Sep 13, 2019

A new traveling artisan teacher

Edson is a young artisan from the campesino community of San Francisco on the banks of the Marañon River. This 30-year-old father learned through observation and practice how to make beautiful crafts. His specialty is making little birds.

 

This talent is what led Edson to agree to be a teacher in several skill-sharing workshops being organized by CACE in our partner communities in the northern Peruvian Amazon. These workshops are always led by experienced artisans showing their fellow artisans how to make new kinds of handicrafts.

 

The first time Edson taught in a CACE artisan training workshop was this past August in Nauta – a town two hours from the city of Iquitos. Participants included artisans from his home village of San Francisco and others from the nearby Cocama village called Amazonas. Edson showed both his ability as an artisan and more importantly his patience and dedication to help each participant learn how to make and finish the craft they were working on.

 

Later that month, Edson joined the adventure of teaching in the Ampiyacu basin which has numerous indigenous communities with Bora, Huitoto and Yagua native residents. The first stop was the Bora community of Nuevo Peru which needed a five-hour trip in a peque-peque (dugout canoe with a small motor) open to the harsh summer sun in the Peruvian jungle. 

The workshop in Nuevo Peru had 25 participants who attended eight-hour sessions for three successive days. The next one held in the community of Huitotos del Estiron had 23 participants from the host village and other communities in the area.

The models that were taught in the workshops were some magnificent birds from the Peruvian Amazon including a few types of eagles, hawks, macaws, toucans, owls, and parrots. Another teacher Doilith who is from the town of Jenaro Herrera on the Ucayali River shared her special talent for making different types of butterflies. Each participant got to choose two models to learn during the three-day workshop. The common result was that each participant was very proud to see their finished crafts.

On the way back to Iquitos, Edson shared his thoughts about being a teacher in the Ampiyacu: “This was the first time that I have taught in communities away from my home, and it was a very positive experience. I was a little afraid that it would be difficult to teach them, but I quickly saw that people are very kind and completely willing to learn. They are fellow artisans who understand the value of the chambira palm and the work it requires. They understand the importance of a craft and how it helps in the economy of the family. I liked teaching, I loved meeting so many people, but above all it makes me feel very good when I think of all the people who learned to make new crafts ”.

Edson and other veteran artisans are a vital part of CACE’s goal of helping artisans from the Peruvian Amazon to improve their skills and livelihoods. This task is a key to our mission of supporting the well-being of Amazonian communities and the conservation of their forests.

Edson teaching artisan at Chino workshop
Edson teaching artisan at Chino workshop
Pablo teaching artisan at Chino workshop
Pablo teaching artisan at Chino workshop
Artisan Liria with 2 birds at Chino workshop
Artisan Liria with 2 birds at Chino workshop
woven barbet ornament at Chino workshop
woven barbet ornament at Chino workshop
Artisan with woven butterflies at Estiron workshop
Artisan with woven butterflies at Estiron workshop
Artisan at Estiron workshop with parrot and toucan
Artisan at Estiron workshop with parrot and toucan
Artisans at Nuevo Peru workshop with birds
Artisans at Nuevo Peru workshop with birds

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Jun 17, 2019

Coming together to be artisan teachers

In Greek mythology the Amazons were a people formed and governed entirely by women warriors. Some say the largest river in the world bears that name in honor of these great warriors. Amazonas is also small community on the the Marañón River, a tributary of the Amazon River, which gives it a connection to the power embodied in the origin of the mighty river’s name. Amazonas welcomed us earlier this month to empower a group of artisans who are passionate as warriors to share their craft-making skills with each other.

The Center For Amazon Community Ecology (CACE) has hosted skill-sharing workshops in our partner communities in the northern Peruvian Amazon for the past ten years so artisans can learn how to make new kinds of crafts. Women artisans in the Ampiyacu region showed other women how to weave different products like belts and guitar straps, and a few men taught other artisans how to carve wildlife designs onto calabash tree pods. When we started working with the communities in the Marañon River area a few years ago, we found that while many artisans made a variety of animal figures, a few people from one family made the most detailed birds. So following our earlier practice, we contracted them to be teachers in workshops to show other artisans how to weave these popular ornaments.

