Discovering a few of the Upper Peninsula’s living treasures, by Sara Cambensy

When I traveled to Japan to study ceramics during the summer of 2002, I had no idea that I was going to have the chance to meet several National Living Treasures. Given the language barrier, I was confused as to what a National Living Treasure was. Could their culture really assign such a title? Were they actually talking about people who were living and working and doing similar jobs as other people in their country? How would you ever distinguish between them?

As I made my way to the home of one of Japan’s most recognized ceramic artists, my mind was racing with images of what this person looked like and how he lived. I imagined an exceptionally outgoing man decorated with ornate clothing and jewelry, living in an elaborate house with acres of rice fields, gardens and fig trees and a long, winding driveway. A National Living Treasure surely would be rewarded for his talent with lavish riches and privileges. At least, that is what I thought.
Upon arriving at his house, I found a man in his 70s sitting cross-legged on a mat with no shoes and clothing like that of any other ceramic 0701mahworker in Japan. His house was not big, nor was it elaborate. In fact, his house and all his possessions looked similar to the houses nearby. Having all of my preconceived notions quickly shattered, my curiosity shifted to what he does and has done, to earn him one of the highest honors in Japanese culture.
After talking with the man, I learned that he possessed three noteworthy traits that he carried with him throughout his life. The first was passion. He found this at a very young age, and followed his heart when it came to choosing a career. He did not question his choice, nor did he worry about being able to support himself or a family as a ceramic artist. He learned how to do what he loved and lived within his means.
The second trait this National Living Treasure possessed was perseverance. His career was not always easy and not always rewarding monetarily, but he never lost momentum. In Japan, firing a kiln can be like harvesting crops.
Many Japanese fire large Anagama kilns once or twice a year with all of their work inside. One misfire or one mistake when firing a kiln can mean only a handful of pieces of pottery to sell. This not only happened once or twice, but several times to him early in his career. Nonetheless, he kept going.
The final trait is playing the role of teacher. He welcomed many potters to apprentice with him throughout his career, opening his house and studio to them, even when he had no extra room. He invited any interested community members to fire his kiln with him and learn about the Japanese ceramic tradition. He volunteered to teach ceramics to students at the local elementary school one day a week, and he always put one small piece of pottery in his kiln every year from each of the students he taught. He did all of this without being asked. He chose to be a teacher because he believed so strongly about what he did for a living.
Despite all this, it was a small but inventive characteristic he added to his teapots that first earned him his recognition. Due to always having to hold the lid on a teapot when pouring it, he came up with a simple notch-and-turn lid that locked. With the luck of a prominent business man who bought one of his traditional Japanese teapots, his invention of a locking ceramic lid quickly became known all throughout Japan, even to the Prime Minister.
His passion, perseverance and teaching of ceramics eventually were recognized as well as his invention, and there was no question as to why he is truly a National Living Treasure instead of simply being an innovator.
It had been almost five years since I thought about my experience of meeting a National Living Treasure in Japan, when I was reminded of it this fall. As the new Kaufman Auditorium coordinator for the 2006-07 school year, I was able to attend a Kaufman Foundation meeting with Marquette Area Public Schools assistant superintendent and Graveraet principal to share with the Kaufman family and board members our vision for the auditorium.
From the discussion, it was clear that all of us value community interest and dedication to Kaufman Auditorium and Graveraet, and that we should work on finding more ways to involve the community in programs and performances happening in the coming year. When asked by Peter Kaufman if I had any specific ideas how I was going to achieve this, I told him I would like to plan a historical slide show and lecture on Kaufman Auditorium and Marquette sometime this winter with Fred Rydholm. I went on to explain how many people of all ages simply don’t know the complete history of Kaufman Auditorium and Marquette, and that we are eager to learn about the community in which we live.
Suddenly, the words just came out of my mouth—unplanned and unstoppable. I told the story of meeting the National Living Treasure in Japan and what he symbolized to his community and the people he touched, and I drew a direct connection to Fred Rydholm and our community.
