Handmade in Haiti: Papier-Mâché
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Is Haiti a rich country or a poor one? If you watch the news, you’re probably convinced of the latter. But when you visit Haiti’s artisans, the argument for rich is persuasive: they have a lot to share.
In their clean and airy atelier just across the road from the Port au Prince airport, the creative people at Caribbean Craft are hard at work — mostly making papier-mâché sculptures for west elm. Over 200 pairs of talented hands transform recycled cement bags and waste from box factories into animals and pumpkins and birds of notable simplicity and whimsy.
With ideas generated by west elm’s Brooklyn-based design team, the Haitian artisans use cast plaster molds to maintain consistent sizes and shapes, Caribbean Craft artisans build up layers of paper and paste first of one half of a Thanksgiving pumpkin or a holiday reindeer, and then the other. The two halves are cobbled together with a bit more papier-mâché, and voila: a delicately textured, upcycled paper sculpture is born. A few coats of white coloring later, the product is ready for a west elm shipment headed north.
Magalie Dresse, owner and co-founder of Caribbean Craft comments, “The reputation of Haitian artisans here in the Caribbean is amazing. Our neighbors, and a lot of North Americans, too, know that we are a real creative force. Does it come from our more than 200 years as the first independent Black republic? Does it come from our rich spiritual tradition? Or from our beautiful sea and mountains? I don’t know. But I do know that we have enough creativity for five countries.”
Papier-mâché has long held a place of pride in Haiti. Masks and costumes for Carneval (the Haitian version of Mardi Gras) have long incorporated paper crafts. Snarling lions, scowling demons, and even an occasional angel or saint, sport elaborate hand-painted papier-mâché masks. Because many Carneval costumes are inspired by Haiti’s history and spiritual beliefs, the skill behind them is considered a major cultural asset. Many masters of papier-mâché live in Jacmel, on Haiti’s southern coast, but they are also scattered across the country.
Caribbean Craft co-founder Joel Dresse agrees with his wife’s assessment of Haitian creativity, but adds, “We have more than creativity. Most of us here in Haiti understand that the best way to address our problems is through hard work. When we accept an order, we work day and night to keep our customers happy. It’s important to make something beautiful, but we also want to make it very well, and on time.”
Joel’s businesslike priorities aside, Caribbean Craft artisans see their work in papier-mache as more than a job. The company, partially through a grant from the HAND/EYE Fund, provides their employees with a big hot lunch every day, served from a kitchen built after the earthquake, when the need for nourishing, healthy food was dire. Now that things are just a bit better in Haiti, the lunch tradition continues. After surviving the challenging times that followed the quake, a strong sense of community knits Caribbean Craft together, and sharing a meal together is a part of that.
But when you put a pair of textured papier-mâché pumpkins on your table, or a noble whitewashed reindeer on your mantelpiece, the artisans are sharing something too: the human touch that’s just a part of the making, and a warmth that can’t be denied.
west elm is interested in being part of the sharing: ten percent of the value of their purchase orders is donated to the HAND/EYE Fund for use in its artisan grants program. HAND/EYE’s artisan grants assist Haiti’s creative people in challenging circumstances: we have rebuilt houses for sculptors and painters whose dwellings were destroyed by the earthquake. And we have supported artisan groups with specific needs to advance their process and make connections to new markets. We’ve built a workshop for horn and bone artisans in downtown Port au Prince, and we’ve helped a group of women lace-makers at the very top of a remote mountain in the countryside get to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. west elm’s support of HAND/EYE goes a long way to creating better circumstances for artisans around the country.