ConversationsCreativity

People watching, rituals, and reconciliation

Last time I was in Phnom Penh I didn’t really like it, I will admit. But it had more to do with where we were in the arch of our overseas sabbatical last year than with the place itself. We stopped there to meet a new business contact and I returned again to meet business contacts. But on this trip I was determined to reconcile that first feeling of a place that had just started off bumpy. I knew there was more to Phnom Penh than that first impression. 


One afternoon I went to Wat Phnom, or “Mountain Pagoda”, the central Buddhist temple of the city. Following are a some of my journal writings and images of that afternoon.

“The traveling spirit in me wanting to see and experience differently, to gain perspective and take in the history, culture, and beauty of people unlike myself.”

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“People watching — people offering homages to the buddha, prayers to the gods, sacrifices to the spirits. Not sure. Can never be sure just by looking."

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"Palms together holding bundles of burning incense sticks to their forehead, chanting melodic prayers before plunging it in a big caldron of ash, plumes of smoke tangling with all the others, swirling wayward to reach wherever, all over, everywhere that it may be heard."

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"Shoes off, hearts open."

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"Paper boats of acid yellow filled with offered fruit, beacons of red candles, their waxy warm drippings ready to hold the next candle."

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"Closed lotus flowers, their petals nudged awake." 

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"Laughing buddhas, lucky figurines and fake paper money placed in shiny bowls."

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Here I found a place of people's hopes, witnessed their collective aspirations, and found solace being among them. Indeed, a reconciliation.

We paused for inspired writing around handmade

We discovered our inner prose and glimpsed into another part of the globe. We were moved by each other’s writings that evoked memory, that inspired story, that recalled people and place and unique insight.


Some of the amazing friends and supporters who participated in the Indigo Lion Pause sessions! Top: Florence, Aida, Sush, Ann Marie, Kate, Andrea, Alex, Sharmila, Louise, Kara, Mary, Sarah. Bottom: Florence, Kate, Mary, Kim, Sush

Some of the amazing friends and supporters who participated in the Indigo Lion Pause sessions! Top: Florence, Aida, Sush, Ann Marie, Kate, Andrea, Alex, Sharmila, Louise, Kara, Mary, Sarah. Bottom: Florence, Kate, Mary, Kim, Sush

What happens when you hold handmade craft in your hands? What will it inspire you to write? This is what we discovered together in three Indigo Lion Pause sessions this fall.

We paused together to hold handmade craft in our hands and write from the heart. We discovered our inner prose and glimpsed into another part of the globe. We were moved by each other’s writings that evoked memory, that inspired story, that recalled people and place and unique insight. We created beautiful conversations and it was magical.

Michelle, Rini, Evan

Michelle, Rini, Evan

The idea of Indigo Lion Pause coming to life

It started in my travels and living abroad over the years. I’ve long been fascinated by beautifully crafted objects and their stories. I would hold them in my hands, see them up close, let my imagination wander and wonder, and try to get a sense of the person who made it. 

Then a couple of years ago, I would get together with Sushmita Mazumdar, an artist, writer, and educator at her studio, Studio Pause for monthly “Mary Pauses”. These were wonderfully creative sessions. One of things I proposed was conversations with objects. I selected a few handcrafted items I had acquired in Mexico and Morocco and wrote freely what came to mind. I was surprised at what was revealed in my conversations. They were full of interesting associations, current emotions, and meaningful insights.

I had conversations with these two handcrafted objects: a ceramic container from Fez, Morocco and an Oaxacan rabbit figurine that was a gift from a dear friend in Mexico

I had conversations with these two handcrafted objects: a ceramic container from Fez, Morocco and an Oaxacan rabbit figurine that was a gift from a dear friend in Mexico

Then this past summer I started attending Sush’s “writing pauses, as she calls them, where we would use the monthly community art on her studio wall as prompts. In ten minutes we would write whatever came to mind — whether associations from past, or present thoughts, weaving in fiction, poetry, prose, whatever. With current issues being what they’ve been this year, we had conversations about race and religion, language and ethnicity, love and social justice.

Kara, Sush, and Tannia inspired by Susan Sterner’s photographic posters of women day laborers in Guatemala at one of Studio Pause’s writing pauses.

Kara, Sush, and Tannia inspired by Susan Sterner’s photographic posters of women day laborers in Guatemala at one of Studio Pause’s writing pauses.

