Documentary Highlights Work of Khmer Traditional Ceramic Artist & MCC Professor

Arlene Rodríguez, MCC’s Interim Provost and Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs; Phil Sisson, MCC’s President; Vibol Sungkriem, Director and Producer; Yary Livan, master Cambodian ceramicist. Photo Supplied.

“As a Cambodian-American filmmaker, I feel that Cambodians have a lot of untold stories,” said Vibol Sungkriem, Director and Producer of the new documentary “Yary Livan: Khmer Traditional Ceramic Artist.”

The documentary tells the story of Yary Livan, one of two master Cambodian ceramicists in the world, a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, and a ceramics professor at Middlesex Community College.

Sungkriem was introduced to Livan at his studio at Western Avenue Studios by a friend who suggested making the documentary. At first, Sungkriem hesitated because he did not know much about ceramics. After seeing Livan’s work, he was inspired to move forward with the project.

“I knew of the importance of his work and to document it for the next generation,” Sungkriem said. “Due to the rareness and uniqueness of his talent, I decided to work on it. Overall, his rarity got the best of me.”

Vannak Theng, Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association Board President with Yary Livan at the Documentary Film Screening. Photo Supplied.

MCC hosted a film screening of the documentary on Thursday, February 10, 2022 at the college’s Richard and Nancy Donahue Family Academic Arts Center. The event was free, open to the public, and included a reception and ceramics exhibit and a Q&A with Livan and the filmmaker.

Vannak Theng, Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association Board President, who attended the film screening said, “Lok-kru Yary has been such an asset to us Cambodians not only in Lowell, but all over the United States and the world. His work is quite unique and speaks for itself.”

“The film was well-received and showed what a true and unique artist he is. He is a master at his crafts. It also showed how much he persevered and was true to his love and passion for Cambodian art. He is a true inspiration to the Khmer community and all other people who fortunate enough to have met and worked with him,” said Theng.

Middlesex was honored to have held the event in Lowell where Livan lives and works, according to Dona Cady, MCC’s Professor of Humanities.“Yary is a national and community treasure whose passion for teaching and preserving the Cambodian artistic form yet also reimagining it, illustrates the power of art and culture to inspire and educate,” Cady said. “His work touches the soul.”

Cambodian Refugee Monument in front of Lowell City Hall. Photo taken during Folk Festival in 2019. Photo from Yary Livan’s Facebook.

Livan’s distinguished piece of artwork stands in front of Lowell’s city hall as the first Cambodian Refugee Monument in America, which was commissioned for Livan to build  and erected in September 2017.

“I am so pleased to see Yary and his work highlighted in this documentary film,” said Matthew Olson, MCC’s Dean of Humanities. “It is important to understand that Yary is one of the last surviving practitioners of this traditional Cambodian art form. We are proud to have him on our teaching staff, continuing this tradition with new generations and all across our community.”

Livan studied Khmer traditional ceramics and architectural ornamentation at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh in 1971, according to Margaret Rack, retired MCC Chair of Art and Design and current adjunct faculty member.

“Cambodian design, or Khmer Kbach, is a thousand-year-old tradition of ornamentation – it decorates objects and architectural surfaces throughout Cambodia and in the diaspora,” Rack said. “It is passed on as an oral tradition, with scant written scholarship except for the collection of examples. Even in Cambodia today, students trying to learn Kback mostly copy forms without knowing the many intricacies of meaning, nor how to distinguish designs that are distinctly Khmer compared to neighboring countries. This is largely the legacy of the Cambodian genocide, as there are few surviving master artists.”

Livan’s Ceramic Workshop with Lowell Public School Teacher in 2019. Photo from Yary Livan’s Facebook.

Rack is at the forefront of sharing Livan and his work with the community of Lowell. In partnership with Livan and Lowell Public School Art Teacher Jacqui Miller, Rack participated in a 2016 Fulbright Hayes Group Project to Cambodia and has helped organize the classes Livan teaches to Lowell public school teachers.

Her most recent project ­– supported by a grant from the Lowell Cultural Council – is in collaboration with Joe Eiler, MCC’s Graphic Design Program Coordinator, to introduce classic Cambodian designs into an adult coloring book.

The project will feature descriptive definitions to “both educate and enchant” to go along with Livan’s hand drawn ink illustrations Eiler helped format to print, according to Rack. Miller will help with distribution, which will also be offered to local schools and community groups, and sold in Spring 2022.

Middlesex students have the opportunity to learn ceramics from Livan, working on hands-on projects and practicing techniques. At the end of the course, Livan brings his classes to the Cambodian Kiln located in the Lowell National Historic Park to finish their artwork.