Master ceramist protects Khmer pottery traditions as lifetime legacy

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Harvard graduate ceramics professor Yary Livan, 67, has pottery displayed in museums in Washington DC and Boston. SUPPLIED

Like many who survived the nightmare years living under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, Yary Livan emerged from the experience secretly carrying with him some portion of the Khmer culture’s traditional knowledge and skills that Cambodia’s new leaders were trying to violently erase in order to reset society so they could implement their version of totalitarian communism.

The most important cultural knowledge that Livan was safeguarding personally turned out to be his expertise with traditional Khmer ceramic designs and pottery, something that was already a rarity back in 1971 when he began attending the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) as a ceramics major.

Then the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and Year Zero was proclaimed. Everything old had to be discarded or destroyed in order to force everyone into accepting the Khmer Rouge’s mad plans to remake Cambodia as fait accompli.

“Back then, if we told [the Khmer Rouge] that we were college students – absolutely – we would have been killed. But if we could convince them that we were blue-collar and worked as a plumber or carpenter – as long as it wasn’t school related – they would let us go.

“I decided to tell them that I’d just learned to draw. My father was a teacher but we said he was a machinist. My mom was luckier – she got to keep her profession – because she actually was a very good tailor. She made really great hats. That was how we survived until 1979, when the regime ended and I was finally able to continue my studies,” Livan tells The Post.

Livan graduated from university and got married in 1984. His family was just a few people out of the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians turned into refugees who ended up living in camps along the border with Thailand after fleeing from the brutality of the Khmer Rouge or the violence of war when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and swept them from power.

“We moved to the refugee camp at Chonburi in Thailand until everything settled down and then we moved back to Cambodia in 1988. Upon returning, I had no job prospects secured at all and I just worked here and there, sometimes for NGOs and sometimes drawing portraits at the pagoda to earn a little money. It wasn’t until later on – 2001 – that I moved to the US,” Livan says.

The veteran ceramist says he felt very welcome in Lowell, Massachusetts, which has one of the largest Cambodian communities in the US. About 13 per cent of Lowell’s residents are Cambodian-Americans.

Livan has the sad distinction of being the only master Khmer ceramist in the US and some experts believe he was one of just three Khmer potters good enough to be considered masters who survived the genocide.

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Now a resident of Lowell, Massachusetts, Livan makes ceramic pottery following the ancient Khmer design traditions that he first studied here at RUFA in 1971. SUPPLIED

Livan’s talents with ceramics are considerable – they won him a scholarship in ceramics at Harvard University after he immigrated to the US and today he’s a ceramics professor on the faculty at two schools: University of Massachusetts – Lowell and Middlesex Community College.

Back in 2015, Livan was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Heritage Fellowship, which is the “highest honor the US government awards in the folk and traditional arts.” The NEA is a US federal government agency established in 1965 to support and fund projects in the arts.

According to the NEA, the heritage fellowships are “awarded to those artists who work to preserve their traditions within the larger American culture, creating bold, new hybrids of artistic forms while maintaining the traditions that make the art form significant.”

Livan used the NEA grant money to fund the training of apprentices in Khmer ceramic arts to continue the mission forced on him by circumstance back in 1975 – but it hasn’t been easy to find students with his level of passion for pottery.

“Kids nowadays are impatient. They’re more into computers or digital art rather than things that are solid and directly handmade that old people like me prefer. I’ve trained a few Khmer students, but so far none of them have been sufficiently committed – other than my sons, who have turned out to be my best apprentices,” Livan says.

Livan feels he must be cautious about the style of ceramics he produces because of the role he has protecting Khmer pottery and ceramics traditions. He says it is easy for even advanced ceramics students to confuse Khmer and Thai styles of pottery, which are similar to each other – but not the same.

“I would hate it if our Khmer arts turned into something that couldn’t be identified or if it lost its authenticity. I want to maintain what is distinct about the real ancient Khmer ceramics traditions. That is why the American government values and supports my work after all – because I am helping to preserve ancient Khmer arts and culture,” Livan says.

The ceramics professor says he’s thankful for every moment of life he has been blessed with given how easily it all could have come to an abrupt end back in the 1970’s as was the fate of so many of his friends, family and fellow students at RUFA.

“Every time I complete any of my ceramics pieces it brings a smile to my face because it feels like something that was lost has now been found again. A little piece of the past gets resurrected,” Livan says.

He says that he’s had plenty of opportunities to showcase his artwork and on the occasions that he’s put items up for auction or sale he’s been very proud to see the high prices collectors have paid for his work, but it’s sometimes tough for him to let go of his creations.

“Honestly – if I were a millionaire, I would not sell any of them. But I arrived in America empty-handed and I have to earn money to provide for my family so I do sell them and I ease my regrets by reminding myself that these people are buying them and paying good money because they love ceramics in the same way that I do and I’m getting to share that with them.

“… But some things I’m still just not willing to ever sell,” Livan says with a laugh.

After 40 years as a ceramist he can say for certain that anyone who is looking to make money should try a different career path because the traditional arts find their value mostly in people’s love and appreciation for them rather than in cold hard cash. At this point he lives a comfortable life and money is not his concern, rather his legacy and the continuation of Khmer ceramics is what’s on his mind.

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One of just three known master potters to survive the Khmer Rouge genocide, Livan was honoured with an NEA Heritage Fellowship in 2015 for his life’s work. SUPPLIED

“Now, in America, as far as I know I’m the only Cambodian potter with enough skill to be regarded as a master because I can produce anything to a high standard of quality and I understand what I’m doing well-enough to teach it to others. However, I’m already in my sixties and I’m really afraid that if something happens to me there will be no heir to my knowledge and skills,” says Livan.

All is not lost quite yet, though, because Livan still lives – and so do his sons, who continue to learn more each day.

They’ve come up with a plan to hold a Khmer ceramics and pottery exhibition to promote the art form and that aspect of Khmer cultural heritage to Cambodians and the rest of the world.

Right now the exhibition is in the early planning stages and he’s looking for individuals or institutions to finance it as well as other Khmer ceramists to participate, ideally. He plans to first hold the exhibition in the US and then bring it to Cambodia.

Livan says that it won’t take long to put the whole project together and he expects it will take definite shape over the next year and be held within the next two years.

He is confident that it will happen because he’s had a lot of experience with past exhibitions and he has the serious establishment-approved credibility as an academic and an artist that will enable him to enlist the support of the larger arts organizations and backers in the US.

“I can’t give you an exact time frame, but rest assured – it will definitely happen. I love America because people here are always very supportive of other people’s grand ideas and if you put enough effort into something you’ll always find some way to promote it and get the necessary financing.

“It’s sad to say, but honestly [the US government] seems to value and support the preservation of Khmer culture more than some Cambodians do. But I’d like to help change that and I think an exhibition to celebrate the beauty of Khmer ceramics and pottery hosted by Cambodia is a good first step,” Livan says

For more information Yary Livan can be contacted via his Facebook page web.facebook.com/yary.livan