May 14, 2005 – Ernestine Bertrand, an expressionist painter, has been exhibiting her work at the Native Arts and Cooperative for seven years. Bertrand paints under the name "Ernie Space," and sometimes even sets up her easel in the store to greet customers as they come in and talk about her work.
Bertrand goes to the Co-op three days a week, and as a result, enjoys some of the highest sales of all the artists represented in the store. "I call it my play money," she says.
Now that "play money" is at risk. For seven years the Co-op has been housed in a prime retail location right across the street from Emancipation Garden. Even when no cruise ships are in port a steady stream of shoppers walk through the door.
But the building was tested for asbestos, molds and mildew last November, and the results showed it is "sick." Carmen Staley, who works at the store, says it didn't show up in the Co-op's retail space, but the Department of Tourism next door had to move out in December, and the Native Arts and Crafts Cooperative will be next. The building will be renovated and cleaned out, but in the meantime the Co-op has no place to set up shop.
Harold Lockhart, president of the Committee to Revive our Culture, the agency that runs the store, says it was scheduled to close down on May 13. However, an extension was granted this week giving the Co-op until the end of the month to find new retail space.
"We have some people out checking," said Lockhart He didn't give details, saying only "we'll keep our fingers crossed."
Ruth Prager, a clay artist who displays her work at the Co-op, says they are researching tax incentives for people to donate retail space, or the possibility of getting a grant to cover the cost of new retail space.
"There's no bartering here. I tell people, this is locally done. We don't send any money back to China. All the money goes back to the island so when you come back here the island is green," says Staley.
"This [store] is so important," Staley continues. "If an artist or crafts person does something, at least they get something back."
Arts and crafts from more than 130 people, all of who live and work in the Virgin Islands, are displayed in the store.
"We have artists from all the islands. St. John, Water Island, we even have Monty from Hassel Island," says Carmen Staley, the Co-op's only paid employee.
Crafts from Ivanna Eudora Kean High School students, senior citizens, even carved mahogany furniture and sculptures made by prisoners on St. Croix are mixed in with bush tea, sauces, crochet, and shell work.
Staley acts as a mentor to those artisans who have never sold anything before.
After working at the Native Arts and Crafts Co-op for seven years, she knows what sells, and guides the artisans.
"We don't choose them, we accept them," she says. "If they can make improvements we give them suggestions."
Bertrand points to a row of Raggedy Ann dolls on a shelf.
"I remember when the Rehab Center was on Back Street making these dolls. Now they have an outlet. Where are they going to go?"
"A lot of people don't even know what's in here. There are treasures, real treasures," says Bertrand. "When people come in they get the local flavor, the source. When you go out to other shops you don't see things from the source. What greater resource to have than local artisans."
Now, as Bertrand considers the likely fate of the store, she walks around with a sad feeling.
"This store inspires us to create," she says.
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