The Shaman Of Colors

“The Shaman Of Colors” – Audubon: October 2000

Painter Rick Harlow found inspiration in the rainforest–and conjured up a successful business for its people.
By Steve Nadis

The Butterfly Effect

One day, while Rick Harlow was working in a makeshift studio in the Colombian Amazon, a butterfly crashed kamikaze-style into the middle of his painting. Harlow, a 50-year-old artist based in Boston, incorporated the dead aviator into his work by pasting its wings to the canvas. “The pattern on the wings caused a ripple effect throughout the painting,” he says. “Just like dropping a pebble in water.” He called the finished piece “The Butterfly Effect.”

Harlow has long felt a pull toward the Amazon, particularly the complexity of its tropical rainforests. The “chaotic explosion of life-forms, clashing and coexisting,” provides a model for his abstract landscapes, which, he says, “have a lot of layers of activity, like the rainforest itself.”

But his attachment to the jungles of Colombia extends beyond his artwork. Since first visiting the region in 1986, Harlow has forged close ties with its people, prompting him to launch a papermaking project that currently involves three villages. Indigenous Colombians use widely available plants to produce note cards, envelopes, and other items for sale in Colombia and the United States. More than a dozen neighboring villages are now seeking to join the enterprise.

Harlow, who is unmarried, has found the pull toward the Amazon irresistible. He felt a mystical connection during his very first trip to the area, when as part of an Earthwatch expedition he was asked to track woolly monkeys and make illustrations of bird and plant life. He was fascinated by the region’s biodiversity and indigenous cultures, which had survived “relatively unmolested in this unbroken chunk of the Amazon,” he says. “Something clicked. Every artist needs to find out what really inspires him and feed off it as much as he can. He needs to find his place, and for me that place is the rainforest.”

After securing two modest grants, Harlow returned to Colombia in 1987 and 1988 to live along the Caqueta River, near the town of La Pedrera. He spent half his time painting, the other half hunting and fishing with men from the Yucuna Indian tribe, “trying to be a productive member of society.”

In 1988, toward the end of his stay, he participated in a five-day male initiation rite with the Yucunas–a spiritual cleansing and indoctrination process that involved fasting, ritual vomiting, and bathing in cold river water. Harlow’s inclusion in this ritual, which is normally closed to outsiders, was controversial among certain elders and came about largely through his friendship with a local shaman. The result, Harlow says, was a “crash course in rainforest education. You learn to walk through the forest without disturbing anything–without breaking a twig or stepping on a plant.

“The ordeal succeeded in breaking down the last barriers between me and nature. I felt my senses opening up. In addition, I was physically exhausted–too tired to worry about what was going to bite me.” His perspective on the rainforest changed as a result of the ordeal. “It literally taught me a new way of seeing,” he says. “The Indians view plants and animals as entities with human qualities, with whom they have relationships.”

Harlow’s relationship with the Yucunas changed as well. “The fact that I went through the ritual with them gave them more confidence in me and made me feel more connected to the community,” he says. His artwork has been affected, too, becoming deeper, more reflective, more personal. “When my work goes well,” Harlow wrote in his journal during his stay near La Pedrera, “when I can leave behind any formal precepts about art and simply enjoy an honest outpouring of energy from within myself onto the canvas, nature rings like a bell.”

The Indians–who call Harlow the Shaman of Colors, among other nicknames–find his work perplexing. “There are no formal art scholars within the community because, in that culture, art as we know it is superfluous,” Harlow explains. “Indians don’t quite get the idea of art existing outside a special use like decorative baskets or painted masks. Nor can they see why anyone would bother putting paint on a canvas, mounting it on a wall, and selling it.”
In the United States, however, Harlow’s work has met with critical acclaim. “He pours the energy of South American rainforests and waterfalls onto his canvases, making monumental abstractions that evoke the spirit of the Amazon and its people,” wrote Cate McQuaid, the art correspondent for The Boston Globe. Scott McVay, director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, says, “Harlow seems to see in more dimensions than the rest of us–the light and shade, trees and plants, and animate interconnections.”

Through his paintings, Harlow hopes to draw attention to a part of the world that is threatened and disappearing fast. (According to a recent study, 6,500 square miles of Amazon rainforest–roughly the area of Hawaii–are destroyed or badly damaged each year.) He donated 20 percent of the proceeds from his first major rainforest exhibition to organizations devoted to protecting the Amazon and its indigenous people. He has also donated considerable time and energy to the effort.

