- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2006

Stone and cloth reflect the two hearts of Zimbabwe, a land of jungle and savannah, calm lakes and the raging Victoria Falls.

At the Great Zimbabwe store in Union Station, customers get a glimpse of both. Selling brightly painted textiles and expertly carved stone figures, Valerie and Harold Breedlove bring the art of the country and people they love to Washington.

The couple met in 1978 when she came to the United States from Zimbabwe to learn about nail-care and hair-weave techniques. They married three years later. In 1982 they returned to her native Zimbabwe, where he worked in the south African nation’s burgeoning information technology industry and she opened nail salons and trained new workers.

At their peak, the Breedloves ran a beauty school and 10 salons in three cities. They still call Zimbabwe once a week to check on business.

But the road that brought them to Union Station began several years later, when the couple began selling Zimbabwean crafts and textiles in the teeming craft markets of Botswana and South Africa, where some markets attract more than 10,000 visitors each day.

When their children decided to attend college in the United States, the Breedloves knew they had arrived at a crossroads.

“Why don’t we change it up and do this there?” Mr. Breedlove suggested. So, five years ago, they moved their family to the United States along with their first batch of brightly colored, hand-painted Zimbabwean textiles.

Zimbabwe was struggling economically and politically, so it was a good time to leave, said Mr. Breedlove.

The Breedloves soon began selling items at the Capitol Hill Flea Market. Then Mrs. Breedlove noticed an empty spot in Union Station — a perfect place for a kiosk, she thought — and began to dream.

After a six-month test at Union Station, the Breedloves received a permanent spot there in November 2001.

“I think that if you really believe in something, you can conquer any obstacle. You go for it. … Here is the spot under the flags I dreamed we would be,” Mrs. Breedlove said.

The Breedloves try to travel to Zimbabwe every eight months or so to see friends, pick up merchandise and deliver supplies to the artists who work for them.

“We feel good we are helping the artists,” Mr. Breedlove said.

But working with them isn’t easy, said Mrs. Breedlove, because artists have distinct opinions of what they want to produce.

“It’s hard to dictate to artists, because artists paint what they feel,” she said.

Months before the Breedloves take a business trip to Zimbabwe, Mrs. Breedlove contacts her artists and places her orders, explaining colors, designs and patterns for products to be picked up when she and her husband arrive.

Mrs. Breedlove tells the artists what will sell in the United States, which is often something different from what will sell in Europe.

Europeans prefer unfinished edges and enjoy the eccentricities of unique pieces, she explained, while Americans desire uniform quality and appreciate smooth edges.

“If it’s finished properly, they think they are getting their money’s worth,” said Mrs. Breedlove.

Taking snakes, lizards and crocodiles out of the artwork is another way to make it “more attractive to Americans,” Mrs. Breedlove said. She encourages her artists to fill their patterns with colorful giraffes, elephants, zebras and other less-threatening creatures.

Even with the direction Mrs. Breedlove gives the artists, “they really don’t follow what we say half the time,” she said.

Sometimes the result is a tough sell because customers don’t fully appreciate what they are seeing, Mr. Breedlove explained. Zimbabwean textiles aren’t printed by machines. The batik patterns are hand-painted using traditional, and still secret, native techniques.

“We have to talk about the art, the history,” Mr. Breedlove said as he opened a big book full of pictures of rivers, animals, art and the kiosk’s namesake Great Zimbabwe — a wide swath of great stone buildings built between the 12th and 15th centuries that archaeologists believe once sheltered as many as 18,000 inhabitants. It is a national shrine.

The surrounding wall of the structure features stones stacked in a chevron pattern. The same pattern appears on a table runner for sale in the kiosk.

“I don’t think [customers] understand the time it takes to paint them,” said Mrs. Breedlove. “We show them something really different. It’s not mass-produced.”

“African culture is deep and so strong that even after 15 or 20 years I have only scratched the surface,” Mr. Breedlove said.

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