I told the Kaufman Family and board members that Rydholm could be seen in many ways as one of our National Living Treasures. With a chuckle of approval from several people, one board member commented, “Fred Rydholm would certainly qualify as an Upper Peninsula Living Treasure.”
I began my letter to Rydholm the next morning to ask if he would be willing to do such a slide show and lecture at Kaufman Auditorium. As I wrote, my excitement was similar to what I had experienced in Japan when talking with a National Living Treasure.
My whole day was spent writing this two-page letter to Rydholm. I explained my idea to him and why he was the perfect person to do this presentation given his genuine interest in the history of the area and his love for teaching others about it.
In one paragraph, I told him about the first time I met him. He came to talk to my fourth grade class about Granot Loma and The Huron Mountain Club before we did a school play on Michigan. My whole class was glued to him, more intensely than we ever were to a television. We were so surprised to find out we had such amazing places close to Marquette. After school that day, I remember telling my parents about what I learned. They informed me that my father’s best friend from high school owned a camp on Conway Lake, a lake that lay inside the Huron Mountain Club property. When I finally got to visit that camp, I was mesmerized by the green gate and the guard at the gate and the phone he used to call and the list he crossed our names off of before we could go inside. It was just like Rydholm said, and I wanted nothing more than to sneak off to explore the rest of the Huron Mountain Club and see it for myself.
By the time I finished the letter and was ready to seal the envelope, a nervous jitter occurred in my stomach. I realized if Rydholm was willing, this was the start of a very important historical event to take place in the near future at Kaufman Auditorium in Marquette.
Only two days passed before I got a phone call from him. He thanked me for my letter and agreed to help out however he could. He asked if we could meet at Graveraet to discuss how we might organize the lecture and slide show, and before long, he appeared in my office. A few students were taking a test when he arrived, and wondered who was this tall man with the deep voice. I explained that we were planning a historical lecture for students and the community on Graveraet and Kaufman Auditorium and that he knows more about Marquette and the Upper Peninsula than anyone else. One student looked directly at me, and said in a very serious tone, “He must be the smartest man in the world!”
As soon as Rydholm saw the auditorium, he immediately began to share memories from when he was a student at Graveraet High School. Once again, I was a fourth grader, my eyes glued to him as he spoke about so many things I had never known about Graveraet and Kaufman Auditorium. As we ventured into the courtyard, I learned about the old fountain and the tradition of planting white calla lily bulbs each spring to symbolize the white in Marquette’s school colors, while the bricks of the building symbolized the red. It was hard to miss the passion in Rydholm’s voice as he revisited some of his favorite memories of school. His memories inspired a Graveraet and Kaufman Auditorium beautification plan that will begin this spring.
There was one challenge. Rydholm didn’t have many slides to accompany his lecture. He suggested we consult Jack Deo, owner of Superior View Photography in Marquette. Just like a teacher, Fred Rydholm gave me some homework to do.
As I talked with Deo over the next few weeks, I could see his excitement and interest grow as we finalized plans for the historical night. In fact, the more I talked with him, the more I began to see similarities to Rydholm in terms of passion, perseverance and educating the community about the history of the area through photographs, books and lectures. I now believe Jack Deo is earning his title as a Living Treasure in our community for his interest in preserving its history and dedicating his life to educating people through his passion.
The last time I met with the two men at Deo’s store, we took a few pictures of them for the event. I found them sitting at a table in the back looking at two large books filled with historical pictures of Marquette. They were going through them page-by-page, each talking about the things they knew about the buildings or people in them. For a moment, I stood watching them, silent, just absorbing the small piece of history I was witnessing. Once I took the pictures of them, they went right back to looking at all of the old photographs in the books and learning from one another. They say history repeats itself, only in this case, it’s a good thing!
Join us at 7:00 p.m. on January 31 in Kaufman Auditorium for a free lecture and slide show by Fred Rydholm and Jack Deo, titled, “Marquette History Trip.” A fifteen-minute pre-performance by local community members and students will showcase the talent of groups that use the auditorium each year.
Call ahead to make reservations for the free event at 225-4302, ext. 110; leave your name and how many seats you would like reserved. Donations to help fund the event are welcome.
—Sara Cambensy

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