the Artist and the Artisan

By Suzy Marinkovich, KF8 Peru

What is an artist?  What is an artisan? Are they different?

The debate caught my interest when I was walking away from Ayacucho’s Ex-Carcel, a former prison now converted to an artisan market where many of our Kiva borrowers at FINCA Peru work.  As I chatted with Jen, a friend of mine and herself an avid student of language, I couldn’t shake something she said.  She noted that the term ‘artisan’ often seems more related to poverty or developing nations, whereas the term ‘artist’ seems more attached to an upper-crust society, or simply put, wealth.  Her insight got me thinking and researching.

I do not believe the terms have anything the least bit inherent in them that pulls one to poverty or wealth; but it may be a consequence of how we define the terms more generally.  Artisans often produce functional goods, and produce a large quantity of the crafts they are good at.  Artists, on the other hand, are considered to be those who produce one-of-a-kind-pieces; their livelihood also does not necessarily depend on the production of their works.

Hipolita's work Juliana showing the back of the jacket Hipolita's daughter Juliana displaying my jacket

Yet what draws me to the Ex-Carcel isn’t a desire to buy things, it’s the same thing that draws me to museums.  Our Ayacuchan artisans are some of the very best in all of Peru, and their products are both award-winning and sold throughout Peru.  Carvings in alabaster stone and ‘retablos’ (a little wooden box with a pastoral scene carved and painted inside) are the pride of Ayacucho.  So if an artistic and creative child is born here, can they become an ‘artist’ instead of an ‘artisan’? As long as the poverty rate in this region gives the child a 1 in 4 chance of being born above the poverty line, I can’t see how.  It is difficult to have a talent that is not a livelihood when you have mouths to feed and the odds are stacked against you.  Ayacuchans have to respond to the demand, and it is hard enough to lure vacationing natives and foreigners to this off-the-beaten-track town to purchase their beautifully made trinkets.  Our borrowers constantly face this, as only a handful of shoppers trickle into the large Ex-Carcel each day.  It’s no wonder each artisan is selling you their work as you walk by their stall.

Earlier last week, I met with an incredibly talented Kiva borrower, Hipolita, who has a stall in the Ex-Carcel.  She took a plain jacket I bought recently in Lima and wove the most detailed and beautiful flowers on it.  It is a piece of art to me no doubt.  I know I will cherish it forever not only because it was the work of a Kiva borrower, but because she is one of the most talented artists I have ever had the chance to meet.

I didn’t have to don a black dress with a martini in hand at a gallery’s opening in NYC to meet her, either.  She works out of a former jail cell in Ayacucho’s old jail, and I am just as honored to be able to meet her and introduce others to her work.

The only reason it seems a shame to label these people as one or the other is because it’s often only financial constraints that separate the two, or confine one to being an ‘artisan’ instead of both.  Hipolita must rely on loans from FINCA Peru to produce and sell her artisan work so she can support her four children.  It gets you thinking about the extraordinary talent that may be hidden behind the “tourist trinkets” of various cultures around the world.

In some small way, I hope this challenges the way we think about one particular talent our developing world is offering us: art.

Check out some of these amazing artisans from around the world on Kiva!

Click here to make a loan to a borrower at FINCA Peru.

Suzy Marinkovich is a Kiva Fellow at FINCA Peru in Ayacucho, the first of her three placements.  She has a wholehearted passion for microfinance, social justice, and poverty alleviation.  Suzy is most excited to listen to the incredible stories of Kiva borrowers in South America and let them know how much they continually inspire us all.


About the author

Suzy Marinkovich