GATHERING IN AMAZONAS TO TRAIN ARTISAN FACILITATORS
July 08, 2022
Story and photos by Campbell Plowden, Executive Director, Amazon Ecology
I rode with a group of artisans in a van from Iquitos to Nauta in a van. We then traveled 45 minutes down the Maranon River to the Kukama village of Amazonas. At the first house we passed, we were greeted by Sr. Luis and his friendly dog carrying a young squirrel monkey passenger. The dog has been the monkey's closest companion since Luis rescued him as an orphaned baby.
When we arrived in Amazonas for the Artisan Facilitator workshop, we were welcomed by Francisca Orosco (better known as Paquita) who is the leader of the artisans in her community. Amazonas is a Kukama native community, but like many other communities with indigenous origins, its residents speak Spanish because decades of immersion in the dominant culture of its colonists discouraged the use of its native language.
In Amazonas there are a few elders who still speak some Kukama. There are signs around the village that describe simple things in both Spanish and Kukama and apparently children are getting some lessons in Kukama in school.
While she cannot converse in Kukama, Paquita shared a kindergarten song she learned with us in front of a sign in Kukama that says "Welcome to our community. See Video
Regardless of how it was said, the welcome felt very genuine. Our Amazon Ecology team stayed in a few rooms in Paquita's house while our visitors from the Ampiyacu and Tahuayo River stayed in a big house for the school which was not in session. Dinner was soon to follow.
On the first day of Amazon Ecology's Artisan Facilitator Training workshop in Amazonas village, we gave each person a set of designs that showed different parts of a bird. One sheet gave an overview of the whole body while others showed the different types of beaks, wings and tails.
The artisans were certainly familiar with such differences, but since they often made generic looking bird ornaments in the past, we wanted their new woven birds to reflect the features of the species they were making.
We divided the 30 participants into 4 small groups and gave each group photos of a different bird. These included the toucan-like aracari, a great blue heron, a marvelous spatule-tail hummingbird and a cardinal.
We then asked each person to draw a profile of their bird that they could use as a guide for the model they would weave next. It would ideally be drawn so they would know the shape and size of each part of the bird. They would next analyze the colors of the bird in the photo and decide what color or combination of colors they would use to make each part.
This was not an easy task. Many drawings were too small to be useful. A few drawings were beautiful but had more detail in the drawing than could be replicated with the fiber.
After several tries, each group chose one drawing to guide their group. They then presented their work plan to the whole group to practice an introduction they would make to a group of artisans meeting in a workshop to learn how to weave a bird ornament.
In the course of our Artisan Facilitator Training in Amazonas, each small group was tasked with making one kind of woven bird with chambira palm fiber. The heart of the process, though, was having each member of the group become the group's faciliator for 20 minutes at a time before passing the role onto the next person.
While acting in this role, we asked them to put aside their own work and focus attention on the others by following 5 steps...Explanation (use words to explain how the artisan could do the next stage of their craft), Demonstration (show the artisan with their hands how to perform the action they were explaining), Observation (intently watch how the artisan applies what the facilitator just shared), Comment (give specific feedback to help the artisan carry out the desired action), and Affirmation (Compliment the artisan on their technique and/or effort).
Many artisans were understandably shy at first about approaching a more experienced artisan thinking they would have nothing valuable to share with them. Over time, though, artisans at all levels realized that they all had things they could teach to and learn from each other. A beautiful degree of mutual trust and companionship gradually built within the groups.
We have learned that people who attend a workshop expect to work hard while they are learning new skills, but they have to eat well to be happy while they are learning.
We were lucky that the artisan leader Paquita from Amazonas that hosted our Artisan Facilitator workshop recruited her older sister Mirta to be the head cook for our group of 30 artisans. She prepared meals with the usual Amazon staples that included abundant amounts of rice, yucca, and platanos (non-sweet bananas) complemented with chicken, eggs or local fish. One favorite is a soup made with the armored fish carachama. Beverages were usually made from local fresh fruits.
All meals of course were prepared from fresh ingredients cooked over a grate heated with firewood chopped by one of Paquita's sons.
As we moved into the afternoon of the second day of Amazon Ecology's Artisan Facilitator training workshop in the community of Amazonas, all of the participants were close to completing at least one of the woven bird assigned to their group. A few of the artisans with several years of experience had almost finished making two northern cardinals - the model representing this popular bird in the US.
It was impressive as well to see advances in more complicated models like the great blue heron, marvelous spatuletail hummingbird and chestnut-eared aracari. These ornaments are now available for sale on our online store.
As each group in the Amazon Ecology sponsored Artisan Facilitator workshop finished its first round, the members placed their crafts in a line on a table.
Each facilitator trainee in turn then picked up and pointed out one aspect of one bird that they thought was very well made. Comments were very specific like, "this beak has a shape that looks just like the one in the photo of the real bird." They then picked up another one to mention one way that craft could be improved. Frequently, these comments recommended using finer pieces of chambira to better capture the fine details of a head, wing or tail.
