Michelle Page has no time for dogs of her own.
Her lengthy semi-annual trips from California to Nepal prevent it. At the writing of this article she was preparing for an October visit to Kathmandu where she would once again broker the sale of dogs. Two dimensional and metallic dogs, that is.
For twenty-five years Page traveled around the world in her time off as a Hollywood assistant film editor. Asia, Mexico, Kenya, Argentina, and South Africa topped her list of frequent visits after months of 14-hour days working on films such as Bob Altman’s “The Player,” and Sam Ramie’s “Spiderman” trilogy. Nepal, a country Page describes as paradise, drew her back more than any other destination. She never imagined she would experience a “rebirth” due to those visits, but in the ten years after her retirement from Hollywood, the mountainous country changed her life. Page became immersed in a second career as a micro financier, social activist, and art curator, and she has thousands of dogs to thank for it.
A Paradise in Need
During her visits, beginning in the 1980s, Page frequented the Annapurna Circuit, a 128-mile hiking route through the northern Mustang region. The horseshoe shaped route passes through apple orchards and pine forests, up to the world’s deepest gorge, Kali Gandaki, and views of the Himalayan peaks. Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the wind. Page would trek 15 miles a day, or more, losing at least 12 pounds before finishing.
South and east of the circuit lays Kathmandu, home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the area Page lodged in when she did not hike Annapurna. The region’s food, cleanliness, and friendly people won her over, even after changes from a civil war (1996-2006) left infrastructure tattered. The population of the region quadrupled with no upgrades to accommodate the influx.
“The people from the mountains fled to escape the Maoist rebels who likely as not would conscript their 10-year-old children,” she said. “Kathmandu now has 2.4 million people and is growing at the rate of 4% a year. In the depth of winter,” she said, “they only have electricity for six to eight hours a day in the capital, which really messes with industry and businesses.”
The country’s frail economy worsened during the decade of insurgency, leaving Nepal with a national unemployment rate near 46%. A fourth of the population is impoverished. The poverty Page witnessed in Kathmandu, coupled with her instinct to “lend a hand rather than a hand-out,” led her to begin a small venture in 2004 to improve the income of the Nepalese tradesmen she saw daily in the streets.
“Be Ware of Dogs”
Page had long admired a unique form of folk art sold in Nepal: hand-painted signs on metal. Her fondness for the aesthetic began during her visits to Mexico where she discovered retablos, 19th century devotional paintings on tin, copper, and wood. The Nepalese signs, sold street-side, depict Buddha, tigers, landscapes, Mt. Everest, and dogs— “Danger Dogs.”
“It is a tradition to have a beware of dog sign in Nepal,” she said, “even when they do not have dogs.” The signs depict large and small breeds such as Dobermans, German shepherds, Labradors, Pomeranians and nondescript mutts. Warnings, such as “Be Ware of Dog” or “Beware of Dog,” complete some of the portraits. Dog lovers have also requested labels such as Zen Dog, Enlightened Dog or Smiling Dog.
Over the decades Page noticed a decline in hand-painted signs created due to the growing popularity of computer generated signage. Jarred by the increasing poverty she saw and the decline of an art form she admired, Page decided in 2004 to sell the signs in the U.S. as a way to generate income for the artists. She hoped the sales would also help prevent a traditional art form from dying out.
Initially, her friends in California gave her pictures of their pets to show the Nepalese artists who painted multiple versions of each dog. “I wanted to make sure that many artists got work, so I began commissioning multiple portraits of each pet. The customers liked having a choice and I liked seeing versions of each portrait.”
When Californian artist Ed Moses bought signs of Catahoula Leopard dogs, a door opened for Page to exhibit the folk art in the Los Angeles area. He showed his signs to a gallery owner who promptly asked Page to showcase her pieces. On the first night of the exhibit she sold 13 signs.
Page now curates four to five art shows per year throughout California and across the United States. She counts chef Alice Waters, television producer Stephen Bocho, actresses Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, and the director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, John Walsh, as owners of Danger Dog signs. “The Nepal Art Dog project has the best customers in the world,” said Page, “—they love to help make a difference.”
