Mara Amats

Artist and development worker


Mara Amats, artist and development consultant: born Cesis, Latvia 30 October 1941; four times married (one son, one daughter); died Minsmere, Suffolk 7 September 2007.

Mara Amats was a painter and craftswoman who devoted her prodigious skills and imagination – and much of her life – to helping impoverished communities re-discover and deploy their artistic skills in the cause of their own sustainable development.

Although her art – including paintings, icons, works on paper and collages – is to be found in religious institutions and private collections in Europe, Canada, the United States and Russia, Amats was for more than 20 years dedicated to helping communities in the developing world create traditional crafts to a standard that could open up high-value markets for them in the West. She introduced quilts from Namibia, baskets woven by Angolan refugees in Botswana, wood carvings from Venda in the north of South Africa, embroidery from Zimbabwe and textiles from the Philippines. In the late 1980s she established one of the first "Trade Not Aid" projects (now known as Community Trade) for the Body Shop, a paper-making operation in rural Nepal which provided bags, drawer-liners and notebooks for the company.

Born in Latvia during the Second World War to a Latvian father and Russian mother, Mara Amats herself was no stranger to extreme hardship. The war split the family, with her father in the Latvian forces, and her mother, her sister and herself in a German labour camp. After the war her father disappeared into a Siberian gulag only to re-emerge at the end his life. Mara, her sister and her mother also faced repatriation somewhere unpleasant, until her mother persuaded the authorities that she was French; she and her daughters were accepted by a Russian monastery near Versailles.

When Mara was nine, an uncle learnt of their survival and the three of them joined him in Canada. Here Mara eventually discovered her talent as an artist and in 1959, aged 17, she moved to London with her husband Richard Whitcombe (and shortly thereafter a small son) to study at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Art (later Chelsea School of Art) under Lawrence Gowing, and at the Courtauld Institute.

She graduated into a world of Pop Art, which was not to her taste, so she revisited the Russian monastery in France. Her arrival coincided with a decision by the monks to invite Grégoire Krug, a renowned monk and iconographer, to paint the interior of their newly completed church. Because of his advanced years Krug agreed for the first time in his life to take on an assistant, which Amats became in return for his instruction on the techniques and protocols of painting icons.

In the 1960s she worked as a freelance artist specialising in the painting and restoration of icons and frescoes, and in 1968 was invited to Ethiopia to restore the frescoes for the Coptic churches of the Lake Tana region and Tigre province. While in Ethiopia, she noticed on the streets of Addis Ababa a group of beggars working with cotton and patches of cheap nylon, but embroidering exquisitely. She learnt that Haile Selassie had closed down his robes department, "letting go" the employees therein. Amats shamed the palace into providing money for materials, taught the embroiderers the rudiments of modern fashion, and set them up in business.

Amats was to live as an artist in Ethiopia for seven years but when she left the country, somewhat hurriedly with the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974, it was this incident with the embroiderers that decided the course of the next 20 years.

As a consultant to governments, international aid and development agencies, NGOs and businesses, Amats travelled throughout Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Windward Isles of the Caribbean and Soviet Asia in the cause of sustainable development. Her method was to find in each downtrodden community some skill or asset that they already had and work it up to a product which would find favour – and dollars – in the developed world. The product was invariably of artistic merit. Amats had a knack of spotting in a household something woven, a discarded carving, a shard of pottery or a pattern on the side of the house, which led to the discovery of an almost forgotten skill.

She was also interested in arresting the degradation of land and the ecological balance by introducing low- and medium-scale technologies into environmentally fragile areas. The paper made by Nepalese women for the Body Shop used the freely available ingredients water hyacinth, banana rice husks and maize – alternatives to traditional procedures which were deforesting the Himalayas.

In each case she helped communities refine their skills, explore new sustainable resources and discover new markets, thus enabling them to stand on their own feet and lift themselves out of poverty. Her main focus was on empowering women in deprived communities to develop the means to help themselves and their families.

A beautiful woman, married four times and during her student days a sought-after fashion model, Mara Amats would brook no opposition from anyone who threatened to thwart her passion to help the dispossessed.

In later years, at the home near Minsmere in Suffolk that she shared with her last husband, Gil Devlin, she returned to her art, producing seascapes, icons and works on paper, which she made herself from the river reed phragmytes, and whose themes reflected her search for the numinous elements in the art of all cultures. These works, together with her paintings, were frequently exhibited at Cork Street galleries in London and in New York.

In January this year, although already ill, she began work on her last painting, a large triptych icon in the Rublev tradition depicting the Holy Trinity. It now hangs behind the high altar in Christ Church, Chelsea.

Fleur de Villiers

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