Johnson City native brings Colombian art to United States

Robert Houk • Dec 11, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Johnson City native Warren Ray found his calling in Bogota, Colombia.

A 2008 graduate of University School, Ray traveled to South America to put his degrees in Spanish and communication studies from Belmont University in Nashville to good use.

It was there that he came into contact with remarkable indigenous art in the form of shoulder bags, and the people who make them. He bought some of these intricate bags as gifts for family and friends, including his parents, Dick and Ginger Ray, who have lived in Johnson City for more than 30 years.

He soon established a relationship with the female-led indigenous community that makes the bags in an isolated part of Colombia. He also founded Hands of Colombia to bring the work of these indigenous artisans to customers in the United States.

How did you get involved in working with indigenous communities?

“Initially, I came to Colombia to teach English as a foreign language. During my first year here, I was working for a university foreign language department and noticed all of my students and fellow faculty members had handmade bags with unique and intricate designs. I learned that the story behind the bags is even cooler than the bags themselves.

“I learned that these bags are made by a women-led indigenous community in an extremely isolated part of Colombia. They’re the anti-mass-production bag. An artisan spends anywhere between four to 14 days making one bag, depending on its size and complexity of design. What’s more, the bags are made by one artisan’s two hands, not a series of factory workers on a line.

“I decided that I would buy a few bags for my family as gifts. After hearing all the compliments they received on their Wayuu (wai-YOU) bags, I thought I should bring a few more back to sell on my next trip.

“When I was purchasing the bags in Bogotá through a distributor, I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to find a real Wayuu artisan, work directly with them, feature their story and products rather than purchasing through middle men?’

“That’s where the idea of Hands of Colombia was born.

“I decided to travel to Colombia’s La Guajira region to try to learn more. It’s a region that’s desert and ocean, located in Northeast Colombia, near Venezuela. Tribes of Wayuu live scattered about the desert.

“There, I spent several days with indigenous artisans in Cabo de la Vela learning about the Wayuu and their artistic traditions. The sacrifices that the Wayuu make for the sake of maintaining tradition and solidarity give even more weight to their commitment of cultural preservation and cultural pride.

“I met several indigenous artisans who were interested in having fair-trade agreement with Hands of Colombia. This was significant for both the Wayuu and for Hands of Colombia. For the Wayuu, because no longer would they have to travel on a motorcycle-taxi across the desert to sell to re-sellers in the city at prices that cover barely more than the cost of the thread.

“We’re still working with the same artisans, but have an expanded selection of art. We feature the Wayuu’s handmade shoulder bags, clutches and bracelets. We also work with a small-batch leather shop in Bogotá to make beautiful, one-of-a-kind camera straps, leashes, guitar straps and leather clutches.

“Working with the Wayuu community has been an amazing learning experience, both for Hands of Colombia and our customers. We wanted to find a way to say “Thanks” to our artisans. We decided that the best way would be to empower our customers to empower our artisans’ traditions.

“For every item purchased, Hands of Colombia donates thread to a Wayuu artisan living in a remote part of La Guajira, Colombia”

Describe a typical day on the job.

“The days can either be very normal, or very fascinating. The really exciting days are when I get to meet with artisans in their communities, learn about their crafts and traditions, buy their products.

“It’s exhilarating to work with artisans of different communities to combine ideas and make totally innovative products with masterful artisans, like the Hands of Colombia fair trade leashes and guitar straps — something that’s never been done before.

“There are other days, just as any business, that involve a lot of time behind a screen or administration, editing photos and videos from trips to indigenous communities, writing articles and providing customer support.

“No two days are the same.”

What have you learned about Colombia and its people during your time there?

“Colombia is a country with deep scars from an ugly past. Now, the country is improving —both in safety, infrastructure, and peace-talks to end a decades-long civil war. There is so much more to Colombia than the Netflix version.

“There’s beautiful geography, amazing travel adventures, diverse gastronomy, beautiful tropical islands and beaches, snow-topped mountains, tiny towns and gargantuan cities.

“The best part of Colombia is its diversity — in people, ways of life, geography and climate. Most people think that Colombia is a hot country with lots of jungle, but that’s only in certain zones. Since Colombia is so close to the equator, climate is not determined by the time-of-year, but the elevation.”

How do you share the indigenous art with people in the United States?

“We have lots of unique, handmade bags, clutches, bracelets and more available on our website: handsofcolombia.com Apart from selling bags online, we also have a blog and YouTube channel where we share information about the Wayuu Indigenous Group, their traditions and their culture.”

What do you think Americans should know about the indigenous people of Colombia?

“Colombia’s indigenous people have a lot of lessons to offer us Americans. It’s easy for us to think that the hustle of our modern society is a sign of progress, modernity and wealth, but perhaps, like the Wayuu, we should slow down a bit, reflect, create and prioritize the relationships with the people around us.”

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