Three materials I need to see in person: paper, wood, leather. I met Harley Dave Bahian Beltran because of a wood-and-metal installation that stood out in a crowded mall bazaar in November 2017.
Upcycled galvanized iron pipes formed a stark scaffolding in a mall decked out for the holidays. Iron tubes forming letters spelling out “Harl’s” were set against repurposed pitted planks. The industrial set-up displayed leather bags made by hand by Harl and fellow artisans, most of whom have a physical disability.
Each style of bag bears a name and a story. The Leona tote with short and long handles is named after his grandmother. The open Cherry tote was inspired by the Filipino actor Cherry Gil, a longtime patron of “Handcrafted by Harl’s.”
In 2017, what stood out was the handiwork, particularly the respect of the artisan evident in the spare functional lines, with greater prominence for the natural markings of the full-grained hide, imperfections that narrate worlds about the animal it had been.
I was drawn to the messenger bag Harl used that evening. It had a large birth mark on the flap, disfiguring if one preferred leather that is buffed, sanded, dyed and coated to the veneer of perfection coveted by the market.
Respect took over when Harl talked about the social enterprise of training and working with persons with disability (PWD) to produce bags, wallets, belts, biking accessories, even bow ties with leather from Marikina and other local sources.
Remembering this man’s passion — awarded in Germany for social enterprise in 2017 — I renew my respect for a social entrepreneur who tries his utmost not just to survive more than a year of the pandemic.
At the height of lockdowns imposed in Luzon in 2020 and 2021, Harl’s team shifted to include making “Maska,” facial masks incorporating leather and “banig,” used in woven mats. Selling online during the extended lockdowns that shuttered non-essential businesses, Harl, wife Sheila and older daughter Harriet allocated a portion of the sales to pack and distribute fresh vegetables, rice and other provisions to families of PWD.
Harriet gets P10 for every drawing she makes by hand to thank online customers who choose “Harl’s,” which, according to her father, stands for “hope, ability, resilience, livelihood, spiritual.”
Last July 12, the enterprise marked its seventh anniversary, granting a 25-percent discount for those purchasing bags online or in person until today. Since that evening in 2017, when I brought home a Cherry, I have never had to have a bag repaired, even for a loose thread or a frayed seam.
Life does not leave us unmarked. Scar or character: all depends on our way of seeing.