Sunday, October 4, 2009

Works of art

Rachel Faller modeling Keo K'jay clothes. Top and right, women work on stitching and paper designs. Photos by Robert Flick
Burlington native turns passion for design and social justice into business for women in Cambodia

The Lowell Sun

Photos by Robert Flick
By Nancye Tuttle

(Post by CAAI News Media)

Artist Rachel Faller is changing the world, one handmade bracelet, skirt, shirt and handbag at a time.

Faller, a 23-year-old Burlington native and social activist, created Keo K'jay, a fiber craft business, for 10 HIV-positive, widowed Cambodian women, while in Phnom Penh on a recent Fulbright scholarship.

And today, just months after its start, the business is flourishing. The women stitch and embroider Faller's designs in their homes, using recycled goods and hand-woven and painted fabrics.

Some products are sold in Keo K'jay's busy boutique, located on a trendy Phnom Penh street that tourists frequent. Other fashions are exported to Australia, Japan and the U.S. through Keo K'jay's catalogue.

But most important, the women she has trained have dignity and purpose in their lives and a way to support their families.

"Often, when people are unable to work in Cambodia, they're ostracized and put under pressure because they aren't able to contribute to their households. Employment gives them dignity and respect," she said.

"It's important to me to help these people make something positive in their lives after being through so much that was bad."

It's her life's work, said Faller.

"I've done volunteer work as long as I can remember, helping in a Cambridge soup kitchen and going on service trips to Albania, Jamaica, Nicaragua and New Orleans," she said.
She has also been a committed artist since childhood, painting, quilting and designing and sewing her clothes.

While studying fiber art at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, she learned to meld her art and social justice work.

"Art can be selfish on its own, but when it is fused with social justice it is wonderful and passionate," she said.

Faller decided to apply for the Fulbright two years ago at the start of her senior year in college. She knew Cambodia was where she wanted to pursue it, after visiting with a family friend.

"You apply for a specific project in a specific country. It's a complicated process, including the nuts and bolts of who you will work with, a personal narrative, slides of your work, recommendations." said Faller, who went in September 2008.

She planned to learn traditional Cambodian weaving techniques and also wanted to work with those in need, helping them benefit therapeutically through art.

"The arts are an effective form of therapy, both physically and psychologically. People gain pride and confidence in themselves," she said.

The Artisans Association of Cambodia, an umbrella organization for small crafts groups, connected her with a weaving group to learn traditional techniques. The Sihanouk Hospital Center of Hope, one of Cambodia's largest, helped her find the HIV-positive patients to train.

She decided to use part of her $20,000 Fulbright stipend to start the business, calling it Keo K'jay, which means "bright green or fresh" in Khmer.

"I've tried to make it sustainable on all levels, coming up with designs and a business plan. Now that the Fulbright is over, I need to find more funding to keep it going. I am looking for more orders in the U.S.," she said.

She returned to Cambodia a few days ago, after being at home since August.

"My life over there is intense and I see horrible things on a regular basis," she said.

Some of the women she works with were sold into brothels as young girls by their parents. They have been raped and abused. Now, living with HIV, they have been evicted from their homes and moved to the cities where they can find work. Often they are sick, and their children are forced to catch crabs and frogs in the rice fields for food.

But Faller keeps going, knowing she is making a difference.

"I am a part of their lives, so the good outweighs the bad," she said.

By April, she plans to turn the business over to the women.

"I want to put the power into their hands as much as possible, letting them run the business. Two women have high-school educations, and we are training them to run the store. I currently work with 10 women, but I want to raise up more and help the business grow," she said.

Next fall, she plans to go to graduate school -- possibly New York University or Rhode Island School of Design -- and continue working with less-fortunate women.

"I want to do something similar with abused women in the United States -- maybe in Baltimore, or New York, or Lowell. It won't be hard to find them, since abuse is everywhere," she said.

Visit for information on ordering fashions and accessories.

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