Making it Better Just Got Better!

The James A. Michener Art Museum‘s upcoming exhibit, Making it Better: Folk Arts in Pennsylvania Today is better because we now have more details on the “Celebration of Pennsylvania Folk Arts” for June 12.

Chamroeun Yin, a Cambodian dancer and costume maker,
Vera Nakonechny, a Ukrainian embroider, weaver and beadworker, and Frito Bastien, a Haitian painter, will visit the Museum June 12, 1-5 pm, to offer demonstrations of their work. There will also be gallery tours. This event is free with admission.

Chamroeun Yin was born in the province of Battambang, Cambodia, in 1957. He received his initial training in Khmer folk arts from his father, a carpenter and cabinetmaker who crafted the ritual furniture and objects needed for weddings and in Buddhist temples, as well as everyday artifacts. His father was a musician, and Mr. Yin developed a knowledge and appreciation of music and dance in these early years.

Through an apprenticeship with a cousin, he became a tailor and dressmaker crafting Khmer traditional clothes. His talents were further developed in the Khao I Dang refugee camp in Thailand, to which he escaped in 1979. There, he encountered classically trained court musicians and dancers who recruited young people for classes in Cambodian art and culture. Soon he became, in his words, “crazy for dancing.” While other people in the camps worked to earn extra money for food, Mr. Yin spent his days practicing the disciplined art of court dance. What money he earned as a tailor in the camp he spent not on food, but on fabric and materials to make the elaborately beaded dance costumes for the group’s performances.

Mr. Yin came to America as an artistic refugee as part of the Khmer Classical Dance Troupe, which toured the nation to great acclaim in 1981-1982. The troupe settled in the Washington, D.C., area but eventually disbanded as artists had to find ways of making a living. Mr. Yin moved to Philadelphia in 1989. Here he works in several mediums. He is a teang ka, or “ritual beautician,” someone who creates wedding costumes and makes the bride and groom “beautiful like the king and queen.” He teaches Khmer court dance and mask-making to Khmer youth, and performs regularly. He continues to develop his artistry, devising new ways to make items such as dance crowns out of laminated cardboard and papier mâché, and adding to the community’s growing collection of dance costumes.

Through dance, sculpture, choreography, teaching, performances, and weddings, Mr. Yin tries to explore and communicate Cambodian values, creating “movements that show you what is polite or rude, beautiful or ugly.” He dances with passion and delicacy, and with a sense of the importance of keeping alive the fragile threads of Khmer dance tradition: “I dance because I want to keep my culture. I want this dance to stay alive forever in the future.”

Vera Nakonechny came to the United States as a teenager, and continued studying the various techniques of Ukrainian embroidery her mother had taught her as a young girl. She soon became a part of the strong Ukrainian-American community in Pennsylvania where she expanded her skills as an embroiderer. After the Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, Vera was able to return to her homeland where she conducted archival research about folk art traditions, and studied with master craftspeople. She has researched and taught embroidery, beadwork, weaving, and other traditional forms related to textiles and adornment, and volunteers as a teacher of these arts at community sites and at the Ukrainian Heritage Studies Center at Manor College. Vera is also a professional masseuse, having studied in Europe where, she explains, “Massage is integrated into people’s idea of how to take care of themselves, of how to prevent illness. Doctors even refer their patients to massage therapists.” Her needlework has been displayed in recent exhibitions at the Down Jersey Folklife Center, and at the Philadelphia Folklore Project.

Read an article about how Vera brought the traditional Ukrainian embroidery technique back to the village where her mother grew up here.

From the time he was a young boy, Frito Bastien has been fascinated by drawing and has devoted every spare moment to this passion. Born in 1954 in Jacmel, a coastal town on Haiti’s southern peninsula, Mr. Bastien began working on canvas at thirteen, when the well-known Haitian painter Célestin Faustin took him under his wing. The Bastien family moved to Port-au-Prince in 1969, where the young artist continued his schooling and learned the crafts of cabinet making and carpentry. These remained his main source of income through most of the 1980s, when he occasionally combined his skills to produce decorated furniture.

In late 1991, Mr. Bastien’s political activities made him a target of Haiti’s dreaded paramilitary forces, the tontons-mâcoute. When two of his colleagues were assassinated, he was forced into hiding, then into exile. Only months after his arrival in Philadelphia did Mr. Bastien learn that his wife and children had survived and were living in Port-au-Prince.

In Philadelphia, he began to paint again. After suffering a severe job-related injury, he now paints full-time. Mr. Bastien’s development as a painter, his artistic style, and the thematic content of his luminous paintings are all part of an artistic tradition that has flourished in Haiti since the 1940s. Célestin Faustin provided him with minimal technical training; his main role was to encourage and support Mr. Bastien in developing his innate talents. This style of mentoring parallels the approach taken by Haiti’s influential Centre d’Art, founded in 1944 in Port-au-Prince.

Mr. Bastien’s paintings have an unmistakable Haitian stamp. He paints mostly from his imagination and his memory of the life and mountainous landscapes of rural Haiti. Much of his work illustrates in remarkable detail the customs and rituals of his homeland. His subject matter and clear, brilliant colors reflect a regional style characteristic of the south of Haiti, where Mr. Bastien grew up. Although many of his paintings evoke joyful memories of his homeland, several include details that subtly introduce an element of violence, evil, or danger into an apparently idyllic scene. This, too, was a strategy traditionally employed by Haitian artists, who could not safely voice opposition to a repressive regime. Popular singers and painters often used such forms of coding to express themselves on political matters.

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