It was also around this time that Sush proposed the idea of doing a series of writing pauses with a twist: focusing on the handmade crafts I was bringing in from Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia as prompts for writing. It all came together and Indigo Lion Pause was born.

Here I am at the launch of the first Indigo Lion Pause in October, focusing on Laos textiles and accessories

Here I am at the launch of the first Indigo Lion Pause in October, focusing on Laos textiles and accessories

The magical happenings of inspired writing

The instructions were simple. We could choose whatever handmade item on the display that spoke to us, bring it on our laps, feel it in our hands, and then in ten minutes write whatever thoughts came. There wasn’t any right or wrong way, or any particular way to do it. Just lean in and let our imagination be free to discover what might appear in writing. We were often surprised at what we wrote. But it was all from the heart, unfiltered, and on the spot. In that sense, it was magical.

Andrea, Alex, Victoria, and Susan

Andrea, Alex, Victoria, and Susan

LAOS

In October we touched the gentle indigo-dyed textiles from the Tai Leu, the ink-black woven bamboo from the Tai Lao, and the inlay woven beading from the Katu in Laos. Feelings of warmth and peace, memories of one’s grandmother and mother, of faraway cafes and imagined stories all came alive in our writing.  

Details from cushion covers, napkins, table runners, hand cloths, and purses — all accessories and home accents from the Tai Leu, Katu, and Tao Lao ethnic groups. Traditional and adapted designs, hand spun, hand dyed and handwoven natural cotton using natural dyes. LAOS

Details from cushion covers, napkins, table runners, hand cloths, and purses — all accessories and home accents from the Tai Leu, Katu, and Tao Lao ethnic groups. Traditional and adapted designs, hand spun, hand dyed and handwoven natural cotton using natural dyes. LAOS

Starting upper left, clockwise: Padee of the Tai Dam ethnic group; women weavers of the Katu ethnic group; Chaban and Noy (mother and daughter) and Sengmany  of the Tai Leu ethnic group (photo credit: MaTeSai for Katu weavers and Sengmany). LAOS

Starting upper left, clockwise: Padee of the Tai Dam ethnic group; women weavers of the Katu ethnic group; Chaban and Noy (mother and daughter) and Sengmany  of the Tai Leu ethnic group (photo credit: MaTeSai for Katu weavers and Sengmany). LAOS

MYANMAR

In November we wrapped ourselves in uniquely designed blankets by the Tiddim Chin weavers of Myanmar. We got close to the intricate patterns, coiling tassels, and embroidered motifs. We traveled along railroads and went to villages at night, we felt textures and decided on designs, and told stories about reindeers and drums.

Upper left and bottom right: blankets with traditional motifs and designs reflecting Tiddim Chin culture. Upper right and bottom left: weavers Phyu Win and Sui Te (photo credit of weavers: Chin Chili Myanmar Folk Art). MYANMAR

Upper left and bottom right: blankets with traditional motifs and designs reflecting Tiddim Chin culture. Upper right and bottom left: weavers Phyu Win and Sui Te (photo credit of weavers: Chin Chili Myanmar Folk Art). MYANMAR

Upper left and bottom right: blankets with traditional motifs and designs reflecting Tiddim Chin culture. Upper right and bottom left: weavers Vung Pi and Oo Man (photo credit of weavers: Chin Chili Myanmar Folk Art). MYANMAR

Upper left and bottom right: blankets with traditional motifs and designs reflecting Tiddim Chin culture. Upper right and bottom left: weavers Vung Pi and Oo Man (photo credit of weavers: Chin Chili Myanmar Folk Art). MYANMAR

CAMBODIA

In December we swooned over gorgeous rough-spun silk accessories made by Cambodian weavers and sewists. We let the colors take us to sky and fields, to subtle moods and wonder, to savor ice cream and remember home and childhood.

Weavers from a women’s cooperative in Krang Thong Village, Cambodia; Bottom right on left: Vibol Sath, founder of Colors of Life Social Enterprise; details of multi-colored designs of hand spun and handwoven rough silk accessories. CAMBODIA

Weavers from a women’s cooperative in Krang Thong Village, Cambodia; Bottom right on left: Vibol Sath, founder of Colors of Life Social Enterprise; details of multi-colored designs of hand spun and handwoven rough silk accessories. CAMBODIA

Multi-design and multi-color rough silk hand spun and handwoven accessories: Starting upper left, clockwise: Coin purses sewn by N. Hang; shoulder bags sewn by Vandy; scarves woven by Sok Khim. CAMBODIA

Multi-design and multi-color rough silk hand spun and handwoven accessories: Starting upper left, clockwise: Coin purses sewn by N. Hang; shoulder bags sewn by Vandy; scarves woven by Sok Khim. CAMBODIA

And of course all of the items were available for purchase so participants could take home the ones they fell in love with.

