Oax-i-fornia is an academic project based on the idea of play as a starting point for collaboration and exchange between artisans and designers. It aims to provide new streams of revenue for artisans by offering the resulting experiments for sale in stores in Oaxaca such as Blackbox and Tienda Q, as well at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. The project is hosted by Raul Cabra and takes place at the Ex-Hacienda de Guadalupe in the town of San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya, outside the city of Oaxaca.

I served as a teaching assistant and participant in this studio. The experience of extreme empathy (living and working with the artisans we were partnered with) had a profound effect on the way I decided to structure my own research practice once out of school.

I went to Oaxaca to test a hypothesis. What is participatory research, and how do you adapt your research techniques when in another country? How do you get people to trust you, quickly, when time is of the essence? How do you get to know people and absorb their stories when you are a stranger to their language? What are some other ways to make your findings evident, when you are far from the land of Post-It notes and Powerpoint?

We started by visiting our artisan family, spending several days learning about their culture and working process. They cultivated silk worms, boiled the cocoons, spun the silk into thread and wove the thread into rebosos (scarves). This was the family’s main product and only source of income. The process is extremely time-consuming, and while they could sell the scarves for a high price, they wanted to work together to develop products from their leftover cocoon materials – things that didn’t take so long to produce.

After a week of working together in the studio, co-creating new products, we came up with a line of jewelry and decorative objects made from the raw silk cocoons. The family now has an additional revenue stream that is simple to produce from materials that would otherwise go to waste.