds for the Cambodian Kiln Project were planted in 2003, when Rack and Livan worked together on an award-winning public-art project in Boston. As a faculty member at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA), Rack recruited Livan to work with her and a group of predominantly Asian youth as part of SMFA’s Youth-Art-In-Action Program.

Together, the group created a large, ceramic sculpture, based on an iconic Cambodian monument. The project was recognized in 2005 with a Coming Up Taller Award from the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, presented in a White House ceremony.

When Rack was hired as a full professor at Middlesex in 2004, she began teaching art at MCC’s campus in Lowell, which has the second largest Cambodian population in the U.S. That’s when the idea of building a kiln came to her. “I just had the idea in the back of my mind,” she said. “Yary didn’t have his own studio or kiln, and didn't have an artistic outlet."

Rack began helping Livan write grant proposals to support his work. He received a series of Massachusetts Cultural Council grants to teach in the Lowell schools, and in 2012 was awarded a fellowship and named a Master of Traditional Arts.

The Kiln Project really began to take off when Rack was selected to participate in a cultural-exchange trip to Cambodia in the summer of 2010. She was among 13 MCC and Lowell Public Schools teachers who took part in a U.S. Department of Education Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad to promote communication between American and Cambodian educators. “I made building a kiln the focus of my Fulbright-Hays project,” explained Rack. “I wanted to save this art form before it completely goes out of practice.”

While in Cambodia, she met with kiln master Proeung Kang, the only other living expert in Cambodian ceramics. (He had studied with Livan at RUFA.) Rack persuaded Kang to travel to Lowell as a visiting summer scholar and help build the kiln.

With Kang onboard, Rack came home to raise money for the project, and ground was broken in June 2012. Over the next few months, Kang and Livan built the innovative kiln, which uses one-third less wood than a traditional Cambodian kiln.

Now that it’s up and running, Rack considers the kiln only the first step. “I thoroughly enjoy this work with Yary,” she said. “But I also enjoy working with other Lowell art teachers and helping them figure out how to better connect with their students and the local community.

“Art has the power to make those kinds of connections happen, said Rack. “We’re just beginning to make this vision of the community and the college come to life.”



 Rack, Proeung Kang (left) and Livan (right) with President Carole Cowan and Executive VP Jay Linnehan.  


By Kathy Register, Middlesex Community College


 


 

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Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 4:03 PM by ricca

Comments

Sikes said:

You have noted very interesting points ! ps nice website .
# July 27, 2013 5:06 AM

Stephen Hearne said:

Congratulations on the kiln-it's a worthwhile endeavor Regards, Stephen Hearne
# August 24, 2013 3:58 AM
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