While visiting Kenya in September, Leslie, Jenna and I were privileged to visit an old friend of Swahili's, the accomplished artist Martin Dartey. A Ghanaian, Martin holds a Masters degree in African art from the College of Art at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, and was introduced to us while lecturing one of Percy's art classes at our local university. Martin's works have been sold through National Geographic's Novica site and in private exhibitions.
Following the tragic and unexpected death of his beloved wife Carol, a Kenyan, Martin moved his young son to Nairobi and established his latest artistic endeavor on a farm near Ngong, owned by Carol's mother.
Perched on a hill behind "Mommy's" house, a cinderblock pavilion contains three mud and dung kilns, hand built by a Ghanaian expert in the craft of recycled glass production. In this tranquil setting, Teresa, Eva, Margaret and Douglas convert discarded bottles into beautiful lustrous recycled glass beads. The glass workshop is a tribute to Carol's memory, and beautifully entwines the Dartey family's Kenyan and Ghanaian roots.
Collecting bottles is the easy part. Restaurants, hotels and bars have an endless supply of empties that they are happy to pass along. Some colors, like brown and green, are more prevalent than others, like the prized blue Bombay Sapphire bottles.
Plate glass in hard-to-find colors like red or yellow is also collected.
The bottles are washed, and labels are removed. The artisans then use homemade mortar and pestles to crush the glass.
This step also gives each bead its rounded shape, and creates a void for stringing.
Before we head back to Nairobi, Mommy treats us to gracious Kenyan hospitality. We enjoy chai and donuts and talk about Carol, how much we are loving our first visit to Kenya, and how Mommy would like to keep Jenna, her "giraffe".
Back at Martin's house in Nairobi, the beads are laid out on beading boards and strung together with other components on wire, elastic or cord to create finished pieces of lustrous recycled glass jewelry.
Martin's artistic nature and knowledge of art history keep him experimenting constantly. He revealed some lovely soapstone beads tinted naturally with coffee and tea, and demonstrated the traditional method of smoking soapstone over a flame to create an indelible finish without dyes.
After viewing some of Martin's art and designing some new pieces for the Swahili line, we headed back to our apartment at Njema Court feeling thoroughly inspired by our visit with Martin, Mommy and the talented artisans of Monda. Working together to transform forgotten materials into unique works of wearable art, bridging craft forms from across the continent and creating employment for creative individuals seems like a fitting way to honor the memory of an unforgettable wife, mother, daughter and friend.