Friday, June 8, 2018

Art Workshops at Alotenango Shelter

Fuego Volcano

Arrive, unpack, set up and go! It’s been a few years for me since this was my routine, but some things are just like riding a bike. Within minutes the kids were completely engaged in painting and drawing, completely oblivious of the chaotic world around them.

We were at a shelter for volcano victims (I almost wrote hurricane victims, I’ve had so many flashbacks to the time after Hurricane Mitch in 1998!) in Alotenango. There are two shelters at the central park, one in the main building of the elementary school, the other one in the smaller extension of 6 classrooms that momentarily houses about 120 people, among them approximately 70 children. Abi Ruiz, the administrative assistant of the Carpentry Project in Alotenango had gotten us permission to entertain the children for a few hours in the latter. No small feat, considering the government’s bureaucracy. But actually the coordinator was happy to squeeze us in because so far the only entertainment for the kids had been people bringing piñatas. Since the government has taken over most shelters, access is extremely limited in order to coordinate the relief efforts and at many shelters donations are even being refused. This has angered a lot of people, especially since the Guatemalan government doesn’t have a very good reputation to start with and has been preposterously lame in responding to the crisis. There are even many rumours and some documented cases of the military confiscating donations in order to, what? Handing them out in name of the government? I can’t tell for sure, only that when we arrived and while we there, a LOT of donations were still coming in. Elsewhere at the central park people were unloading tons of stuff and storing them on a rooftop. Right in the middle of the central park another Centro de Acopio was receiving donations, manned by both civilians and soldiers.

In the few hours we were there, the children received so many candy, juices and cookies that they were completely saturated. They left their goodies half eaten or would give them to us. A guy walked up to me, told me he was from Columbia and had candy and snacks for the kids but wasn't allowed to hand them out. He asked me if I could help him to get permission to get his donation in. I told him I couldn’t, that I was there to paint and draw with the kids only. I asked him, watching the kids receiving their umpteenth bag of goodies, if he thought it was necessary. No reply. When we left I saw him bringing in his boxes.

There was a snack in the afternoon (ham-cheese sandwich and more juice) and for the adults as well a constant flow of donations of clothes, shoes, diapers, toilet paper, underwear, cleaning supplies and food. I have no idea if this is the case in other shelters too and whether, for example, the people will actually receive breakfast, lunch and dinner. But my impression was that there is more than enough stuff coming in and I think that help should be focused on long term investment in housing, jobs, education and future disaster prevention. But then again, that’s just based on a few hours of observation.   

But back to the art workshops. We (me, Abi and three of her friends from Alotenango) were actually not the only ones there for the kids. A few representatives from a Guatemalan NGO (shamefully I’ve already forgotten its name!) were there to entertain the kids with games. We divided the forty something kids roughly in groups and they did a great job with about a third of them while we entertained the other ones. The kids loved painting on the floor on big sheets of paper. Others were totally into drawing with oil pastels and markers. We had brought adult colouring sheets (I mostly hate the colouring pages for kids, think they’re an insult to their abilities) and they loved those too. We even had a bunch of moms joining us.

I read a bunch of stories, which were well received. The only thing we had planned and didn’t do was a bit of yoga. It was just too crowded and chaotic for such an activity.
So all in all we had a lot of fun! I even forgot the reason why we were there, but that was just the purpose. For a few hours, the only reminder of the disaster was the occasional funeral march passing by the building and the big stack of donated coffins in a corner.

We were asked to come back and we will.
Thanks so much to everyone who donated (towards) art supplies, to Abi’s friends who did a great job and especially to Abi.
We’ll be back!

And in the meantime, yeas, donations are welcome. Next week we’ll revisit this centre and next Saturday I’ll be painting a portable mural with the kids at the main shelter as part of an ongoing activity that will last as long as needed. And of course there are (memorial) murals planned once the communities will have been rebuilt. 
If you want to make a cash donation you can do so through Paypal ( or deposit on my Dutch bank account NL95 ABNA 0254 0313 74.
Thank you all. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

After the Eruption

Student Diego helping out!

