The start of many beautiful conversations

A tiny glimpse into her world, and her into mine, and our exchange across her handmade paper etched in my memory.


First posted on The Artesan Gateway on January 20, 2016

In these past two weeks, still at the beginning of a three-month journey across Southeast Asia and Northeast India, I’ve discovered that the kinds of conversations I’m having must be redefined. It seems many of the conversations are with so few words, of each other’s language neither understands, picking up on intonations and simple gestures. What brings us together is a connection over one thing – beautifully handcrafted work.

Drying handmade bamboo paper dyed with indigo

Drying handmade bamboo paper dyed with indigo

As an artist and in my travels abroad over the decades, I’ve long been fascinated by beautifully crafted objects and their stories. The conversations we have with the people who create them to better appreciate their culture and understand their livelihood. Or the conversations to discover the meaning of the motifs or the techniques of their designs. What would the conversations be if we would convey our appreciation connected with our own story to the artisans when we encounter their creations?

As I embark on a long-held entrepreneurial dream of opening a global artisan boutique later this fall, part of this overseas trip is connecting with artisans, having conversations, and sourcing products. Indigo Lion Artisan Boutique will be a place to discover unique and meaningful global handmade gifts for home and lifestyle, with a vision of curating beautiful conversations.

Of the handful of conversations I’ve had with artisans so far, one in particular stands out –an old Lanten woman in Luang Namtha, Laos.

Cycling to Nam Dee Waterfall

Cycling to Nam Dee Waterfall

My husband and I rented mountain bikes and set a course for the the Nam Dee Waterfall, about 2 miles from the center of town, where we’d pass a pair of Tai Dam and Lanten ethnic villages. While confessing to know little about either, some prior reading about the Lanten at the Luang Namtha Tourist Information Center peaked my interest.

Like many of the 15 or so ethnic groups in Laos, the Lanten still live their traditional ways, follow ancient beliefs, and make much of what they need using natural resources from their immediate environment, including handcrafted objects mostly made by women for daily use. One of the things Lanten women make is bamboo paper, some of which is dyed with indigo.

Watching the rhythmic hand gestures of her work

Watching the rhythmic hand gestures of her work

It was completely serendipitous that we came into contact with her. At the end of the dirt road on the village’s edge there she was, making paper along the banks of a stream near the Nam Dee Waterfall.

My conversation with the old Lanten woman began with me gesturing if I might watch her. Not stopping her work and barely acknowledging me, she signaled with her wise eyes that it was alright. I felt privileged to get close, to crouch down, to just watch the gentle movement of her hand pouring a gooey mix onto the indigo dyed paper. I wondered what stories she held, what kind of life she’s had, who she was… I merely had to be content, as this beautiful conversation was showing me, to just be with her.

Pouring a gooey mix onto the indigo dyed paper

Pouring a gooey mix onto the indigo dyed paper

Taking the paper off the bamboo frame

Taking the paper off the bamboo frame

She warmed up a bit, hand gestures and foreign words between us. I can infer as best I can when clarity is not there, but when she put a big folded piece of handmade bamboo paper in my hand, then signaled down to her feet with her face showing a sign of pain, this I understood: please buy this paper from me. Her wrinkled wizened fingers held up two fingers (about $2.25) and I kept that paper close to my heart, feeling all of her energy from her to me.

Close up of paper fibers with deckle edge

Close up of paper fibers with deckle edge

She pointed to my camera, then to her, and I took her picture for her to see. She smiled wide, and I was on my way again, deeply grateful for the serendipitous moment. A tiny glimpse into her world, and her into mine, and our exchange across her handmade paper etched in my memory. It was a beautiful conversation.

Warming up to a smile

Warming up to a smile

I look forward to curating this beautiful conversation and many others like this, to enable others to discover the unique and meaningful stories behind the handmade gifts they purchase.