Sunday, June 28, 2009

SEASSI: Week Two

When I go to Cambodia, I will find this book.

It has been an extremely exciting week, because we are now able to put together words and sentences in Khmer, read some, and we are starting to work on our independent study projects. Whenever I slowly work my way through words I get a thrill of excitement (maybe this is what I felt like in kindergarten when I was learning how to read and write English). Each collection of symbols and characters are a little puzzle I get to decipher. Sometimes when I figure it out it's a word I already know and it's a wonderfully comfortable feeling. Sometimes it's a word I don't know, and I learn. Sometimes, I'm completely off in what I figure out, and I learn even more.

When we first started, the Director of the SEASSI program said it would be an emotional experience. The first chapter of our textbook said this would be an emotional experience. It said Heritage students are carrying "emotional baggage" that non-native speakers are not. I didn't quite believe it then, but perhaps it's true. We watched a movie about the Buddhist Peace March in Cambodia, and seeing the aftermath of the war was hard to handle. I noticed the only people with tears in their eyes were the Khmers or the Khmer-Americans in the room.

We also watched New Year Baby, a documentary about a Khmer-American woman's rediscovery and reconciliation with her family and her family's past. (Once again, probably to be expected, the ones most affected by the movie were the Khmer-Americans in the room.) There were several very awkward moments... points where I would not have wanted to video tape my parents or points that seemed contrived or over-directed. There is critique of how the movie was directed (click on the "aman_1117.pdf" link), suggesting that when Socheata was caught in between being a daughter and being a director, she directed more than she let things unravel as they would naturally unravel. More important than the objectivity of the piece, however (which you could say is arguable in any documentary - especially one where the director is one of the main characters) I think it tells a very important story. It ends with a message of healing, heroism and love, rather than suffering, silence and anger.

The director has a very interesting project in progress right now, similar to StoryCorps, but called Khmer Legacies. Its mission is to begin the difficult dialogue between Khmer-American children and their parents and to document those stories. It is something I've wanted to do with my parents for years. Since I was a child my dad always told me, "One day, you are going to tell my story, but only when you're older."

I feel like that day is coming soon.

Cambodian Dinner and Dance Party at sunset.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

SEASSI: Week One

My Teachers, Nek Kruu, Lok Kruu Frank, Lok Kruu Kheang

The first week is done. The Khmer group is divided into sections, Beginning (those with no or very little background in Khmer), Intermediate Upper Level (those with knowledge of written language, but need practice in speaking), Intermediate Accelerated (namely Heritage Khmer-Americans like me who speak, but have little to no experience in reading or writing Khmer), and Advanced (there is only one student in this section). The teachers rotate to each group, so we all get exposure to different teaching styles and voices.

The four of us Heritage students, practicing the alphabet during break.

I had no knowledge of the Khmer alphabet before starting, but after four and a half days of study and exercise, I am familiar with all the consonants and vowels, but have yet to learn the sounds of the second series vowels and all the grammar and diacritics that go along with written Khmer. I am also quite bad at transcribing spoken Khmer. When I first looked at them all, they looked like pieces of toast and spaghetti. Here is a taste:

Khmer Consonants

As I grew up in New Hampshire, I didn't get the benefit of a strong Khmer culture. Some other students in this program are focusing in Southeast Asian studies, there are white people who speak better than me, and there are other Khmer-Americans who are the presidents of their Khmer-Culture clubs at school, have learned traditional dance since childhood, and have even organized and directed Cambodian plays. Sometimes it feels like I am more American-Khmer than Khmer-American, and in terms of personal culture and heritage, it makes me feel a little embarassed. Then, I remind myself, I am here to learn all this - and so I do.

Learning the stretches for Khmer dance at our Welcome SEASSI 2009 Reception

Lok Kruu Kheang and Gina demonstrating a dance for Culture Hour.
We all danced afterward.

We have two hours of "Culture" where we will learn about music, dance, food, lifestyle, religion, etc. A lot of Cambodian pop songs are about guys trying to pick up girls and failing. I could not find a youtube example for the one we listened to in class, but there is a popular group now called Dengue Fever. We watched "Sleepwalking through the Mekong" - a documentary of their first tour playing in Cambodia. They are a West Coast group, representing a fusion between surfer-rock and older Khmer songs. The singer is Khmer, only having lived in the states for 5 years or so.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Summer Studies: Madison at a Glance

After 20 hours in an Amtrak train and 3 hours on a bus, I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, Wednesday the 10th. With no commitments until Sunday the 14th, every moment has been non-stop adventuring to better know this city I've never been to before. With every new discovery, I realize how amazing the place is.

