Who Am I ?
1: Who am I?
Very existential of you to ask! Oyi, I ask myself that often, how did I get to this crazy place? What is my purpose? Sometimes that is met with a sigh and other times with a deep breath of contentment…I am a women driven by her passion to use her talents for good, determined to leave this place better off then when I got here. Not in a Pollyanna way, more realistic roll-your-sleeves-up and give-it-a-wack… but I guess my mother drilled it into me when I was a kid and it stuck! Now, as a mother myself, it has just made me realize more the importance of justice, human rights, and dignity… I can’t stand to see pointless suffering, waste, or stupidity. I find healing and joy in beauty, art, and design, so I naturally gravitated to harnessing those skills towards that end. Not much thought went into the idea. It was all drive and passion, sort of a calling.
2: What do you do and what project are you currently working on?
As a kid in my 20′s, after studying design in college, I had this crazy idea that I could start a social enterprise business called DIGS (Duchamp’s Irreverent Guiding Spirit, inc.). It encompassed all my interests in art, designs, sustainability, development. It would grow with me and involve a lot of people I liked, make a difference by using design as a method of effecting positive change in the world, and have a lot of fun along the way (perhaps a little too much fun, if you know what I mean). I was young and didn’t see boarders or obstacles! Somehow I kept it going for 20 years like rearing a stubborn child, who is actually myself…on a journey of discovery always challenging the norm.
Currently, I am working as technical advisor for Aid to Artisans on a project working with artisans in Egypt who are wood carvers. They are extremely skilled and talented. With the current political climate however, we have put the travel part on hold so I am working remotely (thanks to technology). Next, I am consulting for a social enterprise working in a village in Cambodia on IKAT fabric weaving. I’m doing marketing research for a product line they’d like to introduce to the US market in hopes of generating sustainable income for the village. Also, I’m collaborating with a terrific NGO in Guatemala called Ecolibri, on a weaving project, then putting new collections together for DIGS and overseeing daily operations there, guest lecturing at Parsons & FIT. We just launched a new e-commerce site three months ago. We’re updating it to include our blog, with fresh news on all these topics of interest. My favorite current project is always my five-year-old son, helping him with school and being his PA; he’s a real task master!
3: Where are you from and where are you going?
I am from all over and feel at home almost anywhere. I see life as an adventure (this is what I tell my five-year-old all the time), especially when I feel myself getting too bogged down. For the most part, I’ve lived in NYC, where I still am fascinated with and challenged by. I spent a good time of my youth living and traveling with my family from Buffalo, to Connecticut, to Brussels, and Milan, spending holidays traveling and visiting family in the Middle-East. My family is originally from Alexandria, of Coptic Egyptian-French decent from my mom and Greek-Italian from my Dad. Hence the feeling of being from all over.
4: Who is your biggest hero?
Gosh, I have so many! I am in awe of a lot of people who have the ability to persevere under just horrible or very challenging conditions with humor, humility, determination, civility, grace, and generosity. Be it the falafel guy on the corner who was an engineer or doctor back home, or my friend Babette fighting MS… it’s not only the Carters or Clintons that inspire me.
5: What book is your bible?
Hmmm, this is a very difficult question, I have always been the pain in the ass that likes to order small plates to try everything or have to ask you for a taste. Committing to one thing is hard for me, if you couldn’t tell already… so, I have read a lot about comparative religion and have been raised to be very open and accepting. I have seen a lot of violence over religion, so one “book” over another isn’t for me but rather gathering the best ideas from all of them and trying to live by that… the most recent book that left an impression on me was The New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I gleaned some nuggets, but when I am feeling that void and in need of inspiration, a book on quantum physics (that I can only half understand) is always on my nightstand. It makes me contemplate the macro and the micro, like string theory, and it is filled with possibilities. It gives me great hope and calms me when I am feeling futile.
6: What are some things you love? And some things you hate?
As I get older I love more and more simple and pure things: my son’s smile and enthusiasm, rediscovering how fantastic the world is through his eyes. He teaches me (or tries to teach me) patience. You have to check yourself all the time as a parent, and I think I have become more complete as a person through the process and I am thankful.
On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve also become more of a socialist with age, so I “hate” things that are purely about status or exclusionary. Just so boring and easy, pettiness and things that cost more then they should or that are needed and can’t be afforded (just because of greed), like anti-viral drugs. I hate injustice, suffering, and intolerance. Other then that, I’m good!
7: What is your raison d’être?
8: What is your favorite color?
Lately it has been green: bright sassy fresh acid green! I think it is because it is a color of rebirth and growth… I used to gravitate towards Provence or cornflower blue a lot. I also love combinations of orange and bronze (did I tell you committing to one this is hard for me?!).
9: Who is your favorite comic book superhero?
I don’t really have one. I didn’t really get into that as a kid. When I was little, Peanuts with Snoopy and Woodstock were big, Cool Hand Luke Cartoon books, Asterix and Smurfs. I liked Snoopy and even named my dog after him; he was very funny and smart to me!
10: What is your favorite NYC hot spot?
Hot Spot? You’re kidding right? Uhhh… The Frying Pan, it has something for all of us as a family.
11: What turns you on?
My family, love, travel, nature, beauty, discovery, tolerance, and adventure.
12: What would the last question of this questionnaire be if you were the one asking?
Q: What music are you currently listening to?
A: I respond to music and I feel the vibrations are so healing. The expression is so important on many levels. Of course, I can’t even play air guitar and people run when I try to sing. At bed time, if I try to sing a lullaby to my boy, he asks me to “please stop singing”… but that is why I appreciate it so much. We have introduced him to the Beatles and he is loving it! So, that’s what is playing at our house. My husband gave me Daniel Lanois’ autobiography [Soul Mining: A Musical Life] for my birthday recently. I think he is a real talent.
Rhea studied at Parsons School of Design. Her career followed an organic yet logical progression. She practiced architecture and industrial design while making art furniture from found objects, showing them in local NY galleries. Early on, what intreagued her was the role the designer can play in sustainability both from an environmental position as well as from a human perspective. She opened DIGS in 1991, determined to bridge the gap between design, handicraft, fair-trade, using sustainable materials in an attempt to preserve artisanal handicraft through the use of ecological & sustainable materials by giving artisans internationally sustainable business. She has been consulting for the private sector and NGO’s such as Aid to Artisans and USAid with the similar mission.
Overseen by Jillian Mercado
Questions by PMc Magazine
Edited by Meaghan Coffey
Photography by Noémie Baumann
Design by Jillian Mercado
Contact Jillian Mercado if you’re interested in becoming a “Who Am I?”
Rhea Alexander at The National Arts Club, Gramercy Park South, New York City, 2011, Photography by Noémie Baumann