This arrangement worked pretty well for a while, but this spring we reached an impasse. After first asking for more money, this select group finally said they did not want to teach anymore. They could make more money making and selling crafts at home and didn't want to spend the time traveling to teach others. They were also upset that tourist shops in the city were now buying bird ornaments from other artisans – not just from them. So while we understand that artisans may not wish to share their skills with others they view as their competitors, we still believe that all artisans will ultimately benefit if they can collectively make crafts with high quality and consistency to sell their work to wholesale buyers as well as occasional tourists.

We now plan to build a new cadre of artisans who are highly skilled and are enthusiastic about sharing their talents with other artisans. Our first step was organizing a special workshop in Amazonas in early June for artisans who want to improve their craft-making and becoming artisan teachers.

We left the city of Iquitos early morning by car and traveled on the one road out of the city to the town of Nauta. From there, we rode for a half-hour in a peque-peque (motor canoe) down the Marañón River to the community. We were warmly greeted as always by the artisan leader "Panchita" who invited us to stay in her home for the two-day workshop. She is a wife, mother, grandmother and pillar of her family. While she is also a very accomplished artisan, she remains humble and often expresses how she is still learning. This humility motivated her to participate in this workshop. Read more about Panchita in our report Second Chance to Become a Great Artisan. 

The other women artisans who joined the workshop were Deysa, María, and Miriam. The only man who came was "Pablito," a talented artisan who had been a teacher at an earlier CACE workshop. While the group was small, they were ready and excited to participate. They joked and caught up with each other over breakfast. We then gave them their challenge for the first day - everyone should make the best toucan they could by the end of the afternoon. This was similar to an exercise we did in our last workshop to promote cooperation between artisans (see our report: Building a Better Toucan).  This time, however, they would make replicas of this iconic rainforest bird with chambira instead of construction paper. The group enthusiastically accepted the challenge and began to transform threads of palm fiber into art.

The artisans often laughed while working, but it did not diminish their concentration. Their hands moved with mastery, and it seemed like their fingers danced with each other as the artisans observed, commented and corrected what they need to fix.  My CACE colleague Yully and I felt wonderful when we saw these veteran artisans from two communities teaching, learning and sharing with each other without any prompting. When Pablito explained how he makes the toucan beak, the others paid close attention. Panchita shared an idea for how to make the feet, and the group incorporated this detail into their birds. While looking carefully at the photo of the toucan, Miriam noted how the patch around the bird’s eye had a particular shape and blue color, and the group welcomed her observation to make their toucans more like the actual bird. While these artisans might have tried to show off their individual skills in a sort of live competition to earn a teacher job, they all treated it as a rich opportunity to improve their skills by sharing with each other.

After a break for lunch, they quickly resumed their work. Their birds took shape as the body, beak, tail, and wings came together. Deysa paused to stretch her legs, and Maria took a break to breastfeed her baby. They soon got back to their task, however, and wove and wove until one by one they finished their birds which seemed to have come alive. When the day ended, we are all happy the first objective was completed.

For the second day we proposed that the artisans make a blue and gold macaw, and they accepted the challenge with the same positive spirit. The process was similar to the previous one with more jokes, laughter and positive atmosphere. The extent of their cooperation, however, was even greater than the first day. They weaved at their own pace, with focus, respect for work, and in tune with the rhythm of life in the jungle. As time passed, pieces of wire and colored chambira scattered on the ground came together to shape one of the most beautiful birds of the Amazon.

In the afternoon, a small group of tourists unexpectedly arrived at the village. The community mobilized to receive them, and our group took the lead. The visitors wanted to learn about craft making so the artisans took advantage of this opportunity to show them how they were making birds and other kinds of handicrafts made with chambira including baskets and other kinds of woven ornaments. The guests laughed, took pictures and felt very welcome. It was a great example of the simplicity and hospitality of people who feel part of the Amazon rainforest.

