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A Day with Martin

Monda Recycled Glass and Soapstone Art Jewelry

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.

During our visit, Martin thoroughly explained the process used by Monda glass to convert discarded glass into beautiful beads.

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.

The crushed glass is sorted by color. The array of hues is very beautiful.

The fine powder that collects in the bottom of the pestles is retained to make powder beads, which have a different appearance than the typical recycled glass beads.

Molds are individually handcrafted from clay. Prolonged exposure to heat requires that molds be periodically replaced. Handmade tools for each task ensure consistency in bead shape.

The molds are filled with crushed glass to make standard beads.

Powder glass beads have a twig inserted into the center of each mold indention. Since the powder melts faster, the twig burns away, leaving a void for stringing.

The wood-burning kilns are fed firewood from behind, and produce enough heat to turn the crushed particles to molten glass in minutes.

Bubbles can be captured inside the molten glass, so the artisans work the glass with an awl to release any air pockets.

This step also gives each bead its rounded shape, and creates a void for stringing.

Once the beads have cooled in the molds, they are taken to a large concave stone to be polished with wet sand.

The beads are washed, and at this point, considered complete and ready 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.

Too add a bit of contrast to the glass beads, Martin buys recycled aluminum beads from an artisan in the Kibera neighborhood who converts old engine blocks into jewelry components.

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.

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