BY ISHKHAN JINBASHIAN
* Jeff Ryan is NK Art’s frontman for reactivating Karabakh’s ceramics industry.
Jeff Ryan loves to play with fire. And he loves throwing pots. He even makes a living teaching his techniques to peace-loving fanciers of flame and clay. Above all else–Jeff Ryan loves to take the road less traveled. Credit this for taking him to Jingdezhen–China–and the woods of Kentucky. Next stop: Nungi village–Karabakh–where Ryan will do his bidding as anything but a tourist–and for an entire year at that. But what does a nice guy from West Virginia have anything whatsoever to do with the mountainous Armenian republic–a place few Americans have heard or could care about?
In a very real sense–Jeff Ryan may be seen as one step closer to making good on the promise of NK Arts (short for Nagorno Karabakh Arts and Music Festival). Established two years ago through an impassioned synergy between the government of Karabakh and a handful of visionary individuals in the Diaspora–NK Arts is about helping heal the republic’s postwar landscape through artistic empowerment–cultural rejuvenation and exchanges–and economic development. Here’s a war cry that has taken no time to grow on a diverse demographic from Stepanakert to Los Angeles: "Art as the technology of the soul." It was coined by NK Arts founder and director Neery Melkonian; it is now shared by many who would like to see Karabakh on the world’s cultural rather than military map. Among NK Arts’ major and immediate objectives is to revitalize Karabakh’s cottage industries–including ceramics production–which is–or was–centered in a village called Nungi. The village has an old kiln that needs breathing fire into–and a workshop that needs the tender loving care of a good carpenter and builder. Beyond these basics–the reactivation of ceramics production in Nungi will require actual hands–namely qualified apprentices who will go on to become master ceramists in their own right.
Enter Adam Zayas and Jeff Ryan. An internationally renowned ceramist with a keen eye for local particularities–Zayas has worked in art communities in South America and elsewhere. He is entrusted with steering Nungi’s ceramics reactivation process in the right direction–which means having an advisory role vis–vis Ryan; consulting with the government of Karabakh regarding the launch of a brick-making industry; and helping make those executive decisions when the time is ripe to pick and choose and market the ceramics ware produced in Nungi. Ryan will be the man in the field. At 30–he is possessed of the archetypal American spirit of movement–discovery and invention that will become quite handy in Karabakh if you consider he doesn’t speak a word of Armenian–must make do with a $100 monthly stipend–and learn to trade the comforts of four wheels with the wobbly languor of a Karabakh-bred donkey not that he could care less. "I’ve come to compare Karabakh to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia," he says. "Like the children who walk into the wardrobe–I am excited and anxious beyond words. The language barrier will be my biggest obstacle–but I hope I’ll have the ability to transcend it."
After earning a BFA in ceramics from West Virginia University–Ryan traveled to China in 1995–through an international ceramics summer school program. The sojourn gave him the opportunity to work in a traditional porcelain studio and fire traditional wood fire kilns. He also studied ancient pottery making techniques throughout his stops at landmark pottery villages. On his return home–Ryan moved to Kentucky–where he rented a property with two wood kilns and a studio. He lived there for a year and half making pots–firing kilns–and teaching classes to adults and children. Since 1997–he has taught pottery classes with the Louisville Visual Art Association.
Ryan didn’t have to think twice when early this year word reached him–through a mutual friend–that Zayas was looking for a ceramist dedicated and crazy enough to work in Karabakh for a year. The young ceramist came highly recommended–and when he met Zayas in April–the latter knew he had the right man for the job. Zayas went on to brief Ryan on the peculiar requiremen’s and challenges of the Nungi village project–and the two craftsmen will have extensive preparatory work sessions before Ryan leaves for Karabakh in September. Ryan’s job entails renovating the Nungi village ceramics workshop and kiln; making these fully operational–with the first firing of the kiln expected to take place in October; and training and working with half a dozen apprentices to make souvenirs and functional ware–with an eye to marketing these products locally and internationally down the line. Ryan will also document the entire process–keeping a work diary–preparing weekly reports for Zayas and Melkonian–and videotaping much of the project.
"For a potter–this is a dream come true," he explains. "To step back and make vessels as potters made them some 400 years before. To document this process in hopes that 400 years from now people will be able to do the same. I went to school to learn for myself how to make pots. This is a chance for me to use my skills for something other than just my own personal gain." It’s the wide-eyed boy from West Virginia talking. Father coal miner–mother baker. Humble background–exuberant vision. Karabakh’s star is shining bright indeed.
"This project will undoubtedly mark me for life," Ryan says. "Not only will I make friends who I will remember forever. Not only will the work I do in Nungi influence my own approach to working in clay. Not only will I return with an understanding of a part of the world that up till six months ago I had no concept of. But I’ll have the notion that I had a hand in helping people enrich their lives either economically–by providing them with a skill to produce pottery–or better yet–spiritually–by giving them a connection to their past and means to preserve their culture for future generations. I am actually looking forward to being far removed from the commercialism of the US and to have the luxury of not understanding the language of advertisemen’s."
NK Arts and Music Festival is organized by NK 2001–Inc.–a not for profit corporation–in association with the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic–Ministry of Culture–Youth–and Sports Affairs.
To get involved–contribute and learn more about NK Arts activities and projects–please call (212) 591-2569 or write to 1369 Madison Ave #112–New York–NY 10128.