Folk Art PA

Master: Ma Kay Saw

Apprentice: Gay La Htoo
Art Form: Karen Weaving

Both Ma Kay Saw and Gay La Htoo were born in the Karen State in the eastern mountain region of Burma. The Karen people have been persecuted for the past sixty years by the Burmese government and many people, Ma Kay Saw and Gay La Htoo included, were forced to flee their homes as persecuted ethnic minorities. Through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Apprenticeship in Folk and Traditional Arts, Ma Kay Saw and Gay La Htoo were able to continue the tradition of Karen weaving in the United States. Karen weaving is a traditional form of weaving done on a back strap loom. Every part of the weaving, the color choice, the patterns and lines are a very specific Karen tradition; some patterns represent flowers, rice, water, and trees. Through this apprenticeship, Gay La Htoo learned how to make a traditional Karen woman's shirt, men's shirt, boy's shirt, a bag, and a skirt.

Gay La Htoo first learned to weave from Ma Kay Saw while in a refugee camp in Thailand. While in the refugee camp, she was married and had three children. With this apprenticeship Gay La Htoo was able to learn more traditional styles from Ma Kay Saw, particularly more complex patterns in the shape of flowers and trees. Her interest in weaving is both family- and community- driven: "I have been weaving for a long time, and sometimes help my family by selling my pieces. I hope that through this apprenticeship I can become skilled enough to teach others in the community so we have more weavers and more Karen people wearing their traditional clothing."

Ma Kay Saw learned Karen weaving from her aunt in Burma on a back strap loom. In her village everyone wore Karen clothing so she was influenced by different styles of clothing in her village and in a larger city. When she was forced to leave Burma and move to a refugee camp in Thailand, Ma Kay Saw's weaving helped her build a home at the camp: "Clothing is the most immediate embodiment of home. So in the camps I wove, learning new patterns from others in the camps as well as Thai styles. Weaving and wearing traditional clothing has been a link to our homes and has helped us maintain our cultural identity." Ma Kay Saw is excited to be able to continue weaving now that she is in the United States: "The grant allowed me to continue a very important tradition. Weaving was a part of daily life and traditional Karen clothing tied our community together. It gave us a sense of pride to make and wear these clothes." May Kay Saw's work has been exhibited for the show Mural Arts @ 30 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia