Meet the locals – Saving the Planet, one piece of art at a time

By Sílvia Carvalho d’Almeida

Vanessa Barragão used to travel to the Caribbean with her parents in her childhood. Back then, she was not aware that the magnificent-coloured corals would one day be the main inspiration for her creations. The 29-year-old artist from Albufeira already employs nine people in her studio, and is looking for a new, bigger space to expand her business.

After graduating in fashion design from university in Lisbon, Vanessa realised fashion was not what she wanted to do, especially because it is the second most polluting industry in the world. Instead, she started working in a factory, making her own tapestries as a part-time job, and earning a good income. 

Her creativity and desire to tackle waste in our society led her to embark on her own creations at home. She received more and more requests for her tapestries which you can hang on the wall, or simply lay on the floor, and eventually no longer had the time to work in the factory. It is difficult to explain her majestic works in words; all I can say is they are an explosion of colour, shapes and textures. 

When working at home was not feasible anymore, Vanessa rented a space in Porto, where she had moved. As she became more established, she received a very unexpected and thrilling invitation from the director of Heathrow airport, who commissioned her to create a piece to hang in one of the main rooms of the airport. 

At first, Vanessa could not believe it was happening. She decided to create a world map using waste materials: mainly wool, given several special treatments, and a blank canvas, onto which it is sewn. She picks up the wool from factories who would otherwise throw it away. It is her way of helping save the planet, one tapestry at a time. 

She returned to Albufeira, which enabled her to employ some of her family in her atelier. Besides her producers, her mother and both grandmothers work with her. 

She learnt how to crochet as a child, with one of her grandmothers, while the other engendered her love of sewing and creating with textiles. She never thought of doing anything else in life, as she fell in love with the immense possibilities of creating her own art. Vanessa says that by enabling older people to remain active, they feel useful and retain a sense of purpose. She tells us both her grandmothers feel happier and eager to contribute to the business.

Vanessa is an artist, but also a businesswoman. She speaks with the security of someone who has found her place in the world and who is determined to succeed in her passion. She revealed that she is in search of a bigger atelier, especially because of the space needed to store the tons of waste wool she collects in factories. 

Sustainability is very important to Vanessa and she is particularly concerned about the coral reefs that are disappearing. Since her childhood, the situation has become critical. As she says, “Coral reefs have an immense number of vibrating tones, and when they die, they become white.” Besides coral reefs, her inspiration is the sea. Living in a town bathed by the ocean and with Portugal’s tremendous coastline, it would be unusual if it did not influence her work. 

Vanessa is happy to show anyone her atelier by prior appointment. Her pieces are made to order only, and all of them are unique; no two carpets will ever be the same. She will show you some of her designs, but you can personalise your own tapestry. Each one, depending on the size you want, may take from weeks to months to accomplish, as they are all handmade, and the prices range from 1000 to 100.000 euros.


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