When asked to describe herself, Helen Boulley laughs and shrugs, "I am simply Helen — I am a mother, I am a wife," and then, after a beat, she adds, "I am a creator." For many years, while working in Kenya's corporate sector, Helen did not express this part of herself until she saw an opening and seized the opportunity to start Dragonfly Designs, a design and craft studio.
Helen joined master screen printers Joseph Mwaka and Onesmas "Muya" Mutunga in 2006 with a vision to channel and share their passion for printing, craft, and design. Over the last 15 years, they have built a thriving studio that showcases and exemplifies their incredible artisanal skills. We have worked with Helen and her team to hand screen print designs for our bags and shoes for three years now, and over that time, her master printers have trained and mentored our in-house team who screen print the custom cloth bags within which each pair of Afridrilles or Mules are packaged and delivered in. Today as part of our ongoing Maker Series, we share Helen's creative journey with you.
Tell us about your craft?
We are traditionalists. We do most everything by hand with as little modern technological support as possible.
How did you learn your craft / what inspired you to start?
I never formally learned screen printing. Master screen printers Joseph Mwaka and Onesmas "Muya" Mutunga, who have 69 years of collective experience, taught me. They needed a platform to share their craft, and we were able to work together — I provide the business aspect, and they shared their training, knowledge, and expertise with me.
What motivated you to take your craft and make it your career/hobby?
It was a case of opportunity. Magenta, a screen printing company where Mwihia and Mwaka worked, was closing, and I saw all the possibilities and jumped at the chance. I had a corporate career, and this was a chance to channel my inner creativity — it always has been there, but it had been put on hold. My mother didn't think I would make money from my creative passions, so I focused on what was considered a more pragmatic career. Now I practice my craft because, more than anything, I enjoy it.
What about your craft empowers you?
Working with other people to bring their visions, their designs to life on fabric or paper. It gives me immense pleasure to witness the moment people see their designs printed for the first time. I enjoy making others happy.
Three words to describe how you feel when exercising/ sharing your craft with others?
Creative. Fulfilled. Joyful.
What is the biggest obstacle you have faced while creating your craft/practice?
Access to equipment and materials. We needed a more efficient way to cure the inks after they have dried in the sun, and to get a suitable machine, we had to get it custom built in the UK and bring it to Kenya. We also only use eco-friendly ink, which is not available in the Kenyan market, so we have to import it.
How do you live Ubuntu in your own life?
I live it every day; I think we all do in Africa. We all give and share. We treat people how we want to be treated. Grace, kindness, and acceptance are the norm. It is at the inner core of how we live in Africa. It is part of our core being. At Ubuntu Life, we love the style and encourage people to wear items that inspire them or make them feel confident.
What are your favorite two things in your wardrobe that make you feel confident and/or the best version of yourself?
I have a lovely faux fur poncho that I bought in South Africa, which I love. I always feel special when I wear it.
If you had a soundtrack for your life, what would be your theme song?
Africa by Tote. It's the song I grew up listening to. I listened to it when I was at school, and it's symbolically important to me. I also loved Medasin's 2020 remix.
Finishing these sentences...
"I can't wait to ..."
During the lockdown, I was looking forward to going on so far again. I just went to Satao in Tsavo East, and it was gorgeous. I love elephants, and there were so many.
"When nobody is around I...."
I sing with my crappy voice at the top of my lungs. Usually to a Simon and Garfunkel or one of those oldies.
"My favorite way to show LOVE is..."
As a mother, I like to cook a nice meal. I generally like to cook and share it with friends.