“We are here in Baker because of the people. We’ve liked Baker since our first visit and everyone has been so welcoming. Art Roamers has always had a good showing here, and we could just do a little pop up, and do very well. One thing that we’ve noticed here is people want to connect. Some are attracted because the work we show is different, or they just want to talk to us and ask us, ‘What are you doing and how do you do this?’ Wherever we take the animals, people love them, but in Baker they asked us to come back, and to bring more, and then to stay. There was a real connection and welcome that we have not gotten anywhere else.
Three years ago we did a gallery showing of our big metal animals with Robert Anders and we had our custom trailer and Art Roamers bus, which is our usual way of presenting the work of the artists we help. Our gallery showing was only going to be for a month, but that turned into four and then more shop owners wanted animals so that turned into a whole process of paperwork, insurance and permits because the shop owners had to have sidewalk permits. And then when we took the animals away for the winter people were asking, ‘Where did they go?’ and then of course, ‘You’re gonna be back next year, right?’ So we stepped up and organized a little better and that’s where we are now. When we decided to make the move to Baker we bought this building on Main Street at Court and opened a small storefront on the Court side last year. Oh (sigh) that building is a long-term project.
Art Roamers is about helping artists in Africa make a living, feed their families, and improve their lives. It may be a very small way of helping, but we feel like we are helping. That is why we are not traditional importers or art dealers. We have a relationship with our artists or with the organizations that work with the artists. For example, our baskets are made by women who formed a multi-country organization to support women basket weavers so women and girls who were widowed, orphaned, or abandoned could make a living. The main organizer lost her entire family to genocide, her village was wiped out, so she really gets how important having a livelihood is for these women. Giving them an honest way to feed their families. The carvings are done by members of a co-op who were being taken advantage of by middle-men. These brokers would sell the carvers the wood, buy their carvings for next to nothing and then sell them at a huge mark-up at tourist markets. The brokers were making a killing while the carvers remained penniless. A local deputy governor helped us bypass the brokers and we buy directly from the carvers themselves. And, we buy everything up-front so that even if something happens, the artists still get paid.
Samuel, the big metal sculptor, is another story. We met him when were in the slums and he was building sculptures right in the street, next to the raw sewage in the open gutters. We saw him and thought, now that is a real artist. Working his craft against the odds and just hoping somebody will like it and buy it. He helped us connect with a school when we were first in the slums. He was super friendly and we got to know him pretty well through a series of meetings and that kind of thing. We recognized early on that he was honest and very hardworking. Then we realized that he could really use some help. His oldest son has special needs and needed some medical attention. They just didn’t have the funds to do it so we helped. We have a relationship with him and his family that is beyond simply buying his work.
Importing and exporting is very complicated with a ton of paperwork. There is a lot to learn in addition to the things you learn about the materials like Ebony, African Blackwood, Rosewood, and the restrictions around each. It’s worth the effort for us because we are motivated to help people. It all started with a college roommate from Kenya who was successful in the US and returned to Kenya to take on some charitable projects. He asked me (Jeff) to come help with construction and engineering projects. Over the 15 plus years that I volunteered off and on, I saw a lot of good things and I saw a lot of bad things. You could see some of these organizations on TV and send money, then you get over there and it’s not quite the same, and the money isn’t getting used the way it was advertised. It’s hard not to judge them too harshly. It’s so hard to do business, I mean even charitable types of business, over there because it’s a whole different mindset. Seeing the misuse of funds and that kind of stuff, that’s when we decided to try to do something, and to make it sustainable, without fundraising. And that’s the hardest part, making it sustainable. We decided first to teach craft skills and to set up a project that could support and involve an entire village, but the logistics were just overwhelming. Then we decided, let’s find people that are already doing something and already know what they’re doing. Then if their business is robust enough they can hire other people and grow naturally. And, we can help by reaching a wider market.
When we started that trip, we didn’t know we were going to come back with a container load of metal sculptures, but we did. So then we’re like, ‘How are we gonna get these to market?’ That’s when we got the idea for and built the custom trailer that turns into a pop up gallery. And then we decided, well, we should probably pull up with something kind of cool that we can live in so we bought the vintage bus. It just kind of grew from there. We had decided not to do a brick and mortar store, but online sales were not working because the type of stuff that we have really needs to be seen up close – and touched. Now we still have work and a house in Idaho, we live in the bus/RV when we are in Baker, and we have that brick and mortar place here on Main Street. It’s a long term project for our sort-of retirement and we will see where it takes us.”