Within the first mile I walked from campus to home I came across a man commuting on a unicycle and people in the James Madison Park doing Pilobus-style partner-yoga-balancing moves and people walking a tightrope between two trees. Over the next few days I spent an evening with a group of people who spin poi and hula hoops (who taught me some cool tricks), met a guy who used to spin poi and breathe fire at (strip) club, and met a father-son pair who walk on stilts of assorted styles for a living and collects vintage/art bicycles. Also, the father does the German Wheel and the son went to Circus camp (so he juggles, stilt walks, etc. etc.). I know I am in the right place.

Madison looks like a barbell of land (a.k.a. an isthmus) in between two lakes. It's the capital of Wisconsin, and you can get almost anywhere you need to go and beyond via Madison's network of bike lanes and bike paths. There is an incredible bike culture here, racers, recreational riders, hip riders, family riders, commuters, etc. etc. My apartment is across the street from a park that overlooks Lake Mendota, and it's especially stunning at sunset. There are many parks, many rail-trails, and it's very bike/walk friendly. The downtown State St. is reserved for pedestrians, bikes and buses, and there are impressive sight lines to the State Capitol Building.

Bike Paths in Madison: All the green lines are Bike-only, or at least Bike-priority, lanes

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Education and UNC-CH, I'll be studing Cambodian this summer (FLAS Grant). It's the equivalent of one year of study in eight weeks, so it promises to be very intense. The Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute (SEASSI) is one of the only places in the US that teaches Cambodian, and they also teach Hmong, Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, Burmese, Indonesian, Filipino, and Javanese. It's important for my heritage, and it will be important in the future work I do.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

NCECA 2009: Unwrap/Wrap

Smoked Apricot Teapot and Cups

Watershed 6: Unwrap/Wrap
Hyatt Regency Gallery, Curtis Room B
National Council for the Education of the Ceramic Arts (NCECA
Show Dates: 8 - 11 April 2009
Description of show: Unwrap/Wrap is an exhibition of the six emerging artists from the 2007 - 2008 Watershed Residency year.Each artist’s work explores their individual interpretations of identity, through sculpture, installation, and utilitarian forms.

My individual interpretation of "Unwrap/Wrap"? Honest naked pots. Some Terra Sig, some blushing from salt and fire, and you've got some warm, silky smooth cups to cradle in your hands. Without a slide booth to shoot proper images of these pots, some others ones that were of the same body of work will have to suffice.

Ivy Tumblers

Overall it was a very good show! Maybe not the most ideal setting - with beige-gold walls, gaudy green and gold carpet and oversized pictures of Indians in the wild West bolted to the walls, but the work was good. We were so caught up in the action that we didn't take good pictures of the whole show set up or at the opening.

Still, here are some quick shots (compliments of Krisaya):

Sitting at the table

Some of my work (unorganized)

Close up of Elisavet's work

Adero Williard's Pillows

Misty Gamble

Krisaya's Happy Homes

A Memoir from the Watershed Year:

Earlier this year I wrote an article that was posted on the website. It was, honestly, rather difficult to write. I really think the Watershed experience, likely similar to any other residency program, is a direct result of the people who are there. How could I describe the experiences of six people living and working together for eight months in 1500 words or less and do it justice? I tried. The only thing I can say is that Watershed is an amazing place - it is an experience beyond words.

If the link ceases to work, the article is as follows:

Watershed: Eight Months, Six Lives, One Shared Experience

Monica Leap

Tucked away down a dirt road in Mid-Coast Maine, the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts is a place that "provides time and space for serious artists to work." Leaving out the distractions of public classes, work study, bureaucracy of operations, and the pace of city life, Watershed does exactly what it proposes. Artists are given cabins to live in, facilities and kilns, a personal studio space, and lots of snow; there is not much else. Home to six ceramic artists for eight months (September - May), the challenges and the outcomes of each residency cycle is determined by those selected.

