— From the pages of FLL#19 • Written By Tina Estlin Page • Photos by Lynn Johnson
“Oh, here they are,” Michele Loeper says, elated as she gestures to a small round table full of onyx sculptures. I pick up one of a cat curled upon itself, the stone heavy and polished smooth, ethereally cool in the cup of my palm and I think: Someone else held this stone. Another palm, in another country, while the other hand carved shape from the rock.
Her voice is fond, the way it always is when you’re speaking proudly of a friend. “This is Mr. Yonus,” she says. This does indeed feel like an introduction; Mr. Yonus might not be physically present, but yet he was, his hands the other pair that had held this cat, these stones. “He gave us a demonstration in the parking lot, showed us the way he uses the onyx,” she says, her finger tracing the strong-shouldered line of a stone elephant, its trunk curved up to meet sky. “Even without all his tools! It was amazing.”
It was also pleasantly overwhelming. During my afternoon with Michele, the Marketing Manager for Ten Thousand Villages, I become very aware that each item in their Ephrata store (with café!) represents a pair of hands, a synecdoche of the individual people who had handmade them in over thirty different countries. What I find most astonishing, though, was that these were things made from found and natural materials only. “We ask our artisans to work with products that are natural, from the earth or recycled, encouraging them to be sustainable and conscious of our environment. And that’s where the ingenious part of artistry comes into play,” and a quick look around at the various arrangements and displays confirms this, as she continues, “using chip bags and making (really, really ornately woven!) gallery frames. Making beautiful bowls out of bamboo shavings; turning bicycle chains into bracelets.”
An artisan card nestled into a display of whimsically carved creatures reads, “I see a rock and I am already thinking of what it will be.” There is a humor that is obvious; the hippo is downright smarmy. I imagine that’s an apt representation.
These are fine people. All of them. Every single artisan. Every one of them has partnered with Ten Thousand Villages to create opportunity for themselves, for their families and communities, by finding ways to be creative, to live up to their artistic potential using only what is readily available to them or has been discarded by others. I think about what I’ve made that day, and then about what I’d gotten rid of or passed by, and this has very real perspective. Also, it makes me think of my favorite “Project Runway” challenges (Austin Scarlett cornhusk dress forever) and the excitement that innovation brings to art. With their global reach, Ten Thousand Villages provides a stage for a unique cultural experience as well, so that every piece speaks to a richness of history specific to a group of people and place as well as their industrious ingenuity.
Mr. Yonus Masih, of the elegant onyx, is one of these fine people. In his neighborhood of Karachi, Pakistan, his stone sculptures have provided him with the only electric meter on the block. There, this simple addition to a house has great symbolic meaning: stability. If you do not pay your electric bill, there is no call from the provider, the “friendly reminder,” and there is absolutely no payment plan. “In Pakistan it is considered a crime not to pay your bills, and if you cannot afford to pay, you are given no mercy. Obviously this is an extremely stressful way to live,” Michele explains. “So for his family he says that it’s a great deal of pride to have that meter, as it means he is working and that he is employable.” It also means that they are safe. In an area where robbery is very regular and often very violent, people often pay for security to keep their homes and families safe. “When you have income opportunity you can afford to do that. And without it, you don’t. And he can afford it, because of fair trade.” He has taken his own skills and craftsmanship, applied those to what he could readily find and imbued his onyx pieces with the opportunity provided by Ten Thousand Villages; it’s empowerment.
As Michele and I walk through each leg of the store, passing musical instruments, densely silvered embossed goblets, saris, spa-quality clay pots full of pure shea butter, bags for days, and several spots of sparkly spangle (again: all individually handmade, by real people, in far-off locales), I fix on the people around us, sorting through delicately woven and dyed scarves whose elegant detail would widen the eyes of Hermès. Each of them will contribute to Ten Thousand Villages’ mission, as well. By seeking out fair trade products (and specifically products made from natural, organic or recycled/upcycled materials that are environmentally sustainable) they show a social consciousness that, too, is fine.
But because of their mission to provide income through the fair trade market prices—cultivating that spirit in people, everywhere, that is both creative and determined to make the most of every opportunity, I think Ten Thousand Villages is the finest.
With their global reach, Ten Thousand Villages provides a stage for a unique cultural experience as well, so that every piece speaks to a richness of history specific to a group of people and place as well as their industrious ingenuity.