What’s next? The curating beautiful conversations booklet!

Handmade craft has an energy and an unfolding story - from the artisan who made it, to liaisons working with those artisans, to me sharing it with others, and finally enthusiasts of handmade. We all contribute to the story of handmade.

With that in mind, I’m compiling a booklet of the Indigo Lion Pause sessions to share our beautiful conversations with others. I’ve invited all the participants to contribute their writings with the intent to share it with the artisans and liaisons in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

It’s a way to complete the circle and to show how we’re all connected, how what they do matters and how their handmade craft inspires us.

Kara and Alex

Kara and Alex

And this, what I wrote in an earlier post, “The beautiful conversations held in my hands”:

Most importantly, I want to tell her how much I genuinely love what she’s made. I want to tell her that holding it in my hands is a delight, as if I can feel its energy knowing that she’s held it before me. I feel a glimpse of her culture by its colors and patterns and materials that are not my own, but allow me a moment of wonder about hers.

I want to thank her for sharing it with me and tell her to keep making more because there are many others who would enjoy experiencing this too. This is my conversation, held in my hands, what I want to tell her. And in that moment we are connected, if only in my mind, around the one thing we do have in common, that we both held in our hands her beautiful handmade craft.

Aida and Florence

Aida and Florence

A final reception will be held where we’ll showcase the finished booklet, share our collective experiences, and a chance to buy a copy! Stay tuned for upcoming details.

Thank you! 

A huge thank you to Sushmita Mazumdar for this awesome and fun collaboration, for opening your studio to us, and for conceiving of these wonderful writing pauses. Your constant enthusiasm, creativity, and tremendous support made the Indigo Lion Pauses spectacular.

Sush!

Sush!

Thank you to all the participants (many of whom are dear friends and supporters) who paused from busy days and crazy lives to experience something new — writing about textiles from Southeast Asia, delving into memory and association and story, and sharing together a range of perspectives and emotions. I learned something from each of you and have tremendous appreciation for your writings.

Sarah, Ann Marie, Sharmila, Brittany, and Su

Sarah, Ann Marie, Sharmila, Brittany, and Su

Finally, a big shout out to John Chapin, Alexandra Boycheck, Sharmila Karamchandani, and Brittany Noetzel for your enduring belief in me, good counsel along the way, and support beyond words. Thank you Alex Treble, Sushmita Mazumdar, and John Chapin for taking and sharing photos.

Michelle, John, Evan, Sush, Alex, Rini, and Susan

Michelle, John, Evan, Sush, Alex, Rini, and Susan

It really was a lot of fun.

It really was a lot of fun.

My own interaction and creativity with handmade

What happens when you hold global handmade in your hands? What do you see, feel, or wonder about?


As an artist I can't help but be curious about what's around me — what I see in nature, in textures, in other people's creativity and culture. Curating beautiful conversations is so much an extension of that, a space for connection and discovery around global artisans and their handmade craft. It's in that space as an artist that I wonder, see differently, and express creatively.

Padee showing us her hand woven textiles with her husband, our guide and translator Sin, and me looking on (Thabou, Laos, January 2016).

Padee showing us her hand woven textiles with her husband, our guide and translator Sin, and me looking on (Thabou, Laos, January 2016).

I begin by holding one of the traditional textiles I had acquired in Laos earlier this year from Padee, a weaver from the village of Thabou in northern Laos.

And let thoughts begin to express in words...

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i remember so clearly that day
in the village

meeting weavers and i know
nothing about weaving

or spinning or textiles or dying
 
or traditional ways
or lao culture

but it didn't matter really
when what i saw was handmade beauty
and what i know was felt
and the textiles she showed me
communicated all we needed

and now, months later holding it again seeing it up close
its threads, color, pattern
touching rough natural cotton
appreciating the dark indigo
and soft mahogany red

the smell of another place
of outside, of dye, of earth
of another's hands and home
all together
lingering here, now in my home

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i notice the looping threads
the vertical weft
vulnerable and exposed

isn't this not like life?
we come to the edge
of so many journeys
we linger unsure and uncertain
before finding our way again
in the comforting warp of life

Curating beautiful conversations...

