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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis past Monday, my friend Reyna invited me to help out with an event she was coordinating – a rug-hooking workshop with the project that she is helping to manage, along with Ramona (the former director of Oxlajuj B’atz’) and Mary Anne Wise, a rug-hooking artist/designer from Minnesota. Check out this website for more information about the project!

The workshop brought together around thirty different women from seven different cooperatives, varying in ability from expert rug-hookers (each cooperative has one teacher of their own, an artisan who learned directly from Mary Anne in one of her earlier workshops and who is now helping to teach the other artisans in her community) to brand-new students. Mary Anne purchases all of the rugs that the women make, and then sells them in the states – for hundreds of dollars.

I first heard about this project two years ago when I was volunteering with OB, as I remember visiting a few cooperatives that were starting to learn the rug-hooking project. So seeing how much the project has grown in just two years has been absolutely incredible.  Reyna asked if I could be the “official” photographer for the day, so I watched most of the workshop from behind my camera lens – but I still found myself blown away by the energy of the group and of the project. Reyna, Mary Anne, and the other facilitators emphasized throughout the day that we were all there as a “family,” and the women were encouraged throughout to express their thoughts and opinions, maintain an open space, and take advantage of the short time that they had together to learn new skills and techniques and ask questions of each other.

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But what impressed me the most was how Reyna and Mary Anne stepped into their roles as facilitators – rather than positioning themselves as superior or more knowledgeable than the women, they took it upon themselves to encourage the women to learn from one another and to stretch themselves. For example – the afternoon session ended up turning into a one-on-one rug critique session with Mary Anne, where each of the women came forward with their partially finished rugs, asking Mary Anne’s advice on colors or designs. Mary Anne’s first question was always, “Well, what do you think?” – encouraging the artisan to think for herself and to justify her choices in colors. Then she would turn to the artisan’s teacher, and ask her what she thought. It was an amazing process to watch, especially knowing that until a few years ago, this was a process that was completely new for each and everyone one of the artisans.

Artisan craft production, especially in poor, rural communities like those I am working with in Guatemala, can be a frustrating field. Markets are saturated with the exact same products and innovation can be hard to come by. It’s not uncommon for outside designers to work with Mayan weaving cooperatives in different ways, but rarely have I seen this process be so collaborative and empowering, focusing on what the artisans themselves can bring to the creative process rather than an outside designer or artist taking complete control over the production process, without the local artisans having any say at all. To me, it’s heartening to see work like this – and I’m excited to see how this project progresses!