SANTA FE, N.M. -- The stories are as diverse as the artists themselves: Afghan women who have lifted themselves out of poverty through a cooperative that sells their traditional embroidery; a former cook for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army who now sells beaded corsets to help support her family and send her many grandchildren to school; and sisters from Kyrgyzstan who make hand-stitched felt and silk scarves using a family tradition that dates back some 300 years.
The women and their tales are just a sampling of the real lives behind the work that will be featured in New Mexico later this month at the popular Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, which sends 90 percent of its $2 million-plus annual proceeds back to the artists and programs that can dramatically alter their lives and their communities.
The market is the largest of its kind and runs July 13-15, turning Santa Fe’s Milner Plaza into a global destination where buyers can mingle with artisans, some of whom have left remote villages for the very first time.
The show is among this artistic mountain enclave’s many popular summer events, drawing 20,741 people last year.
The biggest difference between this and Santa Fe’s other shows, like its Spanish and Indian markets, is the impact it has in far-flung corners of the globe. Besides making life-saving or life-changing contributions like helping communities build schools, houses and wells for clean drinking water, the effort also helps preserve traditional art forms while teaching the artists how to create cooperatives and businesses for selling their wares year-round.
Now in its ninth year, the market was founded by Charlene Cerny and Judith Espinar, two longtime fixtures in the Santa Fe art scene and lovers of folk art.
Espinar says the idea blossomed quickly after she called UNESCO for help locating artists.
“(They) said come to Paris, look through the files. We’ll give you 10 Gold Medal winners,” Espinar said.
Local businesses quickly lined up to help support the show and sponsor the artists. And the rest is, well, history.
Cerny originally agreed to join Espinar in the project only if it had no more than 25 artists. The first show had 18. This year, more than 150 artists from 49 countries will be in attendance selling everything from traditional scarves and attire to jewelry, rugs and baskets. Fifty-four participants will be representing cooperatives with more than 20,000 artisans. Since its inception, the market has earned more than $12 million. Prices at the market range from $5 to tens of thousands.
Espinar and Cerny travel the world looking for new artists. A jury vets the applicants and some first-timers are offered financial assistance. The artists are also offered training to help them market and sell their wares, enabling many to return in later years on their own.
Among this year’s first-timers will be Mary Padar Kuojok, who spent many years traveling with and cooking for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. When the Republic of South Sudan was created in 2010, she moved to Juba, where she joined the Roots Project, which helps tribal woman from around the country revive long-ignored art traditions.
Kuojok, now a grandmother, hadn’t made the beaded corsets that were unique to her Dinka tribe since she was a child, said Roots Project founder Anyieth D’Wol, a former human rights worker.