Selling crafts and helping needy Haitians Shop helps artisans in poor countries

February 18, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Sales at a New Windsor gift shop are helping to sustain people living in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The manager of International Gift Shop just returned from a trip to Haiti, where she visited artisans who will fill the popular store with oil drum art, painted fiberboard, hand-woven baskets and seed necklaces.

"The only export in Haiti is crafts," said Linda Kjeldgaard, manager and buyer of the items that fill the store's shelves and catalogs. "They have no natural resources any longer."

The shop, which imports items from artists in many developing ** countries, promotes the economic progress of needy people by purchasing and marketing their crafts.

On an eight-day trip to the island, Ms. Kjeldgaard had her first look at the impoverished but resourceful Haitians.

"Their creativity is amazing and innate," she said. "They are born with it and work so hard at it."

Her purchases should arrive at the shop, at the Brethren Service Center, within a few months, at the latest in time for the center's annual International Festival on May 11.

Ms. Kjeldgaard said she selected items she knew would sell in the market here. Frames, pencil holders and hand-painted coasters and place mats should be popular, she said, and a clay Nativity set in a coconut shell also could attract customers.

She quickly became interested in the art hammered out on flattenned oil drums, which are first cleaned and heated in a charcoal fire to burn off any oil.

"It is hours of work and noisy," she said. "The artist usually sits in the dirt to hammer."

Most of the Haitians' shanties have dirt floors and no running water or electricity. The families work hard at the crafts and till small gardens for food.

Unemployment is rampant, and most families eke out a precarious existence. Selling their crafts, often to cooperatives that supply foreign buyers, gives them much-needed cash.

"We buy an item because it is good, but it also gives the maker a dignity," said Ms. Kjeldgaard. "We don't bargain; we give them what they need to have. They receive a fair day's wages."

About 50 percent of the selling price goes to the artist, she said.

With a hammer and chisel, the artists, mostly men, carve images indigenous to their culture onto the drums. With little electricity, most work outdoors in the sunlight, usually in stifling heat.

Giraffes -- although there are none on the island -- parrots, flowers and mermaids are among the favorites themes for the sculptures. Primitive religious scenes also appear on the drums. Ms. Kjeldgaard bought a carved cross for herself.

"They tell you they dreamed of a picture and then hammered it out," she said. "The scenes always reflect their culture. The workmanship is beautiful in a rustic way."

When the work is finished, the carved drum is fired again to

remove any rust or dirt. A thin layer of lacquer preserves the work and darkens it slightly. Some artists paint their pictures in bright colors.

With the inauguration of a new president this month, Haiti is filled with optimism, Ms. Kjeldgaard said.

"I quickly developed a fondness, interest and empathy for what the future will be for them," she said. "We hope buying their crafts helps."

The more the shop in New Windsor sells, the more the Haitians will produce, she said.

"The more we sell, the more materials they can buy," she said.

The Haitian crafts also will have a place in the shop catalog, which is mailed to 3,500 churches in July.

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