by Sue Parman
VoiceCatcher6 contributor Sue Parman spent three hot days in July as a volunteer at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in New Mexico. This is her account of the annual event that transforms the lives of hundreds of women artists each year – and, as Sue attests, her own life as well.
The Luck of Sante Fe
In the 19th century Bret Harte wrote “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” a short story about a poor Indian woman who gives birth to a baby in a gold mining camp. The story points out that humans create luck in the midst of despair; or, as Hesiod once wrote, “You will never find the city of your dreams until you starve.”
Most of the women I met in Santa Fe on July 8-15, 2012, would probably not describe their lives as “lucky.” Many come from poverty-stricken rural areas of the world and are under the thumbs of fathers, husbands, brothers and religious leaders. Many are illiterate. One weaves baskets from telephone wire appropriated from work sites in South Africa, and another makes glass beads from recycled glass in Ghana. A woman from newly-created South Sudan is one of the last who knows how to make beadwork corsets for unmarried Dinka women. A woman from West Bengal practices Nakshi Kantha – a centuries-old technique of sewing layers of old fabrics together.
An Anatolian hand weaver, a horsehair weaver from Chile, a doll-maker from Kyrgyzstan, a raffia-weaver from Madagascar, a button-maker from Morocco, a Tuareg leather-worker, a glass-blower from Palestine, a gourd-carver from Peru – not to mention the jeweler from Namibia who makes beads from ostrich egg shells. All these women arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the middle of July to sell their artwork for three days. Whatever their own thoughts about luck or the lack of it in their lives, I felt incredibly lucky to be there with them.
Normally, I do not seek out hot climates – I’m an anthropologist who studies the Scottish Outer Hebrides and takes vacations above the Arctic Circle – but the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market is magic. This is my second year to volunteer and I expect to do it for the rest of my life. I work with artists to help them “tell their stories”: the details of family tradition and personal struggle that transform a rug or an earring from beautiful bling to a meaningful, memorable human transaction.
Take the Japanese weaver who sold a piece of indigo cloth for over $7,000. The customer who bought it plans to make a kimono. Why did he buy it? Because the artist did everything herself: Grew plants, made dyes, spun silk, designed the pattern, wove the cloth and talked about the traditions of Japanese culture. Another customer lingered over embroidered boots, listening to the artist’s story of the twenty women in her Kyrgyz cooperative who have revitalized the nomadic tradition of felt-making and thereby raised themselves out of poverty.
How the Market Works
The market has been in existence for nine years. It is staffed by 1,600 volunteers. Although the market organizers present an apolitical face, the market is subversive as hell. People’s lives are transformed. The earnings that an artist takes back home (an average of $17,300 last year) are shared with other members of their family and community. Women gain a voice; they innovate, form international connections, promote literacy and computer skills, feed large families.
The market is incredibly generous. It raises over $100,000 a year to pay the travel costs of first-time artists; it pays for their hotel and food; it provides workshops not only on how to tell their stories but on how to display and price their goods. It helps them develop both retail and wholesale marketing techniques, and gives them business cards to hand out during the market and to take home with them.
Once the market starts and the artists are in their booths, a volunteer actually sells the goods, leaving the artists free to tell their stories with the help of a translator. Other volunteers are ready to tally the sales results so that by Monday morning the artists can be paid and go home.
The aim is to support a sustainable business. Artists may apply to come back, but after their first year they must pay their own expenses. Many return; some disappear into the maelstrom of their country’s arena, leaving behind their stories like mist over a river.
You would think the market itself would be sustainable, but it’s not. Of the almost two-and-a- half million dollars raised this year by 154 artists during three days, 90% of the money went to the artists. Not even Heifer International can boast of this level of support!
By agreement, artists give one of their best items to the market. Designated as the “Best of the Best,” these items bring a premium price. But of the 10% the market earns, 5% goes to credit card companies and to errors that are not passed on to the artists. Thus year after year, the market depends on the kindness of strangers for contributions.
And year after year people give and count themselves lucky.
Postscript from Sue: The market recently reported that their collective sales this year totaled a record $2,477,692, a 7% increase over last year, and the artists returned home with an average of $18,253, another record-breaker. Finally, some of the photographs I sent my artists are now on their Facebook page. Strange new world!
Sue Parman is an anthropologist who studied the Scottish Outer Hebrides. Most of her plays – and many of her academic and literary works – are about Scotland, although she is frequently waylaid by other topics such as dreams, snails and water.