Backstrap weavers in Oaxaca, Mexico

Why I became a entrepreneur in a global craft economy

It was a warm sunny morning in San Marcos Tlapazola, a small town near Oaxaca City. A large blue metal door opened onto the immaculately kept courtyard at the center of the compound belonging to the Mujeres del Barro Rojo or the Women of the Red Clay. Next door we hear the sounds of a funeral gathering, a brass band playing a sweet yet melancholy melody in the background. The smoky aroma of a wood fired kiln lingers in the air. With friendly smiles we are invited in and encouraged to sit in patio chairs arranged in a semi-circle around the well-known ceramic artist Macrina Mateo Martinez as she patiently demonstrates her mastery of the red clay.

She explains how the clay is harvested from nearby hills and is refined by hand to create the perfect texture for constructing artful and utilitarian items with a lustrous terracotta-colored finished. Martinez works the clay with expert hands to show us how she achieves the correct texture and thickness using an old corn cob as a preferred tool. As she speaks she forms the vessel’s shape on a pottery wheel made of a flat stone sprinkled with sand upon which a piece of a rubber ball was rotated by hand. Her expert hands quickly produced a beautiful comal or tortilla pan in a matter of minutes.

Touring the countryside surrounding Oaxaca City and having the opportunity to visit with various masters of traditional crafts such as ceramics, weaving, woodworking and cooking offered a glimpse into some of the traditional folkways of indigenous people of this region. But these traditions are not static and immutable, not to be viewed like an artifact in a museum. These ways of making are dynamic, evolving, and responsive to the creative forces of a changing way of life. Some of these changes are spurred from internal transformation within the community, but many changes are brought about by external influences such as tourism and the appearance of cheaply made imported goods in local marketplaces. Although social and economic systems are changing, the importance of upholding indigenous skills and knowledge, and supporting local economies and social projects remains a vital pursuit. How can these things be sustained in a complex globalizing world?

These experiences and questions marked the start of my journey integrating my academic background as a cultural anthropologists with my curiosity about fair trade and ethical business principles. This path brought me to the realization that as an entrepreneur I could be instrumental, in a small way, to helping supporting indigenous communities, their craft traditions and a wider understanding of the value of cultural diversity through the process of making things. And so my business Folkways Culture Kits was born.

Early on in the Folkways development process, I spent lots of time and effort researching many different wholesale sources specializing in regional crafts produced according to fair trade principles. In fact, there are many excellent wholesalers of a wide array of items handcrafted by artisans around the globe. But I quickly realized that the pieces that Folkways would offer would be different. There is plenty of room in the marketplace to promote a different type of design aesthetic, one that upholds the idea that indigenous, handmade craft traditions can be modern and elegant. I knew that to manifest this vision I would need to develop personal relationships with artisan groups from specific cultures and regions.

The quest to find artisan partners first led me to Oaxaca, Mexico where I had the honor of observing the mastery of the ceramic artists associated with Colectivo 1050°. It was there that I fell in love with the matte yet luminous finish of barro negro (black clay) and the hand-formed appeal of the mezcal cups. I immediately knew that this item would set the design standard for future of my entrpreneurial vision.

In keeping with the goal of supporting indigenous artisans, while honoring the evolving nature of their craft, working with sources like Colectivo 1050° is one way to honor the communities and cultures from which these handcrafts are passed down through countless generations. Colectivo 1050° is a part of the larger social design, fair trade, and cultural development project Innovando la Tradicion. “Our goal is to elevate the symbolic, cultural and commercial value of pottery in the world of today. We foster innovation through experimental workshops and technical training, we search for sustainable technological changes and promote pottery through a variety of means,” explain organization representatives. Through offering elegantly handcrafted barro negro mezcal cups to a wider customer base this organization can more effectively benefit indigenous ceramic artisans.

The modern global economy can represent the loss of cultural traditions and dependency on outside markets for many communities around the world. As participants in this system, we are also presented with an opportunity to honor and nurture the indigenous traditions that make this complex world so rich in its diversity through our consumer choices. It is through the act of making that we access a deeper aspect of our human nature, the ability to transform our world into something useful and beautiful.