Portugese duo making waves in Scotland

Lita Oliveira and Martine Teresa are two remarkable women – both talk of lives worthy of an on-screen drama, both have experienced desperate lows and exhilarating highs, both spent their formative years in Portugal (although orginating from different countries) both found redemption and purpose through the arts and both are now popular sellers at the Scottish Design Exchange in Leith’s Ocean Terminal. And, both claim the shop as their saviour.

“We were struggling to make a living from our jewellery, says Lita, ‘market after market, stall holder rivalries, high rents, low returns. It was tough and although we had our moments, it was only when we were introduced to Lynzi at the Scottish Design Exchange that things really started for us as artists.”

“It was like rising from the ashes.” Says Lita, while Martine expresses it in starker terms. “It saved my life.”

The pair had met at a mutual friend’s Birthday party in November 2013 and the chemistry was instant and positively destined. Martine, with a two-month old baby and in the throes of a deep depression and Lita with a history of helping others out of the gloom – sometimes at a high personal cost. It was Lita, who when she offered to accompany a friend to his new flat to pick up some paperwork found herself in intensive care. On entering the building, she switched on the light and triggered an enormous gas explosion. Her life in the balance for many weeks, Lita underwent a series of skin grafts and plastic surgery – those hands, now creating beautiful jewellery and modelling products in resin, were immobilised. She was told she would not be able to use them again. But, made of sterner stuff and after daily and painful flexing exercises she eventually got full mobility back.

Martine, like Lita, also had to fight for her survival. She was just a small child when her family moved from Paris to impoverished, rural, Algarve to build a new life. Entrusted by her mum and dad to a neighbour for after school care, she endured abuse for six years - a horrifying and dark secret she never shared with her family. In adulthood, Martine put her years of hurt and frustrations into work, first completing a Masters while setting up a babysitting service and language school. Then, out of the blue, came an offer of a job from a UN ambassador who was developing a silk factory and needed a translator to facilitate communication between the manufacturing and administration staff. Martina was quick to make an impression and rise through the ranks - first as production manager, then as the ambassador’s personal assistant. Then, an opportunity to merge her PHD with a project to provide tools to identify and work with special needs children in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. “I was happier and more energised than ever.” Then, just as life seemed settled - a devastating blow. Her employer, friend and mentor died during routine surgery. It was another low point. Without his support Martina’s role ended and she was back to going it alone.

Meanwhile Lita, was experiencing her own nadir as life as a student in Lisbon began to spiral out of control. I was clubbing all night and consuming ever increasing quantities of drugs – failing my second year Law exams and looking like a cadaver” For a one-time promising tennis player this was the lowest point in her young life. “At one stage my weight dropped to 6.6 stones.” After a period at a recovery centre and her life back in balance, Lita volunteered to work with drug addicts on the streets of Lisbon, helping to exorcise her personal demons and satisfy her persistent need to help others. For Lita, as it later became for Martine, Portuguese politics was having a stifling effect on them as artists. So, Lita upped sticks and took off to London where she worked first as receptionist, then as manager at a halls of residence at the University of London – housing some 3,000 students. A planned refurbishment and a three- year closure of the reception centre meant a reassignment at the University. For Lita, it was time for rethink. During a brief holiday back in Portugal a friend told her of Edinburgh. Curiosity piqued, Lita was Scotland bound.

It was the crash in 2008 that prompted Martine’s relocation to Edinburgh. After the ambassador’s death she set up and ran a shop selling imported Indian crafts and artefacts. The collapse of the banks took the bottom out of the Portuguese economy and suddenly there was no market. Inspired by the sage advice of her mother who said. “When you reach the lowest point – start climbing.” Martine decided on the UK for her next adventure. “England though was out. I had heard from so many people that Scotland was a much more open and welcoming place so that was it. It was either Edinburgh or Glasgow and I chose the former.

Like Lita, Martine makes beautiful jewellery but, as Lita creates beauty using resin, she is building a reputation for her imaginative use of cork (described now as the new leather) - from handbags to purses she has created something that ethical consumers crave. And, because her cork is sourced in Portugal, she is making an economic contribution to Scotland and to her Portuguese homeland – something that gives her a great deal of personal pride.

To see Martine and Lita’s work take a trip to the Scottish Design Exchange at Ocean Terminal – who knows you may well bump into them during one of their frequent forays into the shop.