A colourful commitment to craft leads to UFV honorary degree for Charllotte Kwon

UFV 2014 honorary degree recipient Charllotte Kwon

UFV 2014 honorary degree recipient Charllotte Kwon

When the colours of traditional ajrakh cloth, the legendary blockprint of the desert, were once again true, Charllotte Kwon knew she’d made a difference.

Her Maiwa Foundation had finally secured land in India’s Kutch region, obtaining a pure water source vital to naturally dyeing ajrak. Without this, Ismail the craftsman, his family, and the extended community of printers, dyers, and farmers could lose their way of life, culture, and traditions.

And that’s just one result from Kwon’s legacy of support for entrepreneurship and craft-based microbusinesses that led to her selection as a University of the Fraser Valley honorary degree recipient. She will receive the honorary Doctor of Laws degree on June 12.

“Like a handcrafted quilt, Charllotte’s endeavours are multi-layered and complex,” said UFV fashion design professor Gayle Ramsden when nominating Kwon.

“She realized early on as a businesswoman that there is much more behind a finished piece, there is a person, a family, community, and a way of life.”

As an artist, documentary filmmaker, educator, businesswoman, and humanitarian, Kwon works tirelessly as an advocate for the preservation of tradition and craft and the betterment of society. Her compassion, drive, and knowledge have changed the lives of many through symposia, master-class workshops, and natural dye teaching, all driven by the Maiwa Foundation, which is dedicated to the preservation of traditional craft and to employment, empowerment, and the eradication of poverty through craft in developing nations.

Her efforts and dedication to the preservation of the traditional extended to the boundaries of human experience when Maiwa Foundation (started in 1997) helped raise $35,000 for shelter, food, and medical supplies after an earthquake rocked India’s Kutch region in 2001.

It all began at home while watching her grandmother make lace. In that moment, a seed was planted, even though she didn’t learn lacework before her grandmother passed away.

“It became something that made me have a real deep desire to know how things are done by people who are masters,” she says.

“I don’t want to lose traditional dyes made with specific recipes that are rarely written down. Without care, that information could be lost forever.”

Kwon became intrigued by plant dyes while travelling through Indonesia, Thailand, and China. She found craftspeople struggling to find fair market value for their work; often undercut by mass-produced pieces made with artificial dyes, poor materials, and machines.

“Those who are doing the very best work couldn’t find a market.”

She set up a table at Granville Island Market, made $3,000 one Christmas weekend, and never looked back.

Her Maiwa retail store on Granville Island that sells artisanal clothing, bedding, jewelry, and art also includes warehouse and workshop areas that employ about 30 people.

The non-profit Maiwa Foundation — connected to but separate from Kwon’s for-profit business —raises money for small grants and larger projects that don’t fit within traditional non-governmental organization requests. Small grants are from $500 to $1,500, they help craftspeople do everything from buy a bike to build a well.

Maiwa’s reach in India stretches from the Kutch region on Pakistan’s border to Nagaland on the Burmese side to Kerala in the South. What started as work with embroiderers expanded to include weaving, block printing, natural dyeing, and other disciplines. Kwon’s goal is to help craftspeople keep their art alive – before it’s too late.

“It’s almost beyond our comprehension how fast things are changing, and how fast traditional arts are silently disappearing,” she says.

“It’s their heritage and their inheritance.”

Kwon’s work has supported the University of the Fraser Valley as well, through the mentorship, supervision, and the hiring of UFV fashion students.

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4 Responses to A colourful commitment to craft leads to UFV honorary degree for Charllotte Kwon

  1. joy p duskin June 17, 2014 at 8:15 am #

    What a wonderful job Charllotte Kwon does. She crosses boundaries and cultures and has succeeded it guiding woman to create their crafts and back to their roots & traditions. The understanding and education she has given these woman is amazing.. I have followed her teams on the web visiting these artisans. Setting up workshops to teach safe and Natural Dyeing. Charllotte is a national & world treasure..Bravo to University of the Fraser Valley for honouring her
    with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

    joy p duskin

  2. Alison Candela June 17, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    Thank you, Charlotte Kwon, for the beauty you bring to us through your stores in Vancouver, and the dignity and security your work gives to people and communities in India and other parts of the world, providing markets and support for their work in craft.. You are an inspiration. You show us what a global economy and free trade should really mean, a celebration of the unique talents of people across the world, and a joyful exchange of information, resources and goods for the mutual enrichment and growth of all the people involved.

    Each lovely textile, wooden piece of furniture, or embroidered bag I purchase at Maiwa makes me wonder about the skilled and creative families that have produced it. I appreciate the unique structure you have set up that supports the artisans and their communities, and allows me, so far away, to enjoy the beautiful work they produce, knowing that it is not the product of exploitation.

    Your work has made life better for thousands of people, and taught Canadians like me about the skills, work, talents and traditional arts of people far away. It is a wonderful gift you have given us. Thank you for using your talents, intelligence, and hard work to make life richer for us all.

    Alison Candela

  3. Gregory MacCarthy June 17, 2014 at 12:24 pm #

    Hahaha! After all the superlatives written above, what could one possibly add?!!??
    My bet is, ‘probably a lot more’…….
    Charlotte, you are amazing!!!!!
    I hold you and thank you for all!
    Gregory MacCarthy
    Founder
    The Baba Tree Basket Company / The Baba Tree Company

  4. Angela Griffith Fimmano June 17, 2014 at 9:20 pm #

    What wonderful work and principles. I hope that this endowment brings her continued success and growth. Thank you Charlotte for making your passion available to the world through your work and the preservation of these precious crafts.