From West Tisbury to Africa — helping children, artists
Photo by Susan Safford
At the top of New Lane in West Tisbury hangs a sign advertising a sale of African crafts that Marsha Winsryg hosts in her living room.
In her kitchen, Ms. Winsryg keeps spices and home-canned vegetables in mason jars on open shelves. A pot of chai simmers on the wood stove. Out back, her early winter garden is half-covered with plastic to keep a few hardy vegetables going. The crafts she sells help support community organizations in Zambia and Niger, which she visits regularly in March, when the African weather is tolerably cool, and before the spring gardening season on Martha's Vineyard.
Ms. Winsryg has a degree in sculpture from Bennington College, and she has branched out artistically from there. "For many years I worked in pastel, but now I'm working in egg tempera," she says. She also builds small three-dimensional shrines. One of them sits by her wood stove, framing a carved female figure she brought back from her first trip to Africa.
"I'm also the director of the bell choir at the Congregational Church and I write music for that," Ms. Winsryg says. "I'm going to publish some of my original arrangements. I have a puppet troupe with April Thanhauser and Joan LeLacheur. I do a lot of things."
In the early 1980s she lived in New York City with two young daughters, Gia Winsryg-Ulmer and Cleo Wild "I was working seven days a week doing farmers' markets in the city," she says. "I made organic, whole wheat, no-sugar pastries, and bread. I was barely scratching a living." When she moved Gia to a better school, St. Anne's in Brooklyn, she taught four-year-olds at the school as part of a barter arrangement to pay for part of Gia's tuition.
Later, St. Anne's sent her to Bank Street College of Education. "It was amazing," Ms. Winsryg says of her education at Bank Street, "and it was really fun, because everything I learned there worked so beautifully."
Ms. Winsryg returned to the Island in 1989 with her partner and fellow teacher Paul Karasik, now her husband. "We both took sabbaticals and never went back to New York," she says.
"I never thought I'd go to Africa until my daughter Gia went in 1997," she says. "She was at the University of Tanzania on a junior year abroad program from Brown." Two years later Ms. Winsryg travelled with Gia and Cleo to visit Africa, and that was the beginning of the African Artists' Community Development Project. "We spent several hours at the Mukuni Craft Market at Victoria Falls," she recalls. "At the end of the time I was there, these guys came up and asked me if they could send me some boxes of their crafts, and if I would try to sell some of their things in the States. It took the boxes a year to get to me because they sent it surface mail."
"My mother is amazing," says Cleo Wild. "When she visited Africa she saw people in need with such creative talent and ability. Marsha is truly creating chances for those people."
The crafts on display in Ms. Winsryg's living room include Tuareg silver earrings, hand-woven baskets, rugs, and wood carvings. "I really love going over there and choosing things myself," she says. She also makes personal connections with many of the artisans there. "They're very proud of what they do, but I don't think they make the distinction between art and craft."
Ms. Winsryg loves selling from her home: "I can work while I'm here," she says. "It's so much easier than setting up somewhere, spending all day at a market, then packing. I just leave it up. Until the last Saturday before Christmas I'm just going to leave it up." As she sits, she works on a cloth doll, removing beaded eyes and mouths.
"I've changed my mind about these beads," she explains. "I know parents worry about them so I'm replacing some of them with embroidered features." The dolls are made by mothers and grandmothers of children at the Mama Bakhita Cheshire Center for Disabled Children in, Livingston, Zambia, which the AACDP supports. "We designed these together when I was over there. I'd always wanted to design a doll that could be made by hand."
"The women who run the Mama Bakhita home are Franciscan Sisters. They try to follow Christ's edicts, and it's very refreshing, they're just trying to be good Christians. It's very small and personal. I love going there and staying with them, they're just so fun. The pictures I saw before I went didn't give me a good impression. I was afraid it was going to be grim, but really it was so nice."
Ms. Winsryg's success as a small-scale philanthropist is made possible by many supporters in this community. She says that the people who come to her holiday sale spend enthusiastically, because they know what they're supporting.
Sharon Gamsby, who acts as treasurer of AACDP, first met Ms. Winsryg three decades ago, and they've been friends ever since. "The thing about Marsha is that she really walks the walk, she doesn't just talk the talk," Ms. Gamsby says. "She makes people connected to the people in Africa, she personalizes it, she doesn't get overwhelmed, she just keeps helping people on a personal basis. She really lives her beliefs."
African Artists' Community Development Project Sales. Saturdays, Dec. 11 and 18, 10 am to 2 pm.
Follow signs off New Lane, West Tisbury. For more info, call 508-693-4059.