There are many paths to fulfillment, and while Claire Burkert ’76 may have chosen the path less traveled, it has left her no less fulfilled. Burkert’s life and career have taken her to isolated areas in Nepal, Vietnam, Turkey, Gaza, Myanmar, and elsewhere to work with rural people, mainly women, to help them sustainably develop and sell culture-based crafts.
For more than 30 years, she has worked closely with artisans to help improve the quality of their crafts, develop marketing materials to help buyers understand the cultural meaning behind the crafts, and link artisans to buyers around the world. She often works to rediscover lost methods and materials, or introduce new technical skills and designs to artisans. “I feel it’s really important for the crafts to be relevant to the artist’s culture,” she said. “The work should reflect the lives of the artisans through the imagery, techniques, and materials—those are what differentiate the artisans’ work in the global market.”
Burkert did not follow a specific career path after earning her bachelor’s in literature from Bennington College and master’s in creative writing from Brown University. She took a planned three-month trip to Nepal with the intention of writing a book, and ended up staying for seven months. Shortly thereafter she returned to the states, but not for long. She was soon back in Nepal working various jobs until she discovered a group of women who painted images on the walls of their houses. “Something clicked in me,” she said. “The women brought together my interest in art and anthropology, and I wanted to write about them.”
After earning a grant from a trust in Massachusetts, she developed an income-generating program for the women where they could transfer their paintings to paper, which then could be sold for income. Eventually, as Nepal became a democratic country, Burkert received interest from embassies and international organizations and she established the Janakpur Women’s Development Center in Nepal in 1991 with their assistance. From there, she replicated the work with women in countries around the world.
Burkert feels it is important for young people to branch out with their careers and take risks. “I couldn’t have looked in the newspaper and found my job,” she said. “I had to create it, but I didn’t even know I had to create it. I just took it step by step and followed my bliss. I think the thing is to be as creative and open as you can be, because that’s where the opportunity is. You just have to believe in yourself.”
In 2014, Burkert wrote “Himalayan Style,” a documentation of vernacular architecture and design of the Himalayas. She and her husband, Thomas Schrom, a designer and restorer of Himalayan buildings, spend part the year in Kathmandu, Nepal. She is continuing her work with artists through online methods due to the COVID-19 pandemic.