Ceramics 101: The Art of Change

With Harvard's help, Casas de la Esperanza fires up change in Nicaragua

When Judit Targarona Borrás, executive director of Casas de la Esperanza in Nicaragua, first arrived in La Prusia, she felt as though she had stepped into a different world.

“For us, it was like traveling to the past,” she says of the area’s natural beauty and devastating poverty.

The destitute living conditions in Nicaragua spurred both Borrás and fellow Universidad Complutense de Madrid professor Angel Sáenz-Badillos to found Casas de la Esperanza. The nonprofit organization, which was started in Cambridge, offers aid to families living in the outskirts of Granada, Nicaragua, including the semi-urban community La Prusia, which is home to over 200 families. Many of these families face harsh living conditions, squatting in makeshift houses with dirt floors.

The organization’s effort there helps these families achieve a better standard of living through low-income housing projects. But building houses wasn’t enough for Sáenz-Badillos. “These people need to have an opportunity at true and sustainable development,” he says, which means a reliable source of income.

And so began the Ceramics Micro-Enterprise Project, which proposes to help the people of La Prusia produce traditional clay products in an effort to support the local economy. The charity calls on Harvard students to help in all aspects of the program: from community development to field work, testing clay materials and designing prototype options for village production.

CLAY ALL NIGHT, CLAY ALL DAY

While the project will initially help the community of La Prusia learn how to make ceramics, an art which was once a part of traditional Nicaraguan culture, the program hopes to eventually extend beyond the potter’s wheel, teaching these families how to market their business in order to obtain a profit.

“It’s a way of producing something to help them make money,” Sáenz-Badillos says of the Ceramics Micro-Enterprise Project. “The most important part of the program is how to sell what they produce so they can make a profit and be motivated to continue.”

Nancy C. Selvage, director of the Ceramics Program, which is overseen by the Office for the Arts at Harvard, says the University is well-suited to be a part of this project. “We have an extremely good ceramics program,” she says. “People from all over the world come to work in the program, and we have a huge range of experience.”

But of course, there are bound to be challenges in any effort to bridge the gap between Harvard and La Prusia, Cambridge and Nicaragua.

BREAKING THE MOLD

As with any activity at Harvard, the Ceramic Micro-Enterprise Project must compete for sutdents’ time. “One of the challenges is competing with other student groups, because Harvard students are busy,” says David J. Tischfield ’09, who is helping with the development of the project.

Tischfield first heard about the Ceramics Micro-Enterprise Project in an e-mail he received last summer. After working with clay for the past six years, he hoped to find a post-graduate experience abroad that combined his interests—archeology and ceramics. The Ceramics Micro-Enterprise Project seemed to fit the bill.

Despite his interest in the project, Tischfield says he realizes that implementing the program won’t be without technical difficulties, such as finding local materials, building a kiln, and finding efficient fuel. Transportation to and from La Prusia will also be a challenge.

And beneath these immediate, logistical problems lie others. One of the project’s ultimate goals is to have the ceramics program incorporate itself into La Prusia’s society—a society which no longer possesses the tools to produce their traditional crafts.

“The craft is native to Nicaragua, but La Prusia doesn’t do it,” says Katherine L. Sancken ’09, who recently joined the Ceramics Micro-Enterprise Project. “It’s not immediately local.”

“They don’t have the mechanism to do the artwork,” she adds. “Their financial sources go towards everyday things.”

In order to cope with this, the Ceramics Micro-Enterprise Project supplies the resources and the tools to re-facilitate traditional Nicaraguan craftsmanship.

“We’re using our technology to bring part of their culture back to them,” Tischfield says.

A danger, however, lies in imposing too much of an outside influence on the society the program aims to help. But Sancken stresses that volunteers will first become familiar with Nicaraguan culture, and that the people behind the project will achieve cultural awareness before they implement their program.

“We don’t want to break any traditions—we want to innovate the traditions,” says Maria Luisa F. Mansfield of the Institute for Urban Development, who acts as a bridge between the Harvard Ceramics Program and Casas de la Esperanza.

FIRING IT UP

The Ceramics Micro-Enterprise Project remains in planning stages, but Sáenz-Badillos and others are hopeful that the effort will take root in La Prusia.

“After many years of poverty and marginalization, these people have become very particular,” Sáenz-Badillos says. “They have problems among themselves and other people coming there. The people are nice and ready to do something, but it’s not easy finding a way to motivate them.”

Sancken adds: “You can’t go in, give the people a kiln, and expect magic to be made.” Like everyone involved in the project, she maintains that education is at the root of its success.

In the meantime, the umbrella organization, Casas de la Esperanza, will continue its work in La Prusia, with the hopes that the Ceramics Micro-Enterprise Project will soon be able to further improve the living conditions of these people.

“It helps when these people feel other people are thinking of them,” Mansfield says. And as Harvard students, and the people of La Prusia work together on this project, they will shape more than just clay bowls—they’ll shape a better life.