As the afternoon wanted, each artisan put the final touches on their macaw.  We asked the group how they felt about these two days sharing and learning from each other. Panchita said, “I found it very useful because my technique got better.” Pablito commented, “It’s very valuable to weave while others can watch and make suggestions about my work.” María said, “This is the first time I’ve partipated in a workshop like this and want to do it again.” Deysa agreed and added, “I’ve learned a lot more about how to add special touches to my crafts.” Miriam concluded, “I’m very proud of my birds, but I have a lot more to learn.”

We finished the workshop with more laughing and joking. I very much appreciated that warmth and joy are abundant with our friends whose bodies and souls are enriched by their lives with the river and forest. We take our leave for the city with promises to return soon and optimism that we have the budding core of a group of artisans who are happy together, anxious to learn, and enthusiastic about sharing their skills and passion with other artisans.

Panchita with large woven egret
Panchita with large woven egret
Artisan making macaw at artisan teacher workshop
Artisan making macaw at artisan teacher workshop
Toucan ornament made with chambira palm fiber
Toucan ornament made with chambira palm fiber
Pablito teaching at workshop in Puca Urquillo
Pablito teaching at workshop in Puca Urquillo
Blue and gold macaws at teacher workshop
Blue and gold macaws at teacher workshop
Blue and gold macaw eating aguaje fruit
Blue and gold macaw eating aguaje fruit
Artisans at teacher workshop
Artisans at teacher workshop

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Apr 18, 2019

Building a better toucan

This past February and March, CACE conducted three workshops in Nauta, Brillo Nuevo and Puca Urquillo to help our artisan partners address three main topics: how to work together to create a new product, how to make a product in quantity with consistent quality, and how to sell handicrafts more effectively to wholesale buyers and tourists.

We kicked off each workshop by splitting the participants into small groups and gave each one some construction paper, glue, tape, scissors, colored pencils and a ruler. The simple instruction was: “make a toucan any way you can.” This initially produced a lot of blank stares. A few artisans had woven birds with chambira palm fiber, but most of them had never made anything with these materials – much less a complicated three-dimensional figure.

The artisans set to work, however, with a jovial spirit, and just over an hour later everyone put their toucan on a long bench. The creations ranged from fat to flat, colorful to dull, precise to crude, and few could stand on their own. The artisans filed slowly by to inspect these individual efforts and carefully observed how any part of any bird was well made or had some attractive feature. The small groups then got back together to make one better toucan based on ideas they picked up from seeing the first attempts. They prepared a basic plan for toucan 2 and assigned each member a task. Someone would make the beak; others would make the head, the body, the tail, the legs, some adornment and/or put the whole thing together. Francisca from Amazonas expressed her feelings about the exercise well, “The first toucan I made by myself was terrible. I clearly didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t want to ask anyone for help. Our group’s bird was incredible the second time. We learned SO much from each other. I know now that we can apply this process to create any new product we want.”

As CACE has tried to standardize various types of handicrafts with our partners, sizes still vary widely sometimes even when we specify the dimensions. We learned one reason for these inconsistencies was that many artisans did not know how to measure things. So, we began the next part of the workshop by explaining the basic units and equivalencies of the metric (centimeters, meters, etc.) and American system (inches, feet, etc.). We reinforced the concept of dividing inches into halves, quarters and eighths with a game in which 2, 4, or 8 people needed to quickly come together to make one whole. We next defined length, width, height and diameter on objects with different shapes and then helped artisans use measuring tapes to record the dimensions of a box, a bottle, a roll of masking tape and a pair of scissors. Angelina from Brillo Nuevo told the group “It was really hard for me to do this exercise, but I really appreciated it. I feel confident now that I can make my belts and other crafts to the right size each time.”

