His hands and clothes covered in flaking, drying clay, a smiling Yary Livan appreciates how fortunate he is to be alive.
One of only two men who were educated and trained in the tradition art of Cambodian ceramics to have survived the genocide at the hands of the Pol Pot regime in the 1970’s, Livan is keeping that art alive as well, passing it along to the students of Lowell.
Wednesday afternoon, students in grades 5-8 at the Pyne Arts Magnet School proudly displayed the ceramic creations they produced with their own hands under Yary’s tutelage.
The partnership between Yary, who teaches at Middlesex Community College and runs the unique smokeless wood-burning kiln MCC was able to build along with the Lowell National Historical Park, was made possible through grants from the Lowell Cultural Council and Massachusetts Cultural Council by Pyne art teacher Jacqueline Miller.
“Yary has been great,” said Miller. “He has a great way with the kids and they love working with him.”
Miller added the project has also rejuvenated her love of teaching, a craft she has practiced for 23 years.
“It is something different and exciting,” she said.
The fifth graders were taught by Yary how to create reptiles. In Cambodia artists sculpt lizards and dragons to be placed on temples and homes as decoration.
The sixth graders created animal pots, inspired by animal pots dating back to the 4th and 5th century excavated in Cambodian 20 years ago.
The seventh graders were busy researching different types of fish and learning the technique from Yary of how to create their own 3D fish.
The focus of the eighth graders was traditional Cambodian masks. Yary explained to them that true Cambodian design never uses straight lines.
In addition to the thrill of creating a piece of art work themselves, the students are also learning about Cambodian culture, geography, history and Yary’s personal story of survival.
He was a student at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took control of the nation.
Put to work in a rural area, his mother saw Khmer Rouge soldiers struggling to build a kiln to make roofing tiles. She spoke up and told them her son could build a kiln. Yary thinks his ability to help them build the kiln is what saved his life when the vast majority of those who were educated and those who were artists and musicians were executed.
He spent several years in a Thai refugee camp and came to the United States in 2001.
Kaylee Champoux, an 8th grader who is interested in pursuing art as a career and created one of the most intriguing pieces of the show, said Yary was the perfect teacher.
“He knows how to help in the right way,” she said. “He showed me things I could do that made it possible to do things I did not think I could.”
Pyne Arts Principal Wendy Crocker-Roberge said the experience has been incredibly powerful for the students.
Having the ability to create art is great for all of the students’ self esteem and is especially beneficial to students with emotional or behavioral challenges who can use the experience as a type of art therapy, as ell as those who don’t speak English; it gives them s way to express themselves and participate as part of the community.
“And the quality of the work is unbelievable,” she said marveling at the tables full of ceramic masks, animals and decorative candle holders.
“The goal is to transfer my skill to the younger generation,” said Yury. “Some kids do it for fun, but others will remember it for the rest of their lives.”
Yury said he gets great satisfaction from helping a student see their project through to the end, as well as knowing he is working to keep his culture alive.
And Yury’s impact on the Lowell Public Schools is about to get much bigger. Middlesex Community College, under the direction of Art Professor Margaret Rack, who has been working with Yary for several years, was recently awarded a two-year $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that will allow him and Miller to teach a graduate level course in the art and history of Cambodian ceramics to the district’s art teachers through the Lowell Teacher academy, the district’s professional development arm.
The grant also allows for exhibits and workshops to take place at the two Lowell schools with the highest enrollment of Cambodian students.
In addition to the art, members of the school’s National Junior Honor Society, practiced philanthropy.
Pyne Social Studies teacher Mike Neagle explained the student set out to collect $500 through a spare change drive at the school. In 10 days they had collected $1,105.60.
The students were inspired by a visit from Tola Sok, a LHS and UMass Lowell graduate and U.S. Air Force veteran who founded Project Sok in 2012, a non-profit that raises money to build traditional Khmer homes for needy families in rural Cambodia.
The $1,000 donated by the kids from the Pyne will build two homes this summer. The balance ($105.60) was donated to Catie’s Closet a Lowell based non-profit that provides clothes and toiletries to school children in need.
“When you give kids the opportunity to help someone else out they jump at it,” said Neagle. “It is amazing.”
Great write up Jen
The art work was amazing; I am so proud of the Pyne Arts students!
Thank you so much for coming and such a wonderful write up!! Art always inspires the soul!
can’t believe that some of these were done by students…Great Job Pyne School