Helping Jacmel Craftsmen

The story behind the papier mâché mask collection

Shortly after the earthquake of January 12th and seeing the devastation it created in Jacmel, one of my first thoughts after securing my family’s safety was about the Jacmel craftsmen. How many died? How many lost their homes? What was to become of their income now that the Carnival was cancelled?
 
Friends and relatives wrote as telephone communication was barely functional. Through various emails from friends who wondered about our condition and that of our neighbors, the first to address these questions were the staff of Aid to Artisans (ATA). They wanted to know everybody’s condition.  In response to their query, I contacted Satyr from ADASE (a Jacmel artisan association) who gave me a report of their losses; I immediately communicated the information to ATA. Communication continued and in the traumatized condition in which we all lived, ATA offered a warm friendship I will never forget.

In a small town like Jacmel where income is not readily available and where artisans depend on tourists buying their craft, it is easy to imagine the mental torture one feels walking through the rubble. Who would come to Jacmel now? Who would buy our handicraft? My mind was racing. I felt a strong emotional drive to do something for the artisans who lost so much.

While reorganizing our life and that of my mother, who moved to Haiti after retirement to be near us, I thought of the Smithsonian Street Life Festival who offered us their Mall in 2004 (Haiti’s Bicentennial) so that we, the Haitian artisans, could sell our goods. I emailed them and copied Ms. Geri Benoit (who assisted us in 2004), asking them to please dedicate a space in their Fair for the craftsmen who were victims of the earthquake.

Geri responded immediately and confirmed the Smithsonian would get in touch with me, and yes, they also liked the idea. As time went by, the Smithsonian contacted me asking me to buy for them craft of papier mâché, wood, and baskets for their Fourth of July Street Festival. Satyr helped me identify the artisans who could respond to the orders. It was then that I saw firsthand that most of them were doing the same thing, over and over. The designs were old, the colors flat and dull, and most of the time they used paint contained lead. I realized then these artisans really needed more help than I had anticipated. They needed new designs, new colors and techniques. They also needed to better calculate the cost of production, the difference between retail and wholesale prices, merchandising, display presentations, in fact they needed a lot of help.

I gave it a lot of thought and while thinking I started making a few sketches. As the drawings started to make sense, I felt a collection was born and I would start sharing it with the artisans. I wanted them to have this collection. I wanted them to make the new designs and sell them as new products.

The collection consisted of personal masks to be worn like a helmet and would be sold to the tourists who throng the streets of Jacmel during Mardi Gras. At first the sketches were in pencil on book notepaper, later on I made a watercolor rendition to better illustrate the concept. I presented the color sketches to a dozen artisans and they loved them. They all were thrilled to be able to have new designs but only one artisan came to work with me to start making the prototypes.
      
   
At the time, I was hoping the 2011 Jacmel Carnival would have attracted a lot of visitors and these masks targeting the tourists as customers had to be made ready for the occasion by mid-February 2011.I was then able to get some financial help to prepare prototypes . As previously noted, only one artisan responded to the call. André Metellus started building a head out of mud and clay and shaped it to look like a life-sized human head Each mask had to start with a base that looked like a small cap, then the different shapes were added to it.

Each prototype was to be made in three identical masks. As the prototype collection started coming into existence, almost everyday, weather permitting, André would come with the blank masks and we would work together. I would make one and he would copy it twice, following my directions as for color variation. I provided the paint and the varnish, all lead free. All these prototypes were made from the same mold and each variation added by hand as the mask was being made.
 
The first prototype was the cockatoo. Then came the felines: the leopard, cheetah and the tiger. Continuing to work each day, we proceeded to make the fish, which wasn’t easy because of heavy rains and the paper dried with difficulty. Then we did a series of birds and finally the butterfly.
 
Eventually five more artisans came and joined in the training. Today, I am proud to say that the artisans are empowered to make these masks from start to finish in their own home.

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