The next step of helping the artisans make products with consistent design and size began by posting a drawing of a water bottle carrier with the dimensions of the woven pouch, the size and color of three stripes and the specs of the shoulder strap. Small groups were then asked to make four identical models with paper and other basic supplies. A few groups who had each person in their group make their own bottle carrier had predictable results – each model was very different. Most groups at least tried to work together where one person would do the measuring, someone else would do the cutting, while others worked on the strap or colored the stripes. No group in any of the three workshops completed all four carriers according to the specs, but after reviewing their initial efforts, each group came up with several ways they could work together more efficiently in a second try. Adela made a point that hit home for several artisans, “I’ve only been weaving for a few years so I’ve been shy about trying to make things with other artisans in my village. If we work together in this way, though, I can do something to help our group be more productive and complete bigger orders. I will get better watching others, and we will all get better with time.”

The next part of the workshop focused on teaching artisans how to classify and organize their crafts to sell them to wholesale buyers through a catalog or to tourists at fairs. All of the artisans first put all of the crafts they had with them on tables. We listed each of these crafts and other kinds that they or anyone else in their village made on a white board and then put each type of craft into a category. So earrings, bracelets and necklaces were grouped under jewelry; baskets, hot pads, and placemats were put into housewares, etc. After this brainstorm, we asked the group to place the crafts distributed randomly on the table with like crafts and categories next to similar categories. We noted the advantage of making crafts with multiple uses that fit into more than one category. One prime example for us is the small calabash pod etched with an Amazon animal with achira seeds inside which serves as a Christmas tree ornament as well as a hand rattle popular with musicians.

One of our most difficult tasks is telling an artisan who has spent days making a craft is that it isn’t good enough for us to buy. We have to do this, though, and tell them why so our partners can improve. They also need to do this quality control on their own to succeed with other buyers. To give the artisans practice with this task, we asked them to closely examine the crafts they had laid out on the tables, choose the best ones in each category and then explain why. We heard comments like: “Oh this, one has really precise edges,” “the knots are loose and uneven,” and “the colors on this one are faded.” It was encouraging that the artisans almost always chose or rejected the same ones we would have. This confirmed our suspicion that most artisans are well aware of the quality of their crafts. While some artisans don’t make high quality crafts because they haven’t learned to make them yet, experienced artisans sometimes rush to complete an order with the hope we will accept their work. While debriefing the exercise, Milda from Puca Urquilla said, “It’s hard to criticize the work of our fellow artisans, but we have to learn to do this in a constructive way. I know from experience that other buyers can be even more strict than CACE. It’s no good wasting our time and resources making crafts that large buyers won’t accept because they can’t sell them. We should develop a reputation as artisans who can be trusted to produce high quality crafts.”

Some of these exercises were challenging and intense so we separated them with interactive games. A few favorites borrowed from our Alternatives to Violence Project workshops were Armadillos and Holes (adapted from Landlords and Tenants) and Crocodiles and Frogs. Both required people to move around quickly and cooperate in some way and produced lots of laughter.

In two of the workshops, we did a session on photographing handicrafts so they could learn to help market their own work. We first set up cloths on tables to provide a solid color background below and behind a craft. CACE staff member Tulio then explained the basics steps for taking a good picture. Each artisan took a turn using one of our cameras or one on their phone to shoot one of the selected handicrafts. Tulio later compiled the photos on his computer and showed the group examples of shots which were in or out of focus, had good or poor lighting, or presented the craft in a good or not so good angle. Eliza from the village of San Francisco said, “I was very timid about doing this because I didn’t want to break the camera. Every time I pushed the button, the camera seemed to lurch, and the photo was blurry. I finally relaxed, though, and did it OK. I was proud to take a good picture of my woven turtles and discover that my son isn’t the only one in the family who can learn to use some technology.”

