Art Resource Traditions: education and community development with indigenous arts


Production of handicrafts based on indigenous materials and designs

Aspiring artisans often become discouraged in their endeavors because they cannot afford the high cost of imported materials that they assume are essential for a high-quality product. All too often, they also undervalue their own artistic traditions. LAARP director William Swetcharnik relates a striking example of this. For example, while helping establish an arts-and-crafts school in 1971, high in the mountains about 100 km north of Mexico City, he remembers how some North American teachers asked a poor weaver to make them a blanket. This weaver raised his own sheep and dyed the wool with beautiful colors made from local plants. But he made a long journey to the city to buy some expensive polyester yarn dyed with bright synthetic colors, and with that he wove the rug he presented to the teachers. Of course, he also felt it necessary to charge more than the teachers had expected, because his materials absorbed so much of the overall cost.

As with artists, artisans also need to be encouraged to make work authentic to their culture and resources. With the right kinds of marketing, they can prosper more by producing authentic handicrafts. How can we help them? LAARP artisan initiatives have included research in different regions in order to identify artisans who were still familiar with specific resources such as colored earth deposits that have been used for many generations, but whose use had been disappearing. Area artisans are then brought together into workshop settings where these resources and skill-bases are shared among themselves and to the younger generation. This is done under the supervision of personnel who have been trained by LAARP, who also provide supplemental instruction in the use of local resources, regional design traditions, and basic marketing strategies. These activities are then integrated into cultural tourism and small business initiatives in the context of environmental management planning.

Another important dimension of LAARP's work among artisans has been to organize the participation of local school teachers in the artisan-oriented workshops, as well as to organize additional school-based workshops in which the students meet the artisans, learn from them, and are inspired by their example (mentioned also under the art education heading of this forum). This confers more respectability on the artisans and encourages them in their craft. It creates an additional source of income for the artisans when they are paid to make presentations in the schools, and as the schoolchildren discover their talents and become interested in these practices, it also encourages the formation of a new generation of traditional practitioners.

We can also create structures of economic support for artisans by fomenting regional systems of artisan production of mineral-based paints, brushes, frames, cloth, papers, and other locally produced art materials. This provides another source of income for artisans and makes inexpensive basic art materials more readily available for artists and other artisans who cannot conveniently produce all these materials on their own. The LAARP program has also worked to make inexpensive, artisanally produced art materials available to schools on a regional and national basis.