We spoke to Jamie Denburg Habie, founder and designer of René Habie (and one of the more enviably interesting and busy women we know) about balancing projects while living all over the world, her family's foundation in Guatemala, and the lasting influence of her artist mother.
Right now you’re living between Jordan, Guatemala and NYC. Where do you feel most productive and inspired?
It’s not really a physical space that sparks inspiration for me, more like a mental state that widens and narrows. I can be in the most beautiful or interesting place but if my eyes are closed nothing happens. In that sense, it’s about cultivating a certain mindset no matter where I am. That said, being in Guatemala allows me more freedom as an artist and designer because I have a built-in community, materials and lots of wide-open spaces. Especially for jewelry making and large-scale sculptural projects, Guatemala is perfect.
A photo of one of my pieces, a model scale tower, loosely inspired by the ladder theme in a lot of my mom’s work, and also by utopian architecture and Mayan temples.
What have you been working on in Jordan?
I’ve been working with indiepush.com and the label Belbaleh to support independent music from the Middle East and North Africa. There is so much creativity in the region, it's unbelievable! I am also learning Arabic, which has been a goal of mine for some time because my maternal ancestors are from the Middle East. The “Habie” from the René Habie brand is my mother’s maiden name, and means olive jar in Arabic.
One of the concerts I attended while working with the label Belbaleh. This particular show was the London Sound Festival in Cairo, and the band playing is represented by Belbaleh – El Morabba3. If you want to listen to their music you can find it on Spotify.
Is it difficult to keep continuity to your projects living in such vastly different places throughout the year?
Definitely! Being in so many places makes it easy to procrastinate or compartmentalize my responsibilities. I’m still trying to figure out how to keep the momentum on all projects no matter where I am.
Your family founded The New Roots Foundation in Guatemala and you are the Director of Arts and Culture. Can you tell us about the foundation and its goals?
The New Roots Foundation was inspired by the story of Juana Solis, a woman who my mother helped to pursue her education in 1978. Juana was born into extreme poverty, but with a bit of support defied all odds and now serves as an appellate court judge in Guatemala. Inspired by Juana’s story, my parents fostered 10 young girls and built a one-room schoolhouse for all of us to be homeschooled in. Since then, New Roots Foundation has grown to serve a range of needs, including sustainable forestry projects in marginalized communities and educational development.
We founded the Art and Culture branch in 2013 in honor of my late mother, Lissie Habie. Inspired by her philanthropic and artistic vision, we offer opportunities for local artists and help share Guatemalan art with an international community through residencies, exhibitions and collaborative projects. We are less worried about defining what is art versus craft, design or architecture, and much more interested in creating projects that span across disciplines.
The New Roots Foundation started a couple of artist residencies near your home in Guatemala. Can you tell us a bit about that and how that works?
We started inviting artists to use our home studios to produce a range of different work, while also encouraging collaborations with the local arts and artisan communities. The residencies have given us a lot of food for thought. They have been so successful that we are now constructing a building—with art studios, galleries and workshop spaces—to provide a hub for creative people from Guatemala and around the world.
A picture of a town in Guatemala called Comalapa, where there is a booming contemporary art movement. This town is also where a lot of the folk paintings come from, so most people have an artist in their family and art supplies can be found in every corner store. Many of the artists in residence have collaborated on projects with artists from this region.
Has it been challenging taking on such a big project as a young woman?
I think this project would be challenging for anyone. I have never really considered how being young or being a woman has influenced the process, although I’m sure it certainly has. The biggest challenge is dealing with the discomfort of the unknown. I’m always amazed how many people (including myself) are so afraid to start anything because of the fear of failure. Even though I have plenty of moments when I feel totally lost, if I remind myself that success and failure are artificial concepts when imposed from the outside, I can breathe easily and gain a lot of confidence in experimentation.
Tell us a bit about your family growing up – you had 10 foster sisters?
We were homeschooled together for five years and during that time we lived in an alternate universe. Our school was very creative and the units were themed. My favorite year was the “year of chocolate,” where we learnt about the Mayan civilization (chocolate was a sacred currency!), and the colonial period through cacao and other crops that shaped the world. It was an unconventional childhood and one that definitely shaped my beliefs. My sisters are a huge inspiration to me. They were able to overcome many tragedies as young children, and have all grown to be empowered young women.
Who in your life has been most inspiring to you or has motivated you to want to change the world in some way?
Definitely my mom! She was creative, generous, passionate and dedicated to being an artist and a force for change in Guatemala. She’s the main inspiration behind my art practice. I’m continuously finding meaning in the art she left behind—during a span of around 20 years she made over 2,500 works including photography, collage, poetry and sculpture. I worked on the production of her first biography, Lissie Habie: A Life in Pictures, written by Christian Viveros-Fauné. It was incredibly rewarding to delve into her work, and now to be able to share her art with a wider public.
One of my mother’s artworks from 2003
Over the past couple of years you’ve been creating jewelry under the name René Habie and having it produced by artisans in Guatemala. Is there a very lively scene of traditional craft making in Guatemala or are traditional ways struggling?
The indigenous Guatemalan culture has deep roots in art and craftsmanship, so you still see a lot of families that make at least part of their livelihood from selling high quality handmade products and art, like textiles woven on back strap looms. For now, traditional ways are surviving, but only so long as we can maintain a passion and respect for these processes and properly support artisans.
You’ve talked about wanting to start a craft school in Guatemala. What’s the motivation behind that and how would that work?
It was one of my mother’s dreams. There is a lot of poverty and lack of opportunity in Guatemala. She imagined a place where children from at risk communities could receive quality education and learn skills that would secure their financial futures as adults. I would love to make that dream a reality through René Habie by merging luxury, design and creativity to ethical business and philanthropy.
Do you find any aspects of your life difficult to balance?
Mostly trying to figure out how to create a productive routine for myself that I can rely on no matter where in the world I am. With so much moving around, I haven’t quite figured out how to schedule my time effectively. In this area I greatly admire my older sister Jessica Habie. She is a filmmaker, mother, student and activist and is great at navigating layers upon layers of experiences and responsibilities. I worked with Jess on her first full-length feature movie filmed in Israel and Palestine, Mars at Sunrise, and was so inspired by her management skills and confidence. If you can make a film in the midst of extreme political and social conflict and trauma, you can balance anything!
What do you do to relax and take a break from all of your work?
I love doing yoga, reading, listening to music. In New York, I am a big walker. I’ll just go out without a plan and wander for hours when I need some space. I’m also fortunate that my work is varied enough, so often taking a break just means switching projects.
My happy place in Guatemala. View from a boulder overlooking Lago Atitlán