The next stage of the two-day workshop was helping the artisans start to make a catalog of their crafts. This began by explaining a product description that explained a bit about the artisan or artisan group, where they lived, what materials they used to make it, its size, its use, and their cost for retail and wholesale buyers. Small groups were asked to prepare a description of one or two products that mentioned these points and anything interesting about the craft’s cultural significance or animal depicted in the craft. In mixed-age groups, the elders usually talked while younger ones did the measuring and wrote responses. They then shared these descriptions with the full group to get their feedback and suggestions. One tough part of this exercise for the artisans was figuring out how much of a discount they could give to wholesale buyers who wanted many crafts of the same kind. When they make crafts one at a time by themselves, there are limited ways to improve their efficiency. They realized, though, that they could gain some economy of scale if they worked together to fulfill a large order.

We finally shifted to tips for marketing crafts to tourists. Some artisans had already had some experience doing, but was mostly new for artisans from more remote villages. Each small group was given a stand with a cloth, a batch of crafts, a big paper and some markers. They were asked to lay out their crafts in an attractive way and prepare a sign with the name of their artisan group and some phrase about themselves or their crafts. We did one review first to suggest ways to improve the presentation of their crafts or sign. After these adjustments, our facilitation team took on the role of tourists visiting their fair. Our Peruvian members asked questions in Spanish and tried to haggle with the artisans about prices. I pretended to be an American tourist who was a bit rude and spoke nothing but English. Milly from Puca Urquillo commented, “Wow, that was amazing, fun and hard. This was the first time I really had to explain everything about my craft.” Ofelia added, “It’s true that many visitors only speak a few words in Spanish, and it can be frustrating for all of us. We want you to teach us some simple English when you come back so we can communicate with them a little bit better.” I said I would.

We ended every workshop by asking artisans to answer a few questions in a written evaluation, and we helped the ones who had trouble reading and writing. The overall comments about the workshop were very positive, although there were sometimes mixed reviews about the food served during meal times. Other feedback helped us make our explanations of difficult concepts more clear and dynamic from the first to the third workshop and identify other topics the artisans want to learn about or practice more in the future.

There are many ways to build a better toucan, and we’re learning new ones all the time.

Artisans making paper toucans at workshop in Nauta
Artisans making paper toucans at workshop in Nauta
First round of toucans made by individual artisans
First round of toucans made by individual artisans
Artisans inspecting first round of paper toucans
Artisans inspecting first round of paper toucans
Artisans cooperating to making toucan in round 2
Artisans cooperating to making toucan in round 2
Artisans showing toucans made by groups in round 2
Artisans showing toucans made by groups in round 2
Artisan showing toucan made by her group
Artisan showing toucan made by her group
Yully from CACE explaining measuring units
Yully from CACE explaining measuring units
Tulio from CACE explaining measuring terms
Tulio from CACE explaining measuring terms
Artisans studying bottle carrier design
Artisans studying bottle carrier design
Artisan group making model of bottle carrier
Artisan group making model of bottle carrier
Artisans selecting best baskets for display
Artisans selecting best baskets for display
Armadillos and holes game (Light and Lively)
Armadillos and holes game (Light and Lively)
Artisan taking studio photograph of woven bag
Artisan taking studio photograph of woven bag
Artisans describing handicraft for product catalog
Artisans describing handicraft for product catalog
Placing product photos in practice catalog
Placing product photos in practice catalog
Bottle carriers at practice fair for tourists
Bottle carriers at practice fair for tourists
Artisans practice selling crafts to tourists
Artisans practice selling crafts to tourists
Helping artisan complete written evaluation
Helping artisan complete written evaluation
Serving lunch at artisan workshop at Brillo Nuevo
Serving lunch at artisan workshop at Brillo Nuevo
Pet parakeet in artisan home
Pet parakeet in artisan home
Artisan daughters from Brillo Nuevo
Artisan daughters from Brillo Nuevo
Kids playing soccer at Brillo Nuevo
Kids playing soccer at Brillo Nuevo
Heron flying over Ampiyacu River
Heron flying over Ampiyacu River
Tarantula and termite tunnels on CACE house wall
Tarantula and termite tunnels on CACE house wall

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