In a small beach town on Panama’s Pacific coast sits a small home that looks as though a rainbow crashed into it. Bright yellow and splashed with parrot reds, jungle greens, ocean blues and citrus oranges – it really stands out from the pack.
Alicia Maria Burke, a local Panamanian, has transformed this little house into her Artesanías shop. She calls it “Dream Catcher,” and she does make and sell these, in addition to a stunning array of her colorful and decorative handiwork.
Alicia is just one of many young Panamanian artisans looking to find buyers for their handcrafted wares among the increasing numbers of travelers attracted to Panama for its wealth of opportunities to experience authentic culture.
In response to burgeoning tourism in this still-emerging destination, Panama’s artisan community is mobilizing to keep their artistic traditions alive while providing beautiful, tactile works of art to today’s travelers.
Alicia opened Artesanías on her own initiative after completing a course through a government program and obtaining a certification that allowed her to set up shop and begin selling her wares. Many other Panamanian artisans choose another route: Pro Artesana Panameña.
Founded in 2006, Pro Artesana is a Panamanian non-governmental organization that has helped more than 300 women artisans – many of whom live in extreme poverty – develop and refine their artistry skills, design and create their products, and get them to market. The idea is to help native Panamanians establish a market presence and increase their income. Its members are largely from Panama’s indigenous tribes, and they operate throughout the country: as you explore different regions in Panama you are sure to encounter Kunas selling hand-woven purses, Ngöbe-Buglé women vending their iPhone-sized chacara bags, and the Emberá, who make tightly-woven baskets, plates and masks.
Alicia’s shop is an inspiring example of traditional Panamanian craftsmanship combined with ingenuity: she buys unfinished clay moldings from Panamanian vendors in El Valle and Chitre, then adds her own artistic flair, which includes painting, decorating, and glazing the mostly ceramic works.
Alicia sits quietly in the background, smiling, while we examine her lovely creations. Clearly she is shy, but she allows me to take her picture. I tell her, in my broken Spanish, how talented she is. In her broken English, she returns a “thank you.”
Hanging throughout her bright store is everything from wind chimes and bells to dishes and wall-hangings — all of them embellished with the bright tropical hues of Central America.
For the gardener, there is no shortage of statues and other ornaments to dress up the flowerbeds. Except this is Panama – instead of gnomes, you have exotic birds or señoras in traditional Panamanian dress.
She also sells other, uniquely Panamanian, creations. Hanging in one corner are her nidos. “Nido” is Spanish for nest, as in a bird’s nest – and that’s exactly what they are.
After the long tear-shaped twig nests have fallen from the tree, no longer useful to the oropendolas who built them and who will build anew next nesting season, Alicia collects them and adds her own artistic flourishes. Flared flowers, bright butterflies and miniature birds are added, making these a lovely rustic addition to any décor. The colors stand out like neon on a wet dark night.
In another corner of Dream Catcher are handmade bags. Some are woven, some have hand-stitched parrots and tropical blooms on them — all stylish, while traditional at the same time. Next to these hang some molas, the traditional costume of a Panamanian Kuna woman. Each mola is a piece of art: think of an elaborate quilt, but on a dress. Every one depicts a different scene – sometimes something modern, like a cartoon character, sometimes using traditional themes from Kuna legends. Alicia says she doesn’t make very many of these, as they are a lot of work. Every mola is 100% stitched by hand, which requires hours upon hours of dextrous dedication.
As is generally true of any place you choose to patronize in Panama, you’ll find the prices at Alicia’s Artesanías to be more than reasonable; from the 25-cent fridge magnets depicting heads of lettuce and other veggies, to the $25 ceramic bells (three in a set), every invaluable item fashioned with Panamanian pride and genuine artistry is a steal.
Visiting this colorful shop was in and of itself a rewarding experience – so I tried to take you there in photos, until you make your visit to Panama to experience its handcrafted artisanal gifts.
You can contact Pro Artesana Panameña at Panama phone #: 507-269-4056 / 6616-9334 or email them email@example.com to learn more about their efforts and how to support them.
Photos by Jacki Gillcash.