By Ellen Chappelle
Handcrafted art is a gift that blesses both maker and consumer; we in Edmonds know this well. Local artists strive to create art that will enrich the life of its future owner while customers, in turn, prioritize purchases of handmade items in support of our vibrant artistic community.
But let’s face it. Despite the economic downturn, we in Edmonds – and throughout America – are all rich in comparison to the millions of people around the world who struggle to simply survive. How can we as individuals even make a ripple in such a huge ocean of poverty? It’s hard to know where to begin. But what if something as simple as a purchase of art made right here in Edmonds could support an artist and her community on the other side of the planet?
The Fabric of Life shop on Main Street in downtown Edmonds exists to do exactly that. Just stepping into the exotic boutique full of colorful fabrics, clothing, jewelry, wall hangings and trinkets galore instantly transports you to distant shores. But Fabric of Life is much more than a retail store. The boutique and its parent foundation (the Schillios Development Foundation, started by micro-credit expert and Edmonds resident Carol Schillios) are dedicated to “improving the quality of life for women and their families through sustainable, appropriate technology that respects and honors local traditions and cultures.” They accomplish this by forming “cooperative partnerships that promote self-help and that build people’s self-esteem and independence.”
Fabric of Life’s Program Director Ariel Macpherson traveled to Mali, West Africa, the location of a training center started by the foundation, to study social dynamics among street populations, where most of the young women in the foundation’s training program are found. “I’ve never seen such poverty,” she said.
According to the Fabric of Life website, Mali, a country about twice the size of Texas, is one of the poorest countries in the world with 70 percent of its rural population living below the poverty line. Only 39 percent of women are literate. With deforestation, soil erosion and desertification, there is an inadequate supply of potable water. Mali is heavily dependent on foreign aid and vulnerable to fluctuations in world prices for cotton, its main export, and gold. In addition, the continued unrest in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire has jeopardized external trade routes.
Symptomatic of the country’s poverty, the capital city of Bamako plays host to over 70,000 beggars. Begging passes from generation to generation: beggars marry beggars, producing children who beg, who, in turn, marry beggars.
The Schillios Development Foundation started the Hèrè jè Center to stop the cycle of begging and provide sustainable income generating activities. In the local Bambara language, “Hèrè jè” means “happiness group.” The Hèrè jè Center, which opened in March 2005, offers training in marketable skills, health and nutrition, family planning, AIDS prevention and literacy. The training helps develop micro-entrepreneurs who can generate a sustainable income for themselves and their families.
During the apprentice phase, each girl receives a stipend of $20 per week to provide for food, transportation and clothing. The first class in the pilot program graduated in July 2006 and formed two teams to start their own businesses with help from a micro-loan. Seven years after its opening, the Hèrè jè Center and the foundation’s credit union have many success stories to tell. Photos of the center’s graduates can be found hanging in the boutique and their stories are posted on the foundation’s website.
As a teenager, Kati fell in love and was deceived by the man who left her pregnant. After the birth of her son and the father’s disappearance, Kati was heartbroken and destitute. To earn money for food, she turned to prostitution. After two more pregnancies, Kati heard about the foundation’s credit union. She vowed to get herself out of her current lifestyle.
Over the next two years, still forced to sell herself to feed her children, she succeeded at putting aside pennies until she had the required initial savings deposit of $3 to join the credit union. With her first $20 loan, Kati bought fabrics to dye and sell. With each profit, she put aside savings to build capital for more fabric and dye. Today Kati’s little business keeps food on the table for herself, her three children and two additional women she hired, as well as their families.
Since there is no tourist market in Mali, the Hèrè jè Center students currently rely largely on external markets in the US (such as the Fabric of Life boutique) to sell their fabrics, jewelry and other wares.
Another challenge the girls in the program face is never having learned to think creatively. The education system is “very French, very rote” explains Macpherson, so they have never learned to think or solve problems on their own. The training at the Hèrè jè Center has been specifically designed to encourage creativity, which is the basis of art and design, not to mention life.
The students have come a long way under the guidance of the trainers, who teach the girls the basic skills needed to make jewelry or dye fabric, the most prestigious art in Mali, without giving them step-by-step patterns or specific design ideas. At first, says Macpherson, the girls want more detailed instruction, but when they don’t receive it, they learn to use their imagination and come up with their own designs. “The bags [designed by the girls] were so simple at first,” said Macpherson, “And now they’re so wild!”
In addition to the fabric, bags and jewelry created in Mali, Fabric of Life also carries items handcrafted by artists in Nepal, Haiti, the Philippines and many other poverty-stricken nations. In Haiti, for example, the traditional art of converting oil drums into wall sculptures is a true mark of both man’s imagination and his resourcefulness in the face of dire economic circumstances.
Using 55-gallon oil drum cast-offs, the artist first removes both ends of the drum, reserving those pieces for smaller sculptures. Next, he stuffs the drum with straw, igniting it to burn out any residues. When it has cooled, he slices it down one side and pounds it into a flat, 4×6-foot metal canvas. The artist then draws his intended design on the metal sheet with chalk. Armed with only a hammer and chisel, he cuts, contours and shapes the drum from a piece of junk into a work of art. Talk about recycling! Several of these beautiful and rustic sculptures adorn the walls of the boutique.
So next time you’re strolling around downtown Edmonds, step into the Fabric of Life boutique to find unique, artisan crafted items that will not only enrich your life, but will also help to support artists in need and their families world-wide. Now that’s a win-win!
With a background in theatre and journalism, Ellen Chappelle is perfectly poised to cover the local arts scene for My Edmonds News. She also keeps busy writing and editing for artists and small businesses, publishing an informational site for dog owners and creating handcrafted jewelry. Please keep her posted about all things artistic in Edmonds by emailing her at [email protected].