History & Philosophy of WIREWORX
Brothers Ron and Steve Askotzky started selling African beaded animals and key chains in 2004, eventually to become WIREWORX. In the summer of 2003 Ron chanced upon a semi retired South African expat couple selling African beaded animals from a small makeshift table in downtown Jerusalem. He was so taken with the detail, color and uniqueness that he felt they would be a big hit in the US. Ron encouraged Steve to join him in bringing this art form to a wider market.
Ron, as the artist in the family, chooses new animal designs and develops them together with the lead designers of each group of artisans. It’s been enlightening and sometimes challenging working with artisans from such a different culture yet they’ve developed a warm, transparent and mutually respectful relationship, which has been rewarding for both them and the artisans. Steve handled the Milwaukee office, including phone customer care, shipping, banking, photography and inventory until he had to retire in 2019 for health reasons. As he was stepping down he arranged for Lisa to fill his position while Ron took over all customer care. Unfortunately Steve succumbed to his illness in March of 2021.
Why doesn’t WIREWORX also take advantage of cheaper labor and materials and a larger, more efficient labor pool in China?
Ron responds, “That’s a fair question for those unfamiliar with the artisans and the history of the art. After reading onward and reading our homepage and the page about our artisans you’ll ask how anyone with a clear conscience could move their operation out of Africa!”
Due to lack of funds for an advanced education and even for technical training and limited employment opportunities, quite a few young men in urban Zimbabwe turn to art since it’s a skill that can be affordably learned by many. Some start out of boredom, even as youngsters, using readily available materials such as stone, wood, cans, bottle caps, wire and more. The more skilled artisans hope to use their newfound abilities to make a modest income. Unfortunately, there are few outlets for artisans to sell their wares in Zimbabwe so some move to neighboring South Africa to sell their wares along busy thoroughfares. It’s not at all uncommon to see artisans and vendors hawking crafts at street lights or robots, as they’re called in South Africa. Some set themselves up daily at the same site, along public thoroughfares and can be seen there day in and day out. The more fortunate sell at various markets and some wholesale to vendors in South Africa and worldwide.
Bead and wire art evolved from plain wire art. With just needle nose pliers they would shape the wire into toys such as cars and planes and other various practical and decor items. Later the idea of wrapping beaded wire around the frames was introduced. Beading is an ancient African art form and added to the wire work, a unique modern African art form was born.
WIREWORX: Yes to Africa- No to China and Haiti
By around 2003, bead and wire art was being made almost exclusively by perhaps a few hundred Zimbabwean artisans. However, shortly before WIREWORX began, a US company who’d been working with a few dozen artisans in South Africa moved to China and put together a group of Chinese to copy this African art form. Since then this company had considerably expanded their range of bead and wire products and continued to aggressively market their Chinese versions of the authentic African bead and wire animals. This initially had a serious affect on the livelihood of the original African artisans. Fortunately WIREWORX, among a few others, came along and provided many of these artisans with a livelihood. This other companies heavy marketing has made this unique art more commonplace, hence lowering its value and has created more competition, making it more difficult for the African artisans to make a decent living. Some even feel that this is cultural theft.
I get that it isn’t fair but doesn’t “survival of the fittest” put your needs first?
Ron answers, “Of course we have to provide for our own families! I have 9 children (and Steve has 3) so we’re well aware of the burden upon us, however, greed blurs the lines between needs and wants. The road to success doesn’t entitle us to walk over others en route, particularly when those others are the marginalized members of society and the rightful holders of this art form. Those more fortunate have a moral responsibility to give back to society by helping their less fortunate brethren. There‘s no better way than by helping them make a living! If we can respectably support our families while helping others support theirs then this is the perfect balance.
Steve pipes in, “We were raised by parents who were very conscious of the needs of others. Our parents supported and volunteered their time for many causes and even in their senior years they continue to help as much as they can. Our father almost single handedly built a playground in his spare time for a private elementary school. Our mother would get called at the last minute to volunteer to cook a meal or two for dozens of boys at a small private school. Acts of kindness like these were everyday occurrences for which they sought no honor or publicity. Consideration for others runs in our blood. It’s just not in our DNA to trample upon others to make more money. How much more so in this case, where the rightful owners of this art form are those who we presently work with. We’re confident that we’ll be rewarded in the long run for following our moral compass.”
The motto of WIREWORX is, “Bringing a smile to our artisans and customers”. Ron explains, “Our mission is to help our artisans improve their lives by enhancing the lives of the more fortunate with their artwork… and to make an honest living while doing so.”
The US company that had moved to China sold out to a Haitian company. They claim that they finished their good work helping the rural Chinese and now have passed on the torch to help the Haitians. Whatever the truth may be, the fact remains that this is an original African art form and should remain in the hands of its rightful owners! Robbing Peter to pay Paul?