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Jacmel artists win Clinton Bush grant Add to ...

After more than six months of working to produce their trademark art in ruined backyard workshops, the struggling papier mâché artists of Jacmel have finally won a boon: a $50,000 (U.S.) infusion from the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund.

Although not a massive sum, the grant will fund the rebuilding of 10 ateliers destroyed in January’s earthquake and literally put new roofs over the heads of a team of artists.

The artists need work space now more than ever they have been working frantically to fill a massive order for a major U.S. retailer with plans to launch a Haitian-made home decor line. (The retailer refuses to be named until the official product launch in September.) If the products are well received, the artisans have a shot at a long-term relationship with the store, which could revitalize their entire community.

Until now, the artists, whose work has made Jacmel one of Haiti’s most renowned art destinations, have been working in unsheltered spaces amid the ruins, where they are exposed to the rains that soak Jacmel every day.

“They’re making this product in horrible conditions,” said Cameron Brohman, a development expert and co-founder of the Brandaid Project, a non-governmental marketing and development organization that aims to revive Haiti’s arts and crafts industry and connect it with North American retail distributors.

It is through the work of Mr. Brohman and the Brandaid Project that the Jacmel artisans were able to secure both the retail connection, cemented earlier this summer, and the Clinton Bush grant, which Mr. Brohman says will raise help legitimize his organization’s work in Jacmel, perhaps helping to attract new donors.

“Big names get big notice,” he said. “It’s a serious vetting process we have to go through to get that money and to get their trust. It validates what we’re doing.”

Brandaid’s goal, even before the earthquake, was to help raise the profile of Haitian and other foreign artists in the world marketplace. Since January, their focus has sharpened into a mission to get artists back into their workshops and help them create a lasting economy. Brandaid representatives have been doggedly pursuing connections with high-profile retailers interested in long-term relationships with the Haitian crafts sector.

“What we want out of this is to be able to create in Jacmel a world brand from this papier mâché product, something that becomes famous around the world, like Wedgwood China,” Mr. Brohman said.

In pursuing that goal, Brandaid is slowly reorienting Jacmel’s arts sector, which relied too heavily on a dwindling flow of tourists even before the earthquake. While some artists exported occasional orders for knick-knacks to foreign countries – hotels in the Dominican Republic, Italy and France, for example – connections to major North American retailers were elusive. Then the earthquake wreaked havoc on an already fragile community – nearly 50 ramshackle workshops near the Jacmel’s heritage district were destroyed.

“We’ve lost just about all our clients,” said Herbie Marshall, a don of papier mâché sculptors who specializes in roosters and parrots. “I’m not living off art right now. I’m not organized for production. The clients are gone. Life is a mess,” he said in a recent interview.

As Brandaid’s investment in Jacmel begins to pay off, the outlook for Mr. Marshall and his colleagues is brightening. Soon the artists will have access to a warehouse Brandaid rented with donated funds to store their finished products, protecting them from the weather. The organization also has plans to build two covered work pavilions at the site, which will provide work space for up to 80 artists. There will also be an on-site system to treat water, which Brandaid intends for the artists to sell for additional revenue.

“These donations are rebuilding artisan infrastructure so artisans can fill orders and rebuild their lives and businesses,” Mr. Brohman said, adding: “We’re planning for success.”

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