Tyler Gulden, Programs Director and Interim Executive Director, said that the 2007 - 2008 collection of six resident artists was the most diverse group he has seen during his tenure. Our group ranged in age from twenty-two to forty, three with MFA's and three with BFA's. In addition, we had strong roots spread from California to Texas, the East Coast, Greece, Ecuador, Thailand, Cambodia, and Africa. The 2007-2008 residents included:

* Misty Gamble, daughter of a puppeteer, created life-sized figurative sculptures; she explored ideas of normalcy in society and womanhood.
* Monica Leap, a potter at heart, played with the simplicity of the calligraphic line to convey growth, strength, and movement on her thrown forms.
* Krisaya Luenganantakul, hailing from Thailand and inspired by her mother, illustrated the beauty of the woman's body and the role of the woman in the home.
* Elisavet Papatheodorou, intrigued by the process bees use to create homes of honeycomb, entertained the ability of a seemingly ordinary form, multiplied hundreds of times over, to become something greater.
* Daniel Teran, a mold maker and thinker, combined issues of social conscience and self-reflection into his process.
* Adero Willard, a potter, investigated the complexity of an individual's identity through layered and juxtaposed colors, shapes, and forms.

"The Watershed winter residency is really about reflection. We are isolated, and more often than not, snowed in. There is not much sound, the snow muffles most things. That leaves you a lot of time to work and a lot of time to think." says Elisavet Papatheodorou. In a rural setting with an often snowy and icy hill for a driveway, the world became very small. Days would pass where residents would only walk the triangle from the cabins, to the studio, to the kilns, to the studio, and back; that limited environment was a constant reminder that residents were there to make work. As there was little structure, besides the occasional meeting with the office staff and one's self imposed work schedule, residents used their own discretion allocating time. Salad Days Artist Adero Willard described Watershed as a place "designed specifically for artists to make work. Unlike other centers that have a class structure with workshops, events, and lots of people moving through, Watershed is very much about solitude and freedom. From your schedule, to studio, to food, you are on your own."

Due to its open structure and seasonal seclusion, visitors have often found the charm of Watershed to be in its seemingly timeless nature. However, winter residents quickly learned that time still passed, and passed fast. Howard Kottler Funded Resident Misty Gamble said, "If I were to do it again, I would have the clay delivered the day I got here and the research done 3 months prior." Once we were established in the studios, we had to prepare for a Worcester, Massachusetts show, and once the Worcester show was up, we had to prepare for a Port Chester, New York show. When that went up, the Worcester show came down, and when we returned from NCECA in the spring, we had to de-install Port Chester. One month after that it was time to pack and say goodbye.

Although all we did last winter was work in the studios, the residency period was still not enough to realize all of our grand ideas. For each of us, there is a sketchbook full of ideas left to be investigated. Even though we walked in with an "all clay, all the time" mentality, we learned how much is possible in eight months. Essentially, there were two different approaches to our studio work ethic. Elisavet and the MFA students, Misty, Krisaya, and Adero, took one approach. Each had a clear idea of what they would make, figured out how much time it would take to make, and then planned each month out around shows and other obligations. Daniel and I took a more exploratory attitude by allowing the discoveries found through making educate the next study or series. In either case, each of us developed a daily rhythm - some people became nocturnal, some worked sixteen hour days, while others worked steady eight to ten hour days all the way through.

Choreographing how to live, work, eat and travel together took a collective effort. In addition to writing and submitting show proposals, we installed and de-installed group shows, and prepped and fired a wood kiln. Also, we taught on-site for a mentorship program, and off-site for the Mudmobile Program, which required tactful task delegation and follow through. An even greater testament to our collaborative skills is the fact that Watershed only has one hookup for electric firings in the winter. Come crunch time at the end of the residency, developing a firing schedule took planning, negotiation, and compromise.

A large part of our success was a result of how well we got to know each other. Misty Gamble entered the residency, "expecting more solitude" but instead, "made more friends." We were fortunate in the sense that we bonded like sisters and brothers. We cooked and baked together, ate and exercised together, shared movies, shared stories, and essentially, our lives. A daily battle of 'time to work' vs. 'time to bond' perpetuated in the communal kitchen, and, thus, the kitchen became grounds for a phenomenon whereby a critical mass of three or more people caused all concerned to remain for another two hours. We often found ourselves talking all evening. Conversations generally divided themselves into two categories - 3% art and 97% life.

These times in the kitchen served as the setting for the start of many of the inside jokes and stories we'll remember from Watershed. Saturday Night Dinners gained new meaning once the winter took hold of Maine; each Saturday we would create a meal with a theme, multiple courses and an assortment of desserts. Cooking from scratch, we shared the responsibility of planning, buying, making, cleaning, and, of course, eating. These dinners revealed some of our skills outside studio; Elli sang with a voice that gave reason for us take a moment's respite from our busy schedules, Adero baked Anadama bread that welcomed us to the kitchen, Misty concocted the best salads - Fake-O's and all, Krisaya prepared amazing Thai cuisine, and I made desserts galore. With so many great cooks in the house, Daniel ate the most. All these sounds, scents, flavors and memories made Watershed home.

