There is a group of sixteen birds, organized into a four by four grid. The grid is not perfect, it is clearly drawn by hand. It is a work of art, Rita’s work of art. Rita is one of many artists premiered in Roots Studio. One bird’s beak grazes the tail of another, a muted mauve tone is paired with a vibrant orange, a cerulean blue with a lime green. The juxtapositions of intense and dull, rounded and curved, create a visual melody. The birds’ undulating forms mimic oceans waves: both individual and infinitely one. One can rest their eyes on the small penetrating designs that repeat in modified iterations of themselves throughout the work. There is tranquility in the works use of repetition and juxtaposition.
The initial idea for helping the villagers in rural India was to create a mobile school. Transforming a fifty-seat school bus into a classroom, co-founders Rebecca Hui and Gary Mao of Roots Studio drove from village to village in West Bengal teaching children everything from computer skills to chemistry. Unfortunately this didn’t last very long, after about three months the children’s attendance was dropping at an alarming rate. Parents were deliberately taking them out of school. The parents needed the children to work, in order to help the family earn enough income to survive. The question for Rebecca and Gary then became: how do we help these children and families earn more money? While the initial questions surrounding access to education was certainly a noble one, it was also a slightly irrelevant one. Education can open doors, but only if you are then prepared with the other skills which allow you to walk through those doors. Education can also often lead to urban migration, or, a depletion of the village population. Why not hone in on the village to make it, and its people, the very best versions of themselves?
Back to the drawing board for the co-founders. Quite literally.
Roots Studio is an organization that offers limited edition prints in partnership with artists in rural India. With a goal of providing that which the villagers need, Roots Studio takes a very self-aware approach to developing the capacity of these rural artists and their communities. There are no self-proclamations to be had here, and no definitely no #humblebrag.
Design, craft, and illustration are deeply embedded traditions in each of the villages. A system for the distribution of these unique paintings and drawings could both supply a consistent source of revenue for the villagers, and preserve their culture. There were just some logistics to be figured out: How can the art works reach an audience that has the money and desire to buy them? How would the artists get paid, and how much? The list went on. With an interesting concoction of collective banking, scanners, portrait sketches, and over two years of relationship building, Roots Studios started to make an impact.
The biggest hurdle was on a personal level: trust. It was difficult to engender sincere and lasting trust with the villagers. Convincing the artists to not only partake in a healthy distribution and monetization plan, but to also dedicate themselves to learning the skills needed to make the logistics of that work, such as scanning in their pieces and working with external hard drives to get the files of their works to reliable points of distribution, was not a small task. Without the villagers dedication, there wouldn’t be enough technology, or ingenuity in the world to make the process really work. Co-founder Rebecca remembers:
“One time I went into a deep rural village to seek pilot engagement in West Bengal. But unlike many villages that welcome us warmly, trust was in question since villagers were recently harassed by outsiders. I learned that some corrupt politicians had blocked off the villagers’ road until they agreed to vote for this party.
While our social mobilizer tried to warm the Sir Panch, the village tribal leader, to our work, I began sketching him instead. When he saw himself on my sketchbook, his face swept into a huge grin! Within minutes, villagers gathered around me, mesmerized by the likeness of their leader through my illustration. Within days, we signed up our pilot villages just by drawing a portrait of each Sir Panch leader.
“Art is our product, but I also believe that art can transcend differences beyond language and culture.”
With this trust, Roots Studios is able to appreciate the motivational factors pushing the villagers to produce. There is an interesting, and sometimes fine line between artist and artisan. The former may imply a free independent spirit while the latter may imply a craftsman who is a participant in a larger collective tradition. Both of these creative approaches can be seen in the works on sale through Roots Studios. Both of these approaches speak to the people in the village. Both of these approaches allow for the cultivation and sharing of culture to a curious, but totally removed and unfamiliar audience, while very directly improving the financial status of that culture. It is refreshing to have such a one on one connection.
Moving forward, Roots Studio is looking to build new partnerships for their distribution. They hope to increase the channels through which the rural artists work is shown, such as through interior decorating companies, or corporate gifting opportunities. “For many of these artists who have never left their rural village, the thought that their art is now being showcased to the world, or hanging in an office in LA or a charity gala at MIT is just unfathomable and seriously world-changing for them,” states Rebecca. Creating this sense of ownership and pride in their works sustains the cycle of trust, motivation, cultivation, preservation, and distribution, the building blocks of Roots Studio.
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