To Haiti, With Love: Robert Lee Morris and Donna Karan’s Educational Trip

By  July 03, 2013

robert lee morris donna karanDonna Karan is known for her philanthropic efforts, regularly aiming to provide support and aid to Haiti. Over the years, she’s worked directly with many craftspeople in the area, but lately she’s bringing on extra help … in the form of a very talented jewelry designer, Robert Lee Morris! During a recent trip to Haiti, Karan and Morris dedicated time to the craftsmen of the area, with the aspiration of turning jewelry making into a lucrative business for the Haitians.

While in Haiti, Morris spent time with metal workers, directly educating the head metal worker and 20 of his employees. Over samples of brass, copper, and nickel, Morris displayed techniques, shared engineering advice, and articulations, even offering up different chemicals to the iron makers so that they could learn how to create oxidations for the metals.

Below, Morris shares an account of his trip to Haiti with Karan, expresses his sentiments from the experience, and goals for the future! 

This was my second trip to Haiti. I first went in 1977, to celebrate my December 1976 Vogue cover of my huge brass bubble collar. It was the cover that really launched my brand ID. I had always heard about the magical romantic Olafson Hotel in Port au Prince, and so my first trip there was spent in luxury and steeped in meetings with art dealers and dancing all night on piers out in the ocean to fabulous Haitian music…watching the Haitians grooving out with their extremely slow sexual almost motionless dance.

This trip in May was 100% opposite. Donna had been telling me for over a year now that she wanted me to go with her to the stone-age villages of the Haitian metal workers, the artisans who work with the donated steel drums, making every conceivable form of art, in steel. The kind that rusts. And to prevent the rusting, the use of lacquers and rust stained patinas as well as simply covering the steel art with brightly painted images is how steel is treated there. But steel is steel and it’s hard to make it look like bronze or any other art metal. Donna knows that between the rich patinas of my jewelry and also the sculptures of her late husband Stephan Weiss, lay the colors that she wanted the Haitian artisans to learn to use.

I was excited to go with her even though I knew it would be a grueling adventure, between the poverty and earthquake recovery. I was nervous about catching a bug, or worse. We stayed in a hotel that was hosting a Haitian Woman’s artisan fair, and Donna and her Urban Zen staff participated and displayed the crafts that Donna has been assisting to develop, in an Urban Zen booth, showing a wide variety of the products Donna helped design for the artisans to make for Urban Zen to resell in New York.

My favorite part of the trip was the moment after I had unpacked a huge suitcase of my archive jewelry for the metal workers in the village to see…the reactions of these men who had never seen such metal colors or constructions as mine before, told me that it was like a two year education to spend the afternoon with me, and that I had “brought the spring to them”….very touching.

The next day I repeated my show and tell with all the women from the arts fair who were jewelry designers using horn or ceramic or locally available materials. Their reaction to my work was equally heartwarming to me.  Donna was beaming with pride that I had such an effect and influence on these beautiful artists/craftsmen.

Check out Robert Lee Morris’ personal pictures from his trip to Haiti here