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I went to a street fair in NJ last weekend, and there set among the usual fare — the face painters, the sellers of zeppoles and cotton candy and bottled water and shaved ice, the hawkers of Chinese jewelry and semi-precious stones, and the husband-and-wife photographer team with beautiful photos but not many takers — I found something else that grabbed me and excited me beyond words.
In a small, shaded booth was a man selling exquisite, handcrafted, hand-painted, three-dimensional ceramic pottery, alive in its color and artistry.
Each one-of-a-kind piece featured a menagerie of whimsical sculpted animals, delicately applied to the surface both through paint and bas-relief. Words do it little justice, so I brought you this slideshow.
In This Art Are Three Stories Worth Telling:
About the Art
Each highly decorative and detailed piece of pottery combines local South African flora and fauna. You may find a wild mix of zebras and toucans, crocodiles and elephants inhabiting the same bowl. Smaller pieces include salt and pepper shakers, coffee mugs, and bowls with fitted tops. Bigger works of art range from vases to candle stands, casserole dishes, cookie jars, and more. The colors jump off the pottery, and yet also display a subtle shading that only an expert craftsman can produce.
Each piece is individually crafted and signed by the artisans — who work in series of two-person teams. Each team consists of a ceramic potter-sculptor and a dedicated painter, so no two pieces are ever alike. Additionally, of course, are behind-the-scenes jobs for the workers who fire the pieces in the kiln, as well as packers and so on, providing further employment opportunities to the local people.
According to Byrd’s website, “North of the sprawling metropolis of Johannesburg / Soweto, tucked in among the many small industrial parks, it’s easy to miss the simple doorway which opens to a remarkable pottery workshop. Emerging from the black townships surrounding greater Johannesburg, previously disadvantaged South African native crafters display an innate talent and natural eye for communicating the African experience…revealing one-of- a- kind expressions of the delicate balance between nature and African wildlife.”
About James Byrd & His Company
Byrd sells these pieces through a series of craft shows − 26 scheduled for this year alone, with locales as far flung as Las Vegas and Philly, Martha’s Vineyard and L.A. The works have been displayed in NYC’s Museum of Natural History, as well as at the Congressional Black Caucus and Harlem Fine Arts Show.
Additionally, many of these works of art can be viewed and ordered from an online store at his company website. Byrd tells me that all pieces are functional, even food safe, but with such beauty and value, I personally wouldn’t think to actually put food inside.
He adds that the pieces are protected under Fair Trade conditions, meaning that the artisans are paid at higher wage levels than normally achieved through domestic sales channels….prices range from around $65 for the smaller pieces − which can be completed in less than a week, up to $1,500 or more for the largest works of art, which take about six months to complete.
How Giving Back to the Community Turned Into a Second Career
Byrd explains that he started working with the craftspeople 10 years ago, when he was stationed in South Africa, while leading Telcordia Technologies, Inc.’s economic investment program, a program mandated by the South African government’s Department of Trade & Industry. The program supported local crafters, and spearheaded community-based projects across South Africa. It was a way of putting money back into the local economy.
Through this highly successful program, many villagers now have a thriving source of income and no longer face economic hardships. In fact, numerous young people have gained fully-paid scholarships to major colleges and universities. And the program, established under Telcordia Technologies, has brought such development as new crafter-owned businesses, rural electrification project support, and a state-of-the art library to the rural villages of South Africa.
Now retired and back living in the States, Byrd has continued his relationship with the people of South Africa through establishing Nkosi Distinctive Imported Crafts, which imports and sells high-quality handmade art. Byrd points out that “a portion of the profit from each sale continues to be set aside to help support the basic needs of the previously-disadvantaged people living in the crafters’ villages”.
In addition to ceramic pottery, the Nkosi website offers a wide range of other locally-made artisan pieces, from decorated ostrich eggs to Zulu baskets, hand-made greeting cards of fabric and wood-carved animals, and much more.
If you’d like to learn more about these distinctive collectible items, which make unique home accents and special gifts, you can view Byrd’s website.
Coincidentally, I just came across an Aug. 31, 2012 article titled, “Lions On the Move – Ten Things You May Not Know About Africa’s Booming Economy”, by Susan Lund and Arend Van Wamelen, appearing in ForeignPolicy.com, that lends an interesting backdrop to this story.
My Take-Away Message?
First – you never know where you’re going to be next amazed and inspired…could be, surprisingly, at a local street fair.
Second – you never know where your career may lead…or what retirement holds ahead for you. Look no further than this simple story of inspiration from the villages of South Africa.