During our time at Watershed, we never scheduled a critique. Instead, they came naturally at times after a firing, before or during a show, or late at night in the studios. As we lived and worked together, dialogue about work came without effort and without reservations. The feedback flowed spontaneously, simply, and informally. There were few boundaries because we developed mutual respect and honesty. Under those circumstances, critiques were not challenges of personality, but rather educated discussion of meaningful issues.

This isn't to say that there were not conflicts or differing opinions. Seen with positive eyes, Paptheodorou observed that "one of the most valuable things about being here is that when you are working through a problem, you have five different perspectives and potential solutions that would never have occurred to you." Each person had a unique background of experiences and education that had shaped their character and their work. As such, each person brought completely different perspectives and feedback throughout the winter remained insightful and encouraging.

Sharing work space with such motivated individuals served as incentive to keep pushing as hard or harder than everyone else. It was an unspoken influence, a kind of casual competition. Each person understood the importance and the limitations of time, and worked diligently. Because we worked so differently from one another, our competition hardly took on negative aspects in the studio. The same went for our post-Watershed plans; we all took very different paths.

In the end, we came to understand more of what we value about our lives as artists. In many ways, what one person said about their own experience applied to each of us, as we shared many similar reasons in pursuing art. Adero mentioned the freedom of flexibility in schedule, and cited the ability to go to the grocery store when everyone else is at work as a simple, but meaningful, pleasure. Daniel said of his purpose, "I want to share what I see as beautiful with other people. I really like making poetry in clay, and if I could communicate solely through objects, I think things would make more sense to me." For Elisavet, being an artist provided order to an otherwise "dreamy and disorganized" life. She said being an artist allowed the expression of "things deep in your psyche that don't usually come out. For some it is sadness, aggression, or sexuality. For me, it is order." For me, it was the people. The ceramics community enticed me my first year at Syracuse, and the community continues to be one of the most exciting things about being a part of the field. It was as if my full time job was to meet people, with the benefit that the people I met were amazing individuals, interesting, intelligent, and very human. Misty goes further to say, "Everyone is different and everyone is a mirror. If you take the time to get to know people, you can learn more about yourself."

Even though Watershed was almost everything the six of us were looking for in a residency, it is not for everyone. Our creative and personal lives were intertwined, though not the same. The Watershed Residency left us tired yet excited, in solitude yet with community, obligated yet free. Selected to live and work together, nolens volens, we learned about ourselves, we learned about others, and we learned about art.


The Watershed Center for Ceramic Art
19 Brick Hill Road
Newcastle, Maine 04553

Monica Leap

Elisavet Papatheodorou

Daniel Ricardo Teran

Misty Gamble

Adero Willard

Krisaya Luenganantakul

Monday, January 19, 2009

Taking Down the Ivy Wall



Sad but, it's life. To those who never got to see it, it was a hanging tapestry of about 365 sake dishes that was about 11 feet tall and each was decorated with black and white brushwork with warm bare clay included as part of the design. It made its debut in Worcester, MA, traveled to Boston, MA and then one June morning in 2008 was found in a pile on the floor.

It was born of the self reflection inspired from Maine's deepest winter months. It was a time of realization of and reflection on a good number of my faults, and it was a time of getting over those things. There is a teacher told me about how classic architects used to tell their students to plant ivy at the base of their first buildings so that when they grew older and more experienced designers the ivy would grow to cover up their old mistakes. The sake dish installation became a sort of self portrait of my change during that time. The designs painted on all the dishes were reminiscent of ivy on a wall, covering up the old faults. In spending the hours making, painting, firing and them weaving them all together I had time to meditate on what all that meant to me at the time.

Before I went to Watershed I made narrative pottery about the things I couldn't put to words, but when I got to Watershed I found I couldn't draw them anymore. I started making straight functional pottery, and after a little foray here and there I started throwing 75-100 a day, and ended up with about 1,000. (I actually have a few hundred of them finished and not in my closet here in Carrboro.) The remaining hundreds were going to be a part of another project. I was a bit shocked and disappointed when I first heard they had fallen (poor design on my part) and I didn't have a chance to see to them or think about them until going back to NH January 2009.