What happens when you hold global handmade in your hands? What do you see, feel, or wonder about? What interaction, expression, or creativity begins to emerges for you?

Read more about my time with Padee and other village weavers in my blog, "Letting serendipity lead to a weaving village in Laos."

What happens when we choose artisans and their beauty

An elder woman of the Hong Phoi village in Nagaland, India, sharing her traditional crafted adornments typically worn for the annual Hornbill Festival.

An elder woman of the Hong Phoi village in Nagaland, India, sharing her traditional crafted adornments typically worn for the annual Hornbill Festival.

When I’ve traveled abroad and met artisans directly, even when no common language enables us to understand each other (or even when a willing translator doesn’t have much patience), a subtle kind of conversation begins to emerge.

It’s a kind of conversation where gestures speak, expressions are felt, body language conveys and nuanced intonations are understood. There is little spoken between us, if any. What brings us together is a connection over one thing - her beautifully handmade craft. It’s in that moment that I know more intimately her talented gifts. And perhaps she knows something about me, that I genuinely love what she’s made and appreciate a glimpse into her world.

I believe in this kind of beauty that delights the senses and inspires the heart. The beauty of the handmade object connects us with others, and them with us, through these subtle conversations and exchanges. Global handmade brings people, culture, place, and creativity together.

Far Left and Right: cotton scarf and throw with Naga designs by Chin ethnic weavers from Myanmar; Second left: cotton shaman shawl from the Apatani tribe, Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, India; Second right: silk and lotus thread scarf from Paw Khone Village, Myanmar.

Far Left and Right: cotton scarf and throw with Naga designs by Chin ethnic weavers from Myanmar; Second left: cotton shaman shawl from the Apatani tribe, Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, India; Second right: silk and lotus thread scarf from Paw Khone Village, Myanmar.

We can positively influence the sustainability of the diverse global aesthetic and cultural heritage of our world. Our relationship with global artisans and their handmade craft matters a great deal. We do have a role in this; it affects change.

When we choose artisans and the beauty of handmade, we make a statement to the world:

As conscious consumers we seek transparency and expect fairness to artisans. As global citizens we advocate for equality and advance opportunity to artisans. As human beings we respect diversity and celebrate the creativity of artisans.

A master weaver at Khang, a center for fine silks, textile design, Lao fashion and traditional weaving in Luang Prabang, Laos.

A master weaver at Khang, a center for fine silks, textile design, Lao fashion and traditional weaving in Luang Prabang, Laos.

This kind of beauty that delights the senses and inspires the heart is needed in our world. Without global artisans and their handmade craft, the world would be a much duller and narrower place, indeed.

Let’s choose artisans and their beauty.

How we empower positive change for global artisans

Our relationship with global artisans and their handmade craft matters a great deal. We do have a role in this; it affects change.

When we choose artisans and the beauty of handmade, we make a statement to the world.


The sophisticated detail and symbolic motifs of handwoven silk textiles from the Tai Daeng and Tai Phouan ethnic groups in Laos, part of an initiative of Ock Pop Tok’s  Village Weaver’s Project  in Luang Prabang, Laos.

The sophisticated detail and symbolic motifs of handwoven silk textiles from the Tai Daeng and Tai Phouan ethnic groups in Laos, part of an initiative of Ock Pop Tok’s Village Weaver’s Project in Luang Prabang, Laos.

They are the women and men around the globe who make, innovate and create handcrafted objects that are a delight for the eyes, rich to the touch, and accent uniquely in our homes and on our bodies. Their work is exceptionally fine crafted and designed, blending their cultural aesthetics with our modern lifestyles.

Global artisans are the keepers of their cultural heritage, preserving ancient craft traditions, passing their knowledge and talent down through generations.

But as the effects of colonization, war, displacement, and globalization have challenged their lives over the past centuries, so too have their livelihoods and cultures been threatened.

Living in remote mountain villages in Northern Laos, the Lanten ethnic group make and wear distinctive black indigo-dyed cotton clothing. Here women are meticulously preparing the threads of a handloom for weaving.

Living in remote mountain villages in Northern Laos, the Lanten ethnic group make and wear distinctive black indigo-dyed cotton clothing. Here women are meticulously preparing the threads of a handloom for weaving.

