THE ARTISAN : MATR BOOMIE (HANDMADE EXPRESSIONS)
Matr Boomie, formally Handmade Expressions is a sourcing partner for socially and environmentally responsible products. They work with underprivileged and disadvantaged artisans in India and strive to improve their economic and social standing by creating self-sustainable employment following fair trade practices. They partner with grass-root level NGOs and artisan cooperatives and help them create high quality handmade goods. They empower the artisans with market and fashion information that allow them to create functional products. At the same time, they encourage them to use natural fibers and recycled material wherever possible.
BEHIND THE SCENES with MATR BOOMIE
After Manish Gupta traveled to India and saw some of the artistic treasures that lay hidden there, Handmade Expressions was born. In the past decade, Handmade Expressions has evolved into Matr Boomie, and has continued to add more artisans and art forms to its network. Today, they bring the beautiful art of artisans in India to the rest of the world. The Little Market currently carries several of their hand-painted trays and boxes, as well as block-print table linens. We’re excited to be partnering with them on some new designs that we’ll be carrying later this year! We got the chance to talk with the founder, Manish Gupta, to learn more about their journey. Enjoy!
QUESTION:What inspired you to start Handmade Expressions (which later became Matr Boomie) in 2005?
ANSWER: I traveled to India and met artisans, and I realized that they make beautiful art, but can’t make a living out of it. No one appreciated it in the domestic Indian market, and they were being forced to sell it to middle-men at an unsustainable cost. Since the art is the only thing they know how to do, they had no options. Without being able to make a living from their art, they often moved to cities to take up odd jobs, leading to urbanization issues. The people were struggling, the art forms were disappearing, and that sustainable way of life was going away. The social aspect of the project came to me back at that time, and I thought I should give it a shot. These folks needed a hand, and a good trade partnership, and it seemed like something that people were wanting to buy. When I started, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know that fall colors were different from spring colors, that women wear different colors than men, I had no idea. It’s been a fun journey.
QUESTION: How do you find and choose artisan groups to work with?
ANSWER: The groups we prefer to work with are very rural and fairly marginalized. They don’t have websites or ways to market themselves – you can’t find them with Google. The only way to find them is to travel. You ask someone where they see artistic work coming from, you go there and you keep asking, you keep wandering, and you finally land somewhere where there is art worth buying. It’s a difficult process, but this is how you find the gems. We had a lot of false starts, because a lot of traders don’t want to tell you where the products come from, so you will never be directed to the right place. We now have a team that is traveling and working to find artisan groups and keep working with them. These groups are fairly marginalized, and often don’t have the necessary resources or education. For example, women will know how to do beautiful embroidery, but they don’t know how to stitch a bag. Or they can stitch a bag, but they don’t have access to a good-quality zipper. There are no resources, no quality control. All of that needs a lot of support, and that is where our team in India comes in. And all the artisan groups in a region are interconnected, so once an artisan works with us and they trust us, and they respect what we are trying to do, they will share us with other artisan groups. It is a network that continues to grow itself.
QUESTION: Your company has an emphasis on sustainable production – what are some of the practices you are using to make sustainability a way of life for your artisan groups?
ANSWER: There are three elements of sustainability that we look at. One is labor practices – the human element during production. Making sure that the artisans we work with are paid fairly, that there is no child labor, that the artisans have the resources for education, healthcare, nutrition, utilities, etc. The second thing we work on is the environmental sustainability of the materials we use in the production processes. We have listed materials in three groups, one is called the preferred list – these are materials we have researched and found to have the least environmental impact. What is the impact on land? What is the energy consumption during production? We have stopped using certain materials that are found to create environmental impact either during production or processing. We have also made a list of materials that we will not use. Also, we make sure our processes are environmentally friendly. One of our groups does hand-block printing, and they have to wash the fabric after each dye. It’s a desert region, and this was using huge amounts of groundwater, which was very unsustainable. We developed a way to reuse the water 5 times using a filter, which saves a million gallons each year. Many of these things have been done forever, and nobody really cares. Sometimes we are surprised by how little people pay attention to some of these things. The third aspect of sustainability is our operation. We try not to air-ship, or use plastic packaging. We use renewable power in our offices, and try to have sustainable practices.
QUESTION: How do you work with artisans to develop new products?
ANSWER: We have a team in India that focuses on finding artisans, understanding their art form, and developing the production. We also have a group of designers in Austin, Texas. Our design team understands the market trends and studies the art forms in India. Then they combine these aspects together to create modern aesthetics, using traditional art forms. The team in Austin designs everything, and sends the designs to India, where our team works to get it developed.
QUESTION: Matr Boomie commits 1% of its annual revenue to invest in social change for artisan communities in India. What are some of the projects that Matr Boomie has been investing in?
ANSWER: We do projects that involve health camp checkups for artisans and their communities. We provide doctors and free medicines and set up a check-up clinic. It is very important because sometimes they don’t have access to healthcare, and it becomes a spiral where they keep lacking the help they need and keep deteriorating. We do eyeglass camps where we distribute eyeglasses where needed. This is essential for their work, so they don’t fall behind economically. We install solar lights, and set up nutrition and health camps. Last year we made small furnaces for artisans that make our hand-made bells. It is an ancient art form, but the furnaces they had in their homes were very small, inefficient, and creating a lot of fumes. So we installed new ones that are faster, more productive, and safer. We are also currently setting up a production unit to make sanitary napkins in a region where women don’t have access to those.
QUESTION: It’s really incredible that you’ve built up a network of 40 artisan partners throughout India. Can you tell us a bit more about the group that makes the beautiful hand painted trays and boxes that we carry at The Little Market?
ANSWER: The trays and boxes are either wood or papier-mache. For the papier-mache, they make molds, dry them, and then they hand-paint them. Most of the patterns that you see on them are very traditional to that region. This art form comes from Kashmir, a region in the north of India. It has been a region of territorial conflict for almost 30 years between India and Pakistan. It is very rough region, with few resources and a lot of poverty. Lately they have had a lot of challenges with floods; twice in the last year, they have had to flee their houses for safety. A lot of these products are critical to them for rebuilding their community.
QUESTION: With the 10 year anniversary of Handmade Expressions coming up, are there any new projects in store that you can share with us?
ANSWER: We started in late 2005, almost 2006, so next year will be our 10-year anniversary. We are going to re-show our impact report, and we are thinking about taking some of our retail partners to India to meet our artisans. Creating that dialogue would be really cool, to make our artisans feel appreciated and honored, and for the retailers to see first-hand the impact of the products on the communities. At the end of each year, we also look at each artisan community and look at what their challenges are, and then create a plan and budget for the upcoming year. We are hoping to implement the sanitary napkin project in multiple communities next year. We are also starting a number of education and literacy classes for women in the communities where we work, because many times they don’t know how to read or write, and it is a big challenge and embarrassment to them.