By COMMON Community Member Lori Precious, Founder of Ethio Sky
I’m one of the few Americans to have lived in the most dangerous place on earth. When I was eleven, my dad took a job with USAID, and our family of seven moved from our middle-class American life in Illinois to Mogadishu, Somalia, a staggeringly poor but stunningly beautiful country. Seeing Somali children my age struggling with polio, starving and begging, dying of diseases preventable to those of us wealthy enough for vaccinations, was a profoundly transformative experience in my young life. In Somalia I befriended nomads, wandered the gold-seller stalls and learned tribal crafts. My early experience was, to quote Dylan, “written on my soul,” and led to my lifelong romance with East Africa and a life’s work in philanthropy.
Since then, I’ve extensively roamed other East African countries, from more well-known destinations like Kenya and Tanzania — where I was nearly gored by an angry rhino and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, learning I could push past my pain to reach the peak — to more out-of-the-way places like the islands of Lamu with their spice trade and the remote Seychelles where world spies meet in anonymity. During my travels I’ve collected art, antiques, textiles, bead work, and butterflies and insects that I use in my own art. I wanted to experience destinations not like a tourist but as much like a local as the places would allow. Of all my travels, there’s an ancient land of primitive people making art that I find the most beautiful: the Omo Valley in Ethiopia.
Thirty-five years ago I moved from the Midwest to Los Angeles. Twenty-one of those years I’ve lived in Topanga Canyon with my family. My path to my business, Ethio Sky, has been so circuitous that those advising me on this biography worry I seem too fragmented if I leave everything in. But if my life has been a series of obstacles and pivots, without all these pieces there’s no whole person and no Ethio Sky. My life as a fine artist is the wellspring to all my endeavors: I went to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and my art is represented in private collections and museums (www.loriprecious.com); and I became so known for my stained glass window images created entirely from butterfly wings that when “artist” Damien Hirst stole the concept (as he has from other artists), it made headlines and created protests on the other side of the world. For a number of years I also worked as an art director who created shooting boards, sets and wardrobe, which resulted in a twenty-five year career as one of the most successful female commercial directors, filming hundreds of videos, commercials and documentaries with Ryan Gosling, Liza Minnelli, Gena Rowlands, Joanne Woodward, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash for ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, FX, MTV, Disney and Nickelodeon. My short film Curse of the Sunset Starlet, starring Oscar nominated Sally Kirkland, premiered at the prestigious Newport Beach Film Festival and screened at festivals from New York to Europe. As one of the few female members of the Directors Guild of America, I became an activist for equality for women directors and, along with others, took the case of women directors to the ACLU and EEOC, which are now in settlement talks with studios. I’ve been the spokesperson for this issue on the CBS national news.
Ten years ago my husband (novelist Steve Erickson), our son (Miles) and I decided to add to our family by adopting our fiery, feisty, wise and wise-cracking two-year-old daughter Silanchi. She fits into our creative family like she was born to it. In 2015 when Silanchi was ten, she and I returned to Ethiopia to see her birth family for the first time since the adoption, an experience that was immensely healing not only for Silanchi but everyone. During this trip Silanchi learned to feel like a “real” Ethiopian and I found the inspiration for my business, Ethio Sky.
We traveled to the most remote part of Africa, the Omo Valley, where ancient tribes live much as they have since the beginning of time and create body art with paint, piercings and scarification. I was deeply moved and inspired to meet the women of the Ari tribe who paint their huts in fierce yet whimsical patterns that are part of a tradition passed down from mother to daughter called “giving beauty.” Despite desperate circumstances these women still value beauty for its own sake.
All my life experiences came together in Omo. The dreams of mothers for their children and the story of Giving Beauty moved me enough to create Ethio Sky as a way for the talented Omo tribeswomen to earn income from their art. Together, the women and I are artists helping artists, mothers helping mothers, knowing that when women prosper, the entire community thrives.
Ethio Sky has partnered with the Giving Beauty women to digitally print their patterns onto scarves, sarongs and fabric. They’re paid for their paintings as well as a licensing fee and a share of the profits. So far we have put over 20,000 USD into the Ethiopian economy, each woman making more in one week than they typically earn in years. Their children now go to school, get medical care, have a future. Ethio Sky sponsors a young tribesman to go to college and helps the Omo Child orphanage (www.omochild.org) that rescues children called “mingi” who otherwise would be cursed and killed by their tribes.
I’m always careful to explain that Ethio Sky isn’t a charity. Some Ethiopians are embarrassed that a large portion of their economy is supported by outside aid. Friends in Ethiopia have helped me understand the complexities of this issue, from the patronizing effect that charity can have on individuals to the government corruption that sometimes coincides with such assistance. I try to be sensitive to Ethiopians’ distaste for the “white savior” who portrays them as fly-covered and starving as a way to raise money for a cause. Ethiopians are a proud people. Their country is the cradle of humanity, home to kickass Ethiopian jazz and the Ark of the Covenant. I chose Omo Valley for artistic and philanthropic reasons, but also because — as the Ethiopian government strives to outgrow the stigma of a “developing country” and modernize their infrastructure — the tribes are increasingly viewed as savages from a bygone era. This attitude, combined with the recent drought and famine, a massive new hydroelectric dam up the Omo River, and massacres by government forces that confiscate their land, have put the Omo tribes in danger of disappearing entirely.
If Ethio Sky succeeds, tribeswomen will raise themselves and their families out of poverty by celebrating their culture and legacy through the art of Giving Beauty. They will have money to spend in their villages, which will help their communities prosper. Starting my own business for the first time is like finding my way through a dark tunnel, and when I started Ethio Sky a fellow director suggested I look into COMMON, which may not be the light at the tunnel’s end but at least illuminates the way. I don’t feel so isolated when I know I can reach out for wisdom from people with experience who are going through a similar process.
I would be appreciative of the guidance of others — who already have built or are building successful businesses — to help me grow Ethio Sky into a healthy and prosperous brand. In return I’m here to provide an enthusiastic ear and whatever other assistance I can offer to other COMMONers. I hope that after reading the puzzle-pieces of my fragmented life, you’ll find they fit together to form the picture of Ethio Sky.
I’m happy and grateful to be amongst such great companions in COMMON.
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