Nevertheless, in 1992, after repeated trips to Colombia, Harlow felt a growing sense of unease. “I couldn’t just go there to get ideas for my paintings,” he says. “I wanted to be useful and feel like I had a job, rather than just being a visitor.” Leaders from different communities had, from time to time, asked him about potential economic ventures, and he tried to come up with a solution. During a brainstorming session with Jean-Marc Fischer, a French physician based in Colombia, the idea for the paper project emerged. The plan was to generate income on a sustainable basis by making high-quality paper from rainforest shrubs.

Harlow studied papermaking techniques in Boston and returned to Colombia to look for a suitable fiber source with the help of an Indian friend, Luis Alfonso Macuna. They identified a dozen species from a family of plants related to fig trees. Sara Bennett, a U.S. ecologist working in the area, conducted an environmental-impact study. Using a blend of these fibers, she found, would not cause species extinction or significant ecological change. “The resource is definitely renewable,” she says. “People have been trying to kill these plants for years, but they grow like weeds.”

So far, about 150 people have taken part in the program, which has benefited practically every family in the three participating communities. “Every adult who wants to work gets a chance,” says Harlow. Workers earn about $5 a day–more than they can make as laborers in La Pedrera, a three-day boat ride away. Employment prospects in that town are bad, and many people leave their families for months at a time to fish; work in a store, a gold mine, or an illegal cocaine-processing plant; join the guerrilla army; or go to a big city like Bogota, where unemployment is also high. Paper-project employees, by contrast, “are their own bosses,” says Harlow, “living at home with their families.” Moreover, the project injects about $2,000 per year into the economy of each village.

Workers are organized into teams of about a half-dozen people. They cut saplings from their own gardens and bring them to the production site, where they scrape off the outer bark and cook the inner bark in lye made from wood ash. The fibers are then rinsed, literally beaten to a pulp, and thrown into a vat of water, from which sheets of paper are extracted on a mold, then put in the sun to dry. The translucent paper that emerges from this process has high tensile strength and a smooth texture. At the moment, the villagers produce about 2,500 note cards and envelopes a year, sold under the name YAPP (Yaigoje-Apaporis Papermaking Project). A variety of other products are being developed, including mobiles, lanterns, lampshades, and purses. “The idea is to combine paper with native craftsmanship to end up with a product that is uniquely Amazonian,” Harlow explains. Some of the products are sold at handmade-paper stores in Los Angeles and Boston as well as on the Internet (see “What You Can Do,” opposite). But the majority are sold in Colombia, primarily at an annual crafts exPOSITION in Bogota. “Having a local market is important for the success of the program,” Harlow says. “The shorter the distance between producers and sellers, the easier it will be to establish a business that functions after we’re gone.”

The venture has thrived for a number of reasons, Harlow says: “We picked the right kind of product in terms of feasibility and transportability.” He also took the time to forge friendships and develop trust with the villagers, some of whom now call him the Paper Man. Many projects with worthy goals have failed in the region, Harlow observes, because the initiators failed to establish good relationships with the local communities or underestimated the logistical problems.
The paper project has received international acclaim: It was one of the reasons a Colombian coalition called COAMA, to which the paper project belongs, won the 1999 “Alternative Nobel Prize,” granted for work in the environmental field by the Right Livelihood Foundation, in Sweden.

Harlow’s work in Colombia has become more difficult of late because of the civil war raging in the country. LEFTist guerrillas have threatened his life, banning him and other Westerners from the Apaporis River region since 1998. Harlow still travels to Colombia frequently, holding papermaking workshops in La Pedrera on a regular basis, but he does not visit the more remote villages upriver, where production is based. As a result, the Indians have had to produce paper on their own for the past two years. “That’s not entirely bad, because it forced them to become more independent,” says Harlow. “With so much horrible news coming out of Colombia these days, it’s nice to see something positive happening there.”

When he’s back in the United States, Harlow spends most of his time painting–working from photos, sketches, and memories acquired during his extended rainforest stays. He’s currently gathering material for a solo show this fall in Lincoln, Massachusetts. “My goal is to create the greatest painting I can–to make paint transform itself into a kind of poetry,” he says. “If I can turn people on to a sense of wonder about that part of the world, so much the better.”

Steve Nadis © 2000 NASI