Monthly Archives: July 2013

Interview with Keith Recker of HandEYE Magazine

Magazines have an amazing power to inform, inspire and educate people across all walks of life. I have a few magazines which have done just that for me. My love of textiles has definitely been encouraged and enhanced by what I saw in and learned from magazines dedicated to textile, craft and the people working with it.

Keith, ever since I discovered Hand/Eye Magazine – I think it was around Issue 2 – it has never failed to inspire me. Your mission statement very eloquently describes how I feel about creativity, cultural values and ethical commerce. I am honoured that you agreed to talk to The Fabric Thread in your role as editor of Hand/Eye Magazine. Welcome!

How did the idea/concept for Hand/Eye Magazine come about?

Much of my career was in home furnishings: Gump’s San Francisco, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s. Just as I was starting off in that line of work, I discovered a non-profit sector working to introduce developing world artisans into the global marketplace, so that they could earn meaningful incomes using the skills and materials they inherited from their elders. 20 years of involvement with the handmade culture all over the world enriched my life immeasurably. I met remarkable people, whose patient talents humbled me. I met families whose meagre existence was for them just an unimportant backdrop, something secondary to their beautiful, communal culture. I felt transformed just by being in contact with the people I came to know. I hope I’ve helped some of the people I met, but they helped me and illuminated my thinking much more than I ever helped them. So HAND/EYE was born as an attempt to nourish other people as I had been nourished.

You’ve published 10 themed issues up to date. Each issue concentrates either on a specific geographical area (e.g. Central Asia, Peru, and Haiti) or on a creative concept (e.g. Global colour, Craft). Tell us more about the process of deciding on a theme, selecting the different artisans/issues to explore and commissioning the writers and photographers.

 There has been no fixed rule on how to or what to choose. That’s the beauty of working independently, with the support of a flexible and well-informed board of directors.

We’ve looked for pockets of handmade creativity that haven’t been adequately discussed in the media – and we’ve always found much too much content to squeeze into any given issue. So we end up in some way with the best of the best.

In terms of choosing writers and photographers, we are looking for people whose point of view is compassionate and respectful, who are open to the possibility of being surprised and impressed and humbled by the topics we cover. Photographers have been so wonderful to work with. Edward Addeo has travelled with us on commission, as has Julie Hall and Musuk Nolte and David Land and Clay Ellis. Each of them has expressed HAND/EYE’s point of view infused with their own flavour. Without them, HAND/EYE wouldn’t be what it is.

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Who is your target audience? Who do you write for and how do you make sure you reach them?

We have three audiences.

  • First are collectors of fine craft and fine art. They want to see what’s going on, and they appreciate the way we present our information.
  • Second are students and teachers of art and design. They are looking for cultural information, for ideas to inject into their discussions of sustainability and creativity.
  • Third are travellers who are looking to educate themselves and to add things to their plans.

We try to be sure that the first two audiences are happy by presenting new information in a beautiful way that remains true to HAND/EYE’s interest in presenting global handmade creativity with the same respect and seriousness that, say, Ellsworth Kelly rightly receives. The third audience is happy if we can provide details and addresses so that access to the people we profile can be part of the journey they are planning.

There is no advertising in the magazine. Why is that? Surely there are many businesses that subscribe to your mission and would love to support you.

We wanted HAND/EYE to be something that people keep forever. Something of greater value than magazines you look at for 5 minutes and toss. Advertising dilutes the reverence we feel for our subject matter.
Selling ads and satisfying advertisers is also a profession unto itself which demands 100% attention from a qualified staff.  We chose to keep our 1.5 full-time staff (only .5 of which is paid) focused on CONTENT. Thankfully, we did find a handful of companies and organisations interested in sponsorship, so some of our first 10 issues reached break-even status financially.

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Many of the artisans featured in Hand/Eye work against incredible odds – poverty, disease, natural disasters, lack of education and much more. Yet, all of them seem to rise above their circumstances. Do you think the fact that they have found a creative outlet has something to do with it? Does creativity strengthen the human spirit?

Having a sense of purpose and value is the greatest strengthener of people. The skill and knowledge that rests in the hands and eyes of great artisans is a source of this. Years of practice and refinement are generally required to emerge as a great artisan. The history of trial and error, of the struggle for creativity and perfection, the miracle of achieving a creative voice – what better ingredients can we think of for an incredible human identity? Being acknowledged by their community – and sometimes by the wider world – is also a source of sustenance for artisans.
Poverty, disease, natural disasters, and all the other ills once contained in Pandora’s Box have always proved insufficient to snuff out the human spirit. Celebrating the talents that rise above the limitations we all fear is a way of encouraging ourselves and others to try to raise ourselves and our spirits a little higher.

How has working with all these amazingly creative people in all these diverse locations and circumstances influenced you personally? Do you have any stories or anecdotes you want to share?

There are dozens and dozens of such stories. And I hope there will be dozens and dozens more.
One of my first artisan trips took me to Mozambique, a very challenging place, where I met a tall, soulful man making beautiful picture frames and boxes out of sandalwood scraps and twigs. His tools were rudimentary. He had to create out of nothing the easels and toggles and fasteners at the back of the frames. Barely literate, he kept a production schedule of sorts on a scrap of a blackboard. He, his wife, and an employee worked in the shade cast by the decrepit van in which he and his wife and four children lived.
He had recently returned from a 40-day retreat that his imam demanded he takes. When I asked why he had been instructed to do this, he smiled and said that the stress of running the business had gotten the better of him, and the imam demanded he takes a break. “Was it difficult to walk away from your business?” I asked. Yes, he nodded slowly: “This is how I feed my family.” But he also smiled and said that when he got back, he saw that his wife and his helper had kept things going very well and that he realised he was not alone in his struggle to be successful. “It changed my idea that I was in business all alone.”

This struck a chord with me. Here, in the middle of a struggle to stay alive and to meet his responsibilities as a husband and father, I was reminded of a lesson I needed to learn. And reminded of it with such dignity and perfection.

What lessons have you learned during the past few years with Hand/Eye?

I am not a good fundraiser.

What cannot be explained in words can sometimes be explained in pictures.

There is a lot of work to do to break down artificial barriers between art, craft, and design – which are not helping us to understand, embrace or advance human creativity.

What advice do you have for the average person regarding ethical consumerism?

Ask lots of questions. Talk to retailers to share your interest in handmade, diverse, ethically sourced goods. But most importantly:  be flexible. The layers of difficulty surrounding the sourcing and delivery and presentation of handmade goods are immense. Embrace people who make the effort rather than penalising them for not achieving perfection. Encourage them to evolve and go further… but stick with your community-based retailers and help them survive and thrive. In the long run, the future of artisans and handmade goods rests with independent stores and small chains. We need these folks to stick around.

What does the future hold for Hand/Eye Magazine?

If I knew, I would share the news. But the future is a mystery. For now, we are revamping our website so that it is better organised and more beautiful. Look for that in November 2013. If I can find more sponsors and more subscribers we might be able to print more issues of the magazine, but for now we are online only.

We still have copies of 08/Peru, 09/South Africa and 10/Craft and Compassion, three of our best issues. Come see us at www.handeyemagazine.com/subscribe to purchase.

Thank you for taking the time to speak to The Fabric Thread Keith. I am looking forward to discovering more amazing textile artisans through HandEYE Magazine.