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At Santa Fe's International Folk Art Market, culture is the commodity


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Every summer, master artists from around the world gather in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The International Folk Art Market showcases art that preserves cultural traditions and brings economic opportunities to poor communities worldwide.

Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery has our story, part of "Canvas," our ongoing arts and culture series.

Kathleen McCleery: In her rural New Mexico studio, Native American jewelry maker Mary Louise Tafoya slices the raw materials that will form intricate mosaic inlays for necklaces, earrings, and bracelets.

Mary Louise Tafoya: I'm wearing a piece right now, you see. A lot of people think they're painted. And I tell them no, they're not painted. They're inlaid with natural stones and shells.

Kathleen McCleery: Her husband, Lorenzo, helps, sanding, grinding, and polishing. Tafoya's work is exhibited in museum shops and galleries throughout the southwest and beyond. Prices start at $35 for a small pair of earrings, and can go up to $4,000 for a large necklace. Still, being invited to the world's largest folk art market came as a surprise.

Mary Louise Tafoya: I was amazed. I was excited. I said, me, little me. How did I ever get up there?

Kathleen McCleery: The couple spent months creating more than a hundred items to bring to Santa Fe.

Each July, those chosen flock to New Mexico's capital. This year, more than 170 from 52 countries. They were welcomed in a parade around the city's historic plaza at the start of a three-day celebration of global art and culture.

Stuart Ashman is the market's CEO.

Stuart Ashman: Please say salaam to Ethiopia.

This is a recognition on the world stage, if you will. You know, this is the major leagues of folk art.

And there are hundreds if not thousands of Native American jewelers, and she got picked.

Kathleen McCleery: The Tafoyas live on the Kewa Pueblo, also known by its Spanish name, Santo Domingo. This rural community of about 3000 traces its history to ancient people who inhabited this part of northern New Mexico more than 800 years ago.

Mary Louise Tafoya: I grew up with it.

Kathleen McCleery: Tafoya's tribe has long been known for its jewelry. Her designs are inspired by her ancestors.

Preserving cultural heritage is one reason artists are chosen to attend, says Ashman.

Stuart Ashman: Everything has to be handmade. Must be rooted in tradition, whether it's the tradition as it was done 1,000 years ago or whether that tradition has evolved.

Kathleen McCleery: Quality and authenticity are key. A rigorous selection process results in only the best being selected.

Karen Gibbs: Everybody who is here in Santa Fe for the first time, will you please stand up?

Kathleen McCleery: Newcomers like Tafoya attend training sessions before the market begins, and get tips on how to tell their story to potential buyers, from high end collectors to shoppers looking for the perfect gift.

Consultant Karen Gibbs leads the effort.

Karen Gibbs: Customers are not here just to buy a product. They want to buy a product that has a story to it, that has a why behind it.

Mary Louise Tafoya: It's just what comes up from here.

Kathleen McCleery: Tafoya exchanged stories with a gold filigree jewelry maker from Sardinia and a bead worker from the Maasai tribe in Kenya.

Mary Louise Tafoya: I'm learning a lot, this is something different for me.

Woman: I have five people with me.

Kathleen McCleery: When the gates open, crowds flood in. Over the three-day weekend, about 25,000 people visit this Mecca for handmade art. This is the 16th anniversary of the market, and the first to include U.S. artists, among them, Mary Tafoya.

Stuart Ashman: It's an international folk art fair. How could you exclude the United States when there are so many incredible artists here?

Kathleen McCleery: But you did for 15 years.

Stuart Ashman: The real reason is that U.S.-born artists have opportunities that people from these other countries don't have.

Kathleen McCleery: A stroll through the maze of booths feels like a trip around the world, from paintings done with sticks by aborigines in Central Australia, to magic carpets woven in Uzbekistan's ancient city of Bukhara.

This year's honorary chair is Ndaba Mandela, activist and 37-year-old grandson of the South African leader.

Ndaba Mandela: It's not just about New Mexico, right? It's about the world.

Kathleen McCleery: At a South Africa booth, Mandela checked out retro eyewear inspired by traditional Zulu beadwork.

Ndaba Mandela: What I'm seeing here is a celebration of the diversity of humanity. When we come together, we'll be able to eliminate our weaknesses.

Kathleen McCleery: The artists take home on average 85 percent of their sales. Unlike many festivals held around the country on summer and fall weekends, this one promotes social change, and 90 percent of the artists filter proceeds back home to provide jobs, empower women and revive traditional crafts. Market officials say the sales have touched the lives of more than a million people worldwide.

Stuart Ashman: Some of these people make more than a year's salary in a weekend. And so obviously, if you have a great deal of prosperity, you come back and you share that.

Kathleen McCleery: The Tafoyas see the market as a way to give back to their community, too, using their success to motivate up and coming pueblo artists.

Lorenzo Tafoya: I think that's kind of what we want those artists to see. Go the extra mile, see what you can do on your own.

Mary Louise Tafoya: You know, show your talent and don't be afraid of it.

Kathleen McCleery: Market goers spend more than $3 million over the three days. But for Ashman, a purchase here is more than a financial transaction.

Stuart Ashman: We say it's not a market, it's a miracle. Art absolutely connects people and transcends all of those issues that divide people. That's really the ultimate goal. You can say this is what world peace looks like.

Kathleen McCleery: Or perhaps, it's a small start.

For the "PBS NewsHour", I'm Kathleen McCleery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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