Yully and I also provided our comments regarding the consistency of the birds made by the members of each group. Three of the four groups had made their first bird well enough to move on to a new species.
The group that made the aracari had been more challenged to match their woven birds to the real ones and each other. I was happy they agreed to try again and have their practice facilitators pay more attention to progressing more in synch with each other.
I took a few examples of the finished birds to the nearby woods and water and had fun photographing them in natural settings. Hummingbird on an orange...cardinal on a leaf....heron on a stump by the river.
I have had a long relationship with herons and egrets. It began when I did a canoe trip through the Okeefenokee swamp in Georgia during college. The abundance of long-legged water birds in this wetland could make anyone a life-long bird enthusiast.
13 years later, my mother painted a beautiful design of a great blue heron on a piece of fabric that my fiancee (now wife) Yuri sewed onto the back of the raw silk jacket I wore when we got married.
When I first visited the village of San Francisco on the Maranon River in 2015, I was enchanted seeing their early efforts to weave figures of colorful herons.
It, therefore, seemed appropriate to choose the name Garza Viva (lively heron) for the company and store we opened in Iquitos to sell innovative crafts made by our artisan partners.
At our Artisan Facilitator workshop in Amazonas, the group making the great blue heron finished their first samples by lunch of the second day. Since they didn't have enough chambira with the colors needed to make another blue one, they accepted a challenge to make 3 snowy egrets with small touches of black and yellow.
Four hours later they called me over to show me the four snowy egret ornaments they had lined up on the table. It only took a few seconds to realize I was witnessing a golden moment I had never experienced before. This group had embraced the lessons we had been encouraging to work together to perfection. Before me stood four perfect and identical beautiful birds. There was not a single comment I could offer to help them improve the quality or consistency of their collective creative efforts.
I motioned the group together for a group hug. Pushing through tears and my throat welling up, I could only whisper "gracias." Thank you. I sense they also felt pride for their accomplishment. I sense the experience gave them all a taste of what it felt like to join their heads, hearts and hands.
New groups that made macaws, woodpeckers, and cock of the rock made awesome crafts in days 3 and 4. The aracari group greatly improved their colorful birds in their second try.
Francisca Orosco, known to many as Paquita, is the leader of the artisan association in the community of Amazonas that hosted our Artisan Faciitator training. If you saw the video of her singing a song in the Kukama native language, you already have a sense of her joyful energy.
Paquita is also one of the hardest working artisans I know. While she is creative, she is intensely practical in her endeavors to sell crafts to support the education of her biological children and one adopted son.
As our workshop neared its end, Paquita cleared off a large table on her porch and laid out a legion of colorful woven birds, sloths, turtles, grasshoppers, and a stack of diverse baskets it had taken her three months to make.
When I examine crafts in these situations, I exclude my desire to help an artisan from deciding whether to buy a certain craft. My focus becomes assessing if I can sell it with enough profit.
I appreciated that Paquita had five to ten of some attractive crafts that would be a good fit for our online store. Some of these critters were known species. I had to laugh and buy a batch of endearing long-eared purple owls which have not yet been seen in the forest.
It takes time and resources to put a product in our online store, so I don't list many one-of-a-kind lower priced items. I did buy a few unique items like a blue-green hummingbird which we could offer at a fair in the US or store in Iquitos without preparing a perfect photo of it.
I ended up buying over half of Paquita's crafts and gave her at least brief explanations for the reasons I hadn't purchased the others. She accepted all reasons and suggestions with grace.
We took samples of the crafts to some tall plants near her house to take pictures of her with her wares. It's always curious to me that someone like Paquita who has such a ready smile and laugh in normal life has a such a hard time presenting a natural smile in front of a camera. It challenged me to joke with her to help her relax.
It was getting dark when we finished and had to clear the table for other artisans arriving for dinner.
It was fun to learn that that day was both Paquita's and her grand-daughter's birthday!
"While concepts like punctuality, mutual respect, no put downs of self or others, and listening when someone else is speaking may seem like obvious guidelines to form a positive community, a commitment to actually practice and hold each other accountable to observe these agreements is profound in a culture where showing up late, malicious gossip, and interrupting a speaker are painfully common."
"Artisan facilitators should of course share what they know, but beginning and experienced artisans all benefit by remaining humble, enthusiastic about learning, and committed to encourage and affirm their fellow artisans. So many artisans said that the thing they most wanted to bring back to their communities was this spirit of working in a mutually supportive environment."
"Both men and women wore garb made with bleached llanchama tree bark painted with graphic figures from Bora clans. Several wore headdresses made with the feathers from macaws and parrots. They discussed the importance of nature and craft-making in their culture and then launched into a lively dance where the men chanted and pounded sticks into the ground to the rhythm of moving around in a circle. Visitors joined the undulating lines to share the vibrant energy."