Movements by international organizations began to address the needs of artisans around the world, working with them as income-generating initiatives to revitalize their crafts and create market access. The social and economic movement we now refer to as fair trade had its beginnings nearly seven decades ago.

Fair trade organizations positioned a more equitable international trading partnership for marginalized small scale producers, assuring them fair wages, better working conditions, equal access, and economic empowerment. US and European buyers, increasingly concerned with exploitive practices of artisans and farmers, helped raise awareness and advocate the benefits of fair trade to their customers. Today, there are thousands of organizations and social enterprises around the world that advance fair trade practices.

Hemp textile weave with applied batik designs of the Hmong ethnic group in Northern Laos, part of an initiative of Ock Pop Tok’s  Village Weaver’s Project  in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Hemp textile weave with applied batik designs of the Hmong ethnic group in Northern Laos, part of an initiative of Ock Pop Tok’s Village Weaver’s Project in Luang Prabang, Laos.

The global artisan sector shows impressive numbers. According to Alliance for Artisan Enterprise Impact Report 2014, it’s the second largest employer in the developing world after agriculture; 65% of artisan activity takes place in developing economies; and it’s a $34 million dollar market.

The social and economic impact to the artisans themselves when fair trade principles are practiced is impressive. There are countless real stories of artisans’ lives transformed when given the opportunity to earn an income for themselves and provide for their families. When given access, training, and resources, they can thrive and inspire others, often becoming agents of change in their own communities. This is the power of women's empowerment in action.

A master weaver at Khang, a center for fine silks, textile design, Lao fashion and traditional weaving in Luang Prabang, Laos.

A master weaver at Khang, a center for fine silks, textile design, Lao fashion and traditional weaving in Luang Prabang, Laos.

When we choose fair trade handmade, we are choosing to impact local economies in very real and direct ways.

When we choose fair trade handmade, we empower positive change for global artisans. And ourselves.

Why do we care about a person halfway across the globe?

One person halfway across the world, an artisan, has brought me the simple joy from experiencing her created beauty. I may not know her story, but I want to tell her that she has impacted mine.


Women weavers and leaders from Rengam, an artisan cooperative in Majuli Island, Assam, India, which has supported over 80 women affected by floods and erosion by harnessing the unique weaving traditions of the Mising ethnic group.

Women weavers and leaders from Rengam, an artisan cooperative in Majuli Island, Assam, India, which has supported over 80 women affected by floods and erosion by harnessing the unique weaving traditions of the Mising ethnic group.

“Knowing the story of one person can change the perception of a whole people, of an entire place, its culture and history, and even a war. Knowing the story of one person tells us more than we might not have ever known.”

This is what my friend Sushmita Mazumdar tells me when I ask her the question which has been on my mind lately, why do we care about a person halfway across the globe? Through her StudioPause, Sush’s creative and community work often confronts stereotypes and invites new perspectives through art, writing, and stories.

As if led to more insight, I come across this:

“…how interconnected we are, how our action and our inaction can impact people we might never know, and never meet, every day of our lives, all around the world”.

This is from Jacqueline Novogratz, innovative founder of Acumen, a nonprofit venture fund, sharing the story of the blue sweater (she had donated it to charity as a girl, only to find it a decade later on a boy in Rwanda, confirmed by seeing her name written on the tag).

I love what both of these women are saying. They both speak of a genuine truth born out of their own experience.

Not only has the artisan cooperative become a source of skills training and income for the women, it has provided a platform for emerging women leaders and collective action. Weaver Jan Moni, second from left, draping the handwoven and hand dyed stole she made from Assamese Eri raw silk.

Not only has the artisan cooperative become a source of skills training and income for the women, it has provided a platform for emerging women leaders and collective action. Weaver Jan Moni, second from left, draping the handwoven and hand dyed stole she made from Assamese Eri raw silk.

When I ask myself that question, why do I care about a person halfway across the globe, my first leaning is towards artisans. It is because they bring a rich beauty into the world that is unlike my own.

For as long as I can remember, I have gravitated towards the beauty in other cultures as if to fill a void experienced in my own American culture. The beauty of other cultures has always allured and illuminated my senses, and in particular handcrafted objects that offer a glimpse into another’s ritual and daily life. By my engaged curiosity, I can feel a connection to the object, to the person who made it, and to the energy that is expressed from the creator’s hands.

Detail of the handwoven stole that I lovingly acquired. Eri silk, from silkworms only found in Assam, India, is considered a ‘peace silk’. The caterpillars live a full life cycle in the silk spinning process.