In sorting through them all, I strongly believe that it served its purpose (and my dad corrected me when I told him this, saying that it served many purposes, and he'd really right). When I was sorting out the unscathed, the slightly chipped, and the pieces into their respective piles, I thought about what they meant. As a whole, they told a story and they made a statement - and I suppose that was probably different for each person who saw it. Now that story is finished (and it's true, that piece represented a certain period of my life - a self portrait - and the getting over the flaws of the past self. Kind of a statement and reminder to constantly growing and not dwelling in looking back). You could see each dish as a word, or a letter, and now they can be reorganized to tell a different story... the story of who I am now. I suppose it's really only fitting that it fell - a true casting away of the past.

The final count is 138 solid dishes, 80 slightly chipped, and the rest - well, don't worry about those. I've actually taken a liking to the pieces that were broken. There are sections of the tapestry that, even though the dishes in the section broke, are held together by the weaving of the fishing line and can be fitted together to form the dish again. Through all the mess - there are still survivors.

Following Intuition: An explaination of my disappearance

You may have noticed I have not been posting regularly and have not been as active in the studios with new work. Rest assured, I am in no means "giving up" or "selling out" or anything superficial like that. To give a long overdue explanation and to let you know the extent of this pause in activity, let me tell you a story.

Short story: I am currently in a graduate program for City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. As a full time graduate student I honestly cannot allot a respectable amount of time to ceramics and still get my school work done and on top of that sleep enough to remain healthy. As such, I came into this program knowing it would be at least a two year pause from studio work. In fact, it is the first extended period of time since starting to work in clay six or seven years ago I have NOT had a studio at my fingertips.

It's strange, not having that outlet. I've found that I replaced my ceramic studio with a kitchen studio. I bake desserts and I bake bread and I cook as often as my schedule will let me. The discipline I had in the studio has been translated into my "things that keep me sane during the semester" schedule (namely running and Aikido). There were definite creativity dry points when I felt as if I had no outlet and felt out of place, but I am starting to realize how these parts fit together. I'm also comforted by what a farm hand in Roxbury, NY said, "We are fooled into thinking that everything we do needs to be obviously connected." And it's true these things I'm doing aren't obviously connected, but that connection is there, and it's found somewhere deeper than the surface. I'm slowly starting to figure those things out.

Long Story:
Let's go back to my childhood. Here is something I have written that I feel explains my development pretty well, "Raised as a first generation American, I have grown up wanting to better educate myself so that I could assist in making communities such that people didn’t feel the need to leave. My parents came to the U.S. in 1981 from a war-stricken communist Cambodia. They started their life over, with no money, no language comprehension, and my older brother not even a year old, just so he and I could live a better life. They stressed their desire for us to be successful in achieving more than they could, due to their circumstances. As a result, among other values, they have instilled in me a work ethic, a self confidence, and an understanding that this is my one life to live. One of the most influential teachings my father has passed on is that time is my most important asset."

Now, let's go back to Freshman year at Syracuse. Eighteen years old, working in clay for a year, naive to the existence of Sorority girls, and floating on a cloud of optimism about the world and how I was going to change things as a teacher of the Visual Arts. I quickly fell in love with Ceramics and the Ceramics community, and became a ceramics major. However, with every semester that came to pass, I spent the first two weeks looking into other programs, either because I felt there was something missing or because I felt I was at a University with all sorts of things to learn that I wasn't taking advantage of. I have been told I have a fatal flaw of finding nearly everything facinating- to the point of being debiliatated by all the amazing things in the world because I can't focus on one. "Jack of all trades, master of none."

I looked into Psychology, International Development and Social Change, Business, Landscape Architecture, Architecture, and so on. I felt Ceramics was, personally, at times a very self-serving discipline, and I felt my purpose in life (remember this was a younger me talking) must have something more to do with actively working with the community and effecting change. Throughout the years, the things keeping in the Ceramics field was thinking, "It's not what you study, but what you do with what you study that matters." What kept me going was a vision, of sorts.

The intent was to use those skills to transform old warehouses into some form of aesthetic community city space, with bustling artist studios, creative community classrooms, and progressive local businesses. The ultimate goal of this building rehabilitation project was to create settings that fostered community by making visible the relationships between the people, the businesses, and their surrounding environment. While the core intention of creating a greater understanding of an individual’s place in a local and global community still drives me, the more I learn the more I realize how much I do not know and how much more is possible.

Here I am, listening to my intuition for once. I've gotten better at in over the past year. I am learning, expanding my world, and trusting that the clay and the hands and the years of muscle memory will still be there when I find myself with a studio again. No worries. These are all chapters of the same book, and the story is a beautiful one.