From Folk Art to Social Justice
In March of 2014, the signs which help struggling artists in Nepal became part of an exhibit to improve conditions of migrant laborers worldwide. Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California, presented the “Labor-Migrant-Gulf” exhibition to protest working conditions for migrant laborers from Mexico who work in California and laborers from Central and Southeast Asia who work in the Arabian/Persian Gulf. The construction of the Zayad National Museum in Abu Dhabi involves usage of migrant workers, some from Nepal.
“The Kathmandu newspapers are full of horrible stories,” said Page, “of workers working 18 hour days in unbearable heat, sharing rooms with no AC, having their passports taken away and not properly fed, etc., and sometimes coming home in body bags.” Headhunters, she said, take the first six month wages and expect workers to stay three years. “I have lost a dozen of my best artists to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, South Korea, etc., where these talented artists can make more money as a farm laborer or construction worker than as artists in Nepal.”
The Chula Vista exhibit was part of a 52-week series to raise awareness of the living conditions of the workers, those whom artist and curator Doris Bittar calls “the world’s poorest laborers.” Gulf Labor, a coalition of artists based in New York City, has worked since 2011 to bring the unjust working conditions in Abu Dhabi to light. Michelle Page contributed her Nepalese art alongside the work of 68 artists from the United States and Germany, Italy, Lebanon, and Mexico to the month long exhibit in California.
Travel with Purpose
Page’s unfolding journey from world traveler and adventurer to businesswoman and curator began with a desire to do more with her life “after all those years working on movies.” “I was unaware of Fair Trade Art when I started,” she said, or of “microfinance through art patronage,” the formal business description of her project. She could only see the end of a hectic career and the possibility of doing something more meaningful.
“Since I have always been thrifty,” she said, “this seemed the perfect opportunity to travel with purpose.”
Though her initial purpose resulted in brokering sales of paintings, Page also has simpler means of making a difference when traveling. She and her husband bring 40 to 60 pairs of used small shoes in their luggage allotment on their trips to Nepal, to replace the flimsy shoes worn by children in Kathmandu. She has also participated in the Reading Glass Project (readingglassproject.org), hand delivering reading glasses to artisans and residents in the area they visit. The project coordinators help determine how many glasses to bring and provide eye charts along with durable sets of eye glasses. Page delivered hers in Nepal and Burma.
Page’s shift from travel for personal pleasure alone is part of a growing trend. Journalist and travel writer Michael McCarthy uses the term “intentional travel” to describe the combination of pleasure and purpose. He defined the phrase in his article “Travel with Purpose and Awareness” for Transitions Abroad. Intentionality, he wrote, includes “a desire for an outcome, a belief that the action will lead to the outcome, an intention to perform the action, the skill to perform the action, and awareness while performing the action.”
Page’s initial action, showing photos to artists and carrying their small paintings back home, required a desire more than a specific skill but she has since learned the skills needed for an international businesswoman.
“I have written books, I blog, I handle my own website, accounting, publicity, etc.” since starting the Danger Dog venture, she said. “I curate. It is more fun (and enlightening) than you can imagine. It is amazing how many different hats one must wear to run a business.”
Page considers Nepal Art Dogs a second career as well as a “deep passion.” She attributes her passion to “lend a hand” to her parents. “I am a first generation American (Lithuanian parentage) and my family was most interested in raising the living standards of their five children.”
Since the start of her venture in 2004, Page has sold over 2,000 Danger Dog signs, painted by 58 artists in Kathmandu. Page, notable for the cowboy hat she wears, says her artists consider her their biggest client.
“I believe that most people would prefer an honest wage rather than charity. One hundred fifty dollars a month is considered a very good income in Nepal and the artists make much, much more than that, doing what they enjoy and do best. And,” she adds, “they get a big smile when they see this cowboy hat coming.”
For your own Enlightened Chicken, Zen Cat, or Be Aware of Poodle sign, view the Danger Dog signs at Nepal Art Dogs.
Inez Holger’s essays and articles have appeared in various anthologies, literary journals, and local publications. She writes about family, mental health, faith, gardening, and the most interesting people she can find.