Detail of the handwoven stole that I lovingly acquired. Eri silk, from silkworms only found in Assam, India, is considered a ‘peace silk’. The caterpillars live a full life cycle in the silk spinning process.

As an artist, I wish I could do what they do. I am in awe. I have such respect and admiration it’s almost embarrassing. I fall in love. One person halfway across the world, an artisan, has brought me the simple joy from experiencing her created beauty. I may not know her story, but I want to tell her that she has impacted mine.

Throughout 20 villages, women typically work on hand looms found under their homes. Women also have access to the Rengam workshop for looms and raw materials.

Throughout 20 villages, women typically work on hand looms found under their homes. Women also have access to the Rengam workshop for looms and raw materials.

I want to do whatever I can to create sustainable opportunities for her and other artisans to continue to do what they do and to honor their unique cultural identity and heritage.

And with that, share a glimpse of their cultural beauty with other people halfway across the globe.

Read more about how Rengam began here.  Discover more about the rare Eri silk here

Wanting to know and leaning towards that

I begin to see the nuanced colors and intricate details. I touch the natural materials and feel its texture, letting my hands caress its form. The smell of place, the sense of culture, the energy of its creation made by someone far away.


[Earthy warm tones in a fine striped pattern, tiny white beads nested as diamonds, staccato to the touch against a thick tight weave textile. Inviting table runners handwoven by women of the Katu ethnic group in Salavan Provence, Laos. Curated by  Ma Te Sai , a lovely fair trade boutique and social enterprise working closely with artisans in Laos.]

[Earthy warm tones in a fine striped pattern, tiny white beads nested as diamonds, staccato to the touch against a thick tight weave textile. Inviting table runners handwoven by women of the Katu ethnic group in Salavan Provence, Laos. Curated by Ma Te Sai, a lovely fair trade boutique and social enterprise working closely with artisans in Laos.]

When we can't have that direct connection with artisans, nor them with us, whether because of geographic, cultural, or technical barriers, there are other ways that a conversation can begin, I've found. If by letting our imaginations free, we can still share our stories around their handmade craft. What happens when we have their handmade craft in our hands? Doesn’t our curiosity get sparked? Mine does. I may be able to find out a little from a tag, or a website, or social media post. Or ask a salesperson at the store, if they know anything more. Or from the friend who travelled and gave me that beautiful gift. It’s just often never enough to satisfy my curiosity. I just want to know more.

So a different kind of conversation starts to happen. All my questions rise to ask the handmade craft itself, as if it knows. Surely it knows, it’s a messenger of sorts, a carrier from its creator to me, the enthusiastic admirer. Won’t it tell me anything? The silence, the unknowing, is obvious. And powerfully revealing.

[Natural colors in peach yellow and indigo blue, in easy even stripes, cozy and soft squeezed together. Dreamy cushion covers handwoven by women of the Tai Leu ethnic group in Banayan village Laos. Also curated by  Ma Te Sai .

[Natural colors in peach yellow and indigo blue, in easy even stripes, cozy and soft squeezed together. Dreamy cushion covers handwoven by women of the Tai Leu ethnic group in Banayan village Laos. Also curated by Ma Te Sai.

I begin to see. I begin to see the nuanced colors and intricate details. I touch the natural materials and feel its texture, letting my hands caress its form.The smell of place, the sense of culture, the energy of its creation made by someone far away. I am too momentarily away—drawing associations, what it reminds me of, memories of past, imaginations of future. I am momentarily away, imagining the life of the artisan—the questions of livelihood, of culture, her story.

[Fishbone bamboo weave and I wonder how it was made with alternating light dark. Following the weave of the hemp patterned trim and my curiosity wanders, wondering whose artisan hands crafted this, her name and about her life. Bamboo clutch handcrafted by women of the Tai Lao ethnic group, Phonsong Village. Curated by  Ma Te Sai .]

[Fishbone bamboo weave and I wonder how it was made with alternating light dark. Following the weave of the hemp patterned trim and my curiosity wanders, wondering whose artisan hands crafted this, her name and about her life. Bamboo clutch handcrafted by women of the Tai Lao ethnic group, Phonsong Village. Curated by Ma Te Sai.]

But there is only silence, of course, and no answers. Even so, this time it’s okay. Wanting to know and leaning towards that, allows me to see, touch, and sense in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Curiosity often doesn’t seek answers, it finds all the questions.

