Odegard’s Journey

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The travelogue of Stephanie Odegard’s adult life gives voice to artists and craftspeople in developing countries.  How did she arrive at this place?   She grew up in Minnesota where, as she recalls, “Whether it was bread or a porch, somebody was building it or making it or designing it.”  So, the notion of using her own two hands to shape the world around her was no strange idea.  And although she heard of far away places where missionaries were helping people in poorer countries, she’d never been anywhere.  But luckily, a job as a buyer at Dayton Hudson and owning a textile arts business eventually led to world travel.

By the 1980’s, after years of work for the Peace Corps and World Bank, Stephanie ended up in Nepal working as a consultant for the emerging carpet industry being developed by Tibetan refugees.  Nepal afforded the people relative safety and the prized, lanolin-rich wool of the Himalayan sheep that graze above 14,000 feet.  Living among the Tibetans for several years helping to stabilize their wool market, she was uniquely poised to assist them with translating their goods into a commercially viable entity which she hoped would elevate their standard of living.  She was convinced that producing high-end crafts would create a need for more skilled and better paid workers. It would also revitalize and grow a disintegrating part of their culture.  On the other side of things, it meant someone would want to purchase their product.

Stephanie sought to do this without disrupting the distinct cultural heritage of Tibetan craft.  Her experience in marketing and selling for a major department store and managing her own business had familiarized her with consumer buying habits and motivations. She understood that using only the traditional motifs and constructions of the Tibetan rug industry would make rugs too limited for the people she imagined as her buyers.  She added her artistic sensibility to the process by making sure we see the traditional handmade craftsmanship and the people behind the product and by introducing colors and designs that play forward the story of the artisans she employs — visible traits of every Odegard carpet.  “My goal is to employ as many people as possible. People first of all need to have their stomachs full before they can think straight about how to educate their children and how to better their lives in real solid ways . . . .” she says.

Today, Odegard‘s experience, artistry, and heart enable her to employ more than 10,000 people.  Add to this her staunch commitment to Goodweave, an organization which certifies that carpets are made without child labor, and you can sense the indigenous culture of Tibet and Nepal in every handmade carpet while knowing that no person has been exploited in its manufacture.  Travis Price sums up the journey succinctly, “She has looked at the mythology; she’s tapped into it in a modern venue.  That keeps the culture alive;  spirits are reborn into the modern industrial realm.  She’s on the cutting edge of what needs to be done globally.”

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