If you ever want to stop a conversation during a first date, the phrases “I want to be married next year with kids” or “My Ex (insert anything here)” will be sure to cut your evening short. When I mention phrases attached to my summer like “Artisan Sector” or “Handicraft Industry” most conversation stops and I’m met with furrowed brows and confused frowns. It’s not much better when I add “Social Innovation” or “Empowerment.” When I mention I’m traveling to Peru to help local artisans sell their products in the world marketplace to change the fashion industry’s current practices and standards, people immediately jump to conclusions: “Is it like those companies that go to Ghana or something like that? Don’t they sell stuff at that store in the mall with rugs from Nepal? Or is that the stuff that they sell at foreign airports and markets? I got my mom a bracelet from one of those that says, “Korea.” Texting my mom on Hangouts I realize there’s plenty of icons to describe her as a nurse: a syringe, a bandaid, pills. There’s nothing to describe what I do. San emoticons and icons, I wonder how can I make a field like this important and applicable to those not in this world of Artisan Empowerment?
Our first interactions with Artisans begins with trips to the land of pottery in Chulucanas and Catacaos where a specific straw, paja toquilla, is woven to make hats. From the Artisans in Chulucanas, we find how little respected their craft is. As they quickly mold and shape clay from their fingers, it seems as though the work is effortless, until a couple of my colleagues try their hand at the pottery wheel and realize how difficult it is to maintain the clay slipping in between their fingers. The Artisans tell us of their struggles. They aren’t paid for the value of their work, and many times they end up giving their pieces away for free. Sellers in the market often become middlemen who don’t recognize their hard work and convince tourists that the pottery in Catacaos markets are from Catacaos, not Chulucanas. If they become sick or injured, they have to find friends to borrow money from. One man tells us his son wants to learn how to make pottery, but he doesn’t want to teach his son an art that leads to so little profit and support from outsiders.
Among the dusty dirt roads of La Campina in Catacaos, an untapped resource and buried treasure comes to life with Asociacion Virgen del Pilar. Juana Solano Chavez and the Artisans of La Campina delicately weave the paja toquilla that seems to roll in their hands like waves on the beach. I want to watch them for hours, knowing what they do is not easy or simple. With thicker straw, weaving a hat takes one week. With thinner straw it takes one month. What I love even more is that this craft is not only a traditional art form, but a way for the women to enjoy each others’ company. They bring their children, some weave, others play on the open grass of the work area. On occasion a stray dog makes their way in to greet this group of weavers who enjoy our insights and inspirations.
This could easily be mistaken for a Tuesday Night Knitting club, but what people fail to realize is the importance of handicrafts to our society. Listening to the Artisans in Chulucanas, I think of the numerous times people have told me about my work, “You get paid for that? It’s just sewing” or “I can’t believe people charge that much for sewing. It’s not like it’s hard work.” For a few years after college, I worked three jobs and none offered benefits. In the morning I would go to a retail job, in the afternoon I was at a sewing job, and in the evening I was off to work backstage. I did this about six days a week, usually working half of my seventh day, all for less than $19,000 a year (and I’m sure there are others, including these artisans who are worse off). Many companies I work for pay you for a flat fee so they don’t have to pay you overtime, but you always end up working at least 50 hours a week. During my time with one company I divided up my rate with the hours I was working and figured out I was making less than $2 per hour. After learning some performers were making $100,000 for the summer, I realized how little I mattered. Combine this with the pressure to get everything done, and you see how stressful it is for not just me, but my supervisors. Many times I had work taken from me when I made mistakes and was given basic alterations, repairs, and adding buttons. Although I understand my supervisors have much more responsibility and have to give advanced projects to faster sewers, I missed being challenged. I know my supervisors have much more difficult and complicated tasks, but I want to be seen as more than a Stitcher/Dresser. I felt my presence lacking importance, like traditional handicrafts.
However, my presence here with Run by Rural is showing me my work in various handicrafts can be meaningful. I am filled with joy to see the Artisans eagerly gather around our design inspirations to make their work with paja toquilla popular and meaningful in the world fashion marketplace. Hope is in their eyes. Possibilities exist for them. Possibilities may still exist for me. These Artisans see the strength in my skills and knowledge, and I see the beauty of their abilities in the finely woven paja toquilla. Perhaps this mutual respect is just what I need. By empowering these women, I empower myself. My colleagues have all come here from different backgrounds, but this we can all agree on. The details of these traditional handicrafts are a treasure, and it is our loss if we fail to see their value. These arts may not have the instant gratification of an emoticon, but accomplishing any challenging project builds the confidence that no yellow smiley face can embody. Too often handicrafts get confused for remedial tasks. In the words of my Millinery Instructor: “What we do is a work of art. We’re not gluing Popsicle sticks together.” Remembering this makes me look to the future with conviction and self-assurance. I’m not hesitant to answer the question, “What did you do in Peru?” on my next date.