 

Our mutual curiosity can find each other

What if instead of only us hearing the stories about artisans, we share our stories with them too? Why not share our stories with them about our enthusiasm and love for their handmade craft.


Like a field of flowers before blooming in full color, ceramic beads in the making at the Clay Cult studio workshop, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Like a field of flowers before blooming in full color, ceramic beads in the making at the Clay Cult studio workshop, Siem Reap, Cambodia

What would happen if she, the artisan, knew of my conversation with her? Is she having similar conversations to some anonymous me, the “American customer”? Is she thinking, who will appreciate this, or who is that person who will eventually buy this, or does that person care who made this?

I care. And I believe there are are others too, like me, like her, who actually care very much. Shouldn’t we then find a way to connect with each other? To let our mutual curiosity about the other and the handmade craft that binds us have a beautiful conversation?

A string bouquet of one of a kind beads - big bulbous bespeckled - adorning each other to speak boldly in this statement necklace from Clay Cult, Siem Reap, Cambodia

A string bouquet of one of a kind beads - big bulbous bespeckled - adorning each other to speak boldly in this statement necklace from Clay Cult, Siem Reap, Cambodia

It does seem possible. So why isn’t it happening? In the global artisan sector some things are happening but not enough of a happening. Meaning, I’m able to find out much more about the stories of artisans if I choose, but I don’t have access to sharing my admiration and curiosity with them and they doubtful have access to sharing their thoughts or curiosity with me if they choose.

We’re ready. Let's go. We’re ready as a kind of gathering tribe wishing to connect, discover, and create. We can do it, technically, globally, and communally. We can take on that challenge and create a kind of social change around this. It then leaves us to find each other and make great conversations about something we all care about, don’t you think?

What if instead of only us hearing the stories about artisans, we share our stories with them too? Why not share our stories with them about our enthusiasm and love for their handmade craft?

Letting someone know you love their work, sharing our story of why we are drawn to their handmade craft, or even why we bought it, can be a real lift and motivator. I want artisans to feel this, to know they are valued.

Some of the talented and dedicated artisans at the Clay Cult studio workshop, along with Savat the gentleman who showed me around with great enthusiasm. Its worth finding out more about  Clay Cult , their work in nurturing the talents and providing long-term opportunities for women.

Some of the talented and dedicated artisans at the Clay Cult studio workshop, along with Savat the gentleman who showed me around with great enthusiasm. Its worth finding out more about Clay Cult, their work in nurturing the talents and providing long-term opportunities for women.

What would you say?

The beautiful conversations held in my hands

I feel a glimpse of her culture by its colors and patterns and materials that are not my own, but allow me a moment of wonder about hers.


Striped colors of ruby magenta, sky blue and inchworm green among the inviting handcrafted silk scarves of Colors of Life, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Striped colors of ruby magenta, sky blue and inchworm green among the inviting handcrafted silk scarves of Colors of Life, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Global artisans around the world make exceptional handmade craft. They infuse it with their cultural heritage and it connects them with their livelihoods and stories. Beautiful handmade crafts brings out a delight in me for the unique and meaningful and a curiosity about who made it and why.

Where can we go to find global handmade crafts? Perhaps in a fair trade shop in our region. Or on our travels when we go to a bazaar or a shop. Maybe it was a gift from a friend on one of their travels. We might know where it’s from and something about its materials. If we’re lucky, we might know more about the artisans or the mission of an artisan enterprise they’re associated with.

But this only spikes my curiosity to know more about the artisan, her life, her culture, who she is. I want to know more about her handmade craft, about its cultural significance and traditions, or techniques or materials.

Adjusting the threads of her loom with an eye for perfection, the lead weaver at the Colors for Life workshop in Krang Phnong village, Cambodia

Adjusting the threads of her loom with an eye for perfection, the lead weaver at the Colors for Life workshop in Krang Phnong village, Cambodia

Most importantly, I want to tell her how much I genuinely love what she’s made. I want to tell her that holding it in my hands is a delight, as if I can feel its energy knowing that she’s held it before me. I feel a glimpse of her culture by its colors and patterns and materials that are not my own, but allow me a moment of wonder about hers. I want to thank her for sharing it with me and tell her to keep making more because there are many others who would enjoy experiencing this too. This is my conversation, held in my hands, what I want to tell her. And in that moment we are connected, if only in my mind, around the one thing we do have in common, that we both held in our hands her beautiful handmade craft.

 

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.