International Arts & Crafts

Arts and crafts refer to anything made with one's own hands, a skill. It doesn't matter what the medium is that the crafter or artist chooses to use as each piece is made from the heart, involving a soulful expression of self. With each country's own culture, attitude and life experience, what becomes is a special uniqueness in the eyes of the world, an honest expression of one's world, thoughts and experiences.

With all that differentiates people around the world, arts and crafts are one thing that breaks all barriers and transcends cultures. By looking at what each culture hand crafts, you are seeing into their soul, their story, their outlook, their life. Hence, arts and crafts can be a very powerful expression of self.

Here are some of my favorite crafts as seen around the world:

1. Matryushka Dolls (Russia)
These wooden nesting dolls have a special meaning for me because my great grandparents, who were born in Russia, gave them to me when I was a little girl. As an adult, all I have to do is pick up one of these painted figures and instantaneously be transported back in time!

I read several different stories on its origin, and the one I like the best comes from Russian Crafts:

"In old Russia, the name Matryona or Matriosha was a very popular female name among the common people. Scholars say this name has a Latin root "mater", meaning "Mother". This name was associated with the image of a mother of a big peasant family who was very healthy and had a portly figure.

Subsequently, it became a symbolic name and was used specially to create brightly painted wooden dolls in such a way that they could be taken apart to reveal smaller dolls fitting inside one another."

2. Barro Negro aka Black Pottery (Mexico)
The town of San Bartolo Coyotepec in Oaxaca state is well known for their handcrafting of black pottery, a special procedure for which was developed by Dona Rosa, whose son, Valentin still carries on this tradition at the Alfareria Dona Rosa. The present day pottery, which is shiny, smooth and black, should be used for decoration only and not for cooking or serving as its light grayish brown utilitarian predecessor.

The large shop has 4 sides of shelving all well-stocked with hundreds of pieces of black pottery for sale. There's a large pile of urns, like the ones that carried mescal, located on the grassy area in the middle of the store. You can watch Valentin demonstrate how the black pottery is made and take some great pictures of him and his pottery, as I did in November 2003.

I enlarged and framed my photo of him making a vase with clay everywhere and have it displayed at home on my wall above where my own two pieces of black pottery are sitting. It's a very inspiring display, reminding me of my trip.

More information about black pottery and Dona Rosa can be found at TomZap.

3. Haiku (Japan)
I have stretched this topic a bit to include this traditional Japanese poetry because it's so reminiscent of my elementary school days in Language Arts class! What's really fascinating about this particular art form, originating in the Middle Ages, is that some of the best Haiku poems describe everyday situations in a brand new and exciting way.

As random as they sometimes seem, haikus are very consistent in Japanese, with 5, 7 and then 5 syllables in 3 separate phrases, each complimenting the others. In English, though, the number of syllables is not so consistent, hence changing the sound of the flow. Another rule of thumb is that the phrases cannot rhyme.

If you haven't seen this type of poetry since you were young, like me, here's an example of what's known as "urban haiku":

Silence–a strangled
telephone has forgotten
that it should ring

It's comically refreshing, is it not?!?

For more haiku poems, including some that are reflected in really neat (in an engagingly spooky way!) black & white photos, look for "Photo Haiku" at Haiku Poet's Hut.

4. Balcones or Casitas (Colombia & Venezuela)
These adorable 3-dimensional wooden models that depict scenes from typical Latin American houses are my absolute favorite craft around! They are part of the miniature world that secretly inspires me. Often hung on a wall, they depict a typical scene of a patio, balcony, window, doorway or interior room with a fireplace called chimeneas.

After the wood is assembled, the model is painted, then the finishing decorative pieces are attached, such as floor and roof tiles, wood stairs, old style tiny wood windows and clay pots and hanging baskets with flowers.

5. Photography (Everywhere!)
Even though photography is generally seen as an "art", it brings with it more considerations than many typical arts and crafts because it affects people directly, especially when snapping photos of the local people while traveling.

Even local photographers need to have a level of sensitivity when photographing their own. Jim Kane, founder of Culture Xplorers and avid photographer, describes the process as "Culturally Sensitive Photography" and gives us eight guidelines to consider when photographing people that you can even use photographing your own country.

As you shoot your own personal portfolio of photos throughout the years, you can start to notice how your own sense of photography style is developing; after shooting lots of the same types of photos and applying your personality to them, your style emerges. Since I'm a contemplative sort of person by nature, I tend to take more pictures of the subtle nuances of life when I travel, from potted flowers and plants and a row of colorful fruit displayed at a fruit stand to a construction guy napping in a wheelbarrow and a small child innocently feeding birds in the park.

Since photography is one of my passions, I thought I'd share what's worked for me for better photos on the road:

  • Bring more rolls of film than you plan on using and don't be afraid to use them! You may not return to your destination for a long time; why not capture as much of the daily life as you can while you are there?
  • Take the rolls out of their boxes and put them all in a clear baggie for the purposes of check-in at the airport (see next tip).
  • Even if you are going through only one airport checkpoint, politely(!) insist that the X-ray official to check your camera and film by hand rather than scanning it through the X-ray (even if they say it's harmless!).
  • Take pictures from different angles, getting down low to the ground to take a picture of a child or higher up as necessary.
  • Be willing to take off-centered photos. It's really liberating; you'd be surprised!
  • When taking a landscape picture, scan the horizon horizontally and snap picture after picture in smaller segments to be pieced together (when they're processed) to get a more expansive feel. It's a great display for a scrapbook!
  • When you get home, photos developed, pick out your favorite or two, enlarge and frame them (Target has an enlarger and it's pretty reasonably priced!) and then display them in your house as a daily reminder of your trip abroad.
  • Or better yet, make a scrapbook of the whole trip if you have time (at least commit to doing one page, it'll usually progress to more!). One of my favorite websites to find inspiring scrapbook layouts and general scrapbooking tips is Creating Keepsakes. Happy scrapping!
  • There are lots more helpful travel photography tips, compliments of Fodor's.

So, the next time you are looking for a different kind of travel, how about a trip planned around crafts, following your heart from country to country in search of the hand-made wonders that each culture has to offer?

By Sue Lavene

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