Last week I started painting two small murals at a new pre-school in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, an initiative by the NGO CreatingOpportunities for Guatemalans. The pre-school is just a small classroom on the roof of the building where the organization has its office and after school program. Eight of the cutest kids come to school every day to learn the alphabet, numbers (I even learned a new number while I was there: twenty-eight, twenty-nine, twenty-ten!), enjoy books and receive a healthy snack. The request was to paint something that incites kids to read and together with the teacher and director we came up with some ideas. The initial plan was to paint just the outside wall, made of plywood, but I thought the interior could definitely need some colour too. If the staff would whiten the bare cinder blocks, I’d paint something to cheer up the place.
Outdoor, result
I started outside and painted both sea and land animals in a Central American folk-art fashion. I included letters and numbers for the kids to identify. For the inside I came up with a colourful design full of geometrical shapes. With the teacher I discussed the activities that can help the kids to learn colours, shapes, numbers and letters. The kids can also make up their own stories based on the painted animals on the outdoor wall.

All in all it’s a great improvement. Last week I finished the outdoor wall in two days and had planned to come back on Monday to finish inside.

Interior before...
But around noon on Sunday ashes started to fall down. Amazement and awe quickly turned into annoyance having to sweep the stuff up. A few hours later the annoyance was replaced by total shock when we learned what horrific damage the volcano eruption had caused. The images that appeared on social media were truly horrifying, the loss of lives devastating. We’re all used to the constant eruptions of the nearby Fuego volcano, but this was beyond anybody’s imagination.
Teachers sweeping up ash and sand. On the back ground the Fuego and Acatenango volcanoes.
It felt strange to go back to work on Monday. Like so many people I felt the strong urge to do something. But what? There were already plenty of volunteers and the little I had to give would make no difference at all. I decided to stay put for the moment, realizing that this disaster was far from over yet and I’ll surely able to make myself useful in the near future.
Inside, result
So off to work I went after having confirmed that the office would indeed be open (although all classes were cancelled in the affected provinces.) The road was quiet and dusty. Sounds were strangely muffled by the thick layer of ash and volcanic sand that covered every possible surface. The bright colours of the Guatemalan countryside now looked like a post apocalyptic landscape. The sky was grey and so was everything else.

 When the bus arrived in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, men and women, their mouths covered with mask and handkerchiefs, were already sweeping the road. Although closer to the volcano than Antigua, the amount of ash even seemed to be a bit less.

While I started painting, the NGO’s staff started sweeping the rooftop. It was a surreal sight, seeing all the neighbours on top of the roofs, small puffs of dust rising towards the sky. I finished painting early after noon and after a very dusty ride home, I spent a few more hours sweeping my roof and street until blisters formed on my hands.

We’re a few days further now and slowly an image of the destruction is forming. The death toll will keep rising and much help is needed and will be for a long time. I’ve decided to help with what I do best, and that is the arts. It doesn’t heal the burns, It doesn’t replace homes, but it does distract children from the trauma they’ve been through. It will help them express their fears and anxieties; it will facilitate their communication and the art of creation might give them some much needed hope for the future.

I’ve been in touch with several local organizations, educators and artists. We’re all willing to contribute by offering art workshops, story telling, yoga classes, theatre and other activities to relief the burden of the children that are currently in the shelters. I have already received some donations for art supplies and am ready to go.

The problem so far is that we’re not allowed into the shelters by the military in an effort to keep things organized. We have to go through official channels to get permission so help will be evenly distributed where needed. That’s an honourable goal, but it might be very ineffective in Guatemala’s bureaucracy and it excludes many organizations and individuals that have valuable services to offer right NOW.
Donations received so far. Thanks so much Wendy Russell, Judy Sadlier, Debbie Pate and Ineke de Smidt!
The permission has been requested and if granted, we’ll be able to go to the shelter in Alotenango next week on Saturday. That’s 9 days from now and we have no idea what kind of activities are being offered to the 200 kids right now, if at all. Only next week we’ll be able to assess the situation and start planning for long term art therapy and other activities, until the last kid has left the shelter.

So what to do now? Following local NGO Educarte’s example I’ll go to the central park in Alotenango tomorrow to offer art activities to the children there with the help of volunteers from the Carpentry Project in the same town. The central park is the place where people gather in search of missing loved ones and where wakes are held for the recovered victims. There will be many kids around, some directly affected by the disasters, others just confused, scared or disorientated, especially since the schools are closed. It seems to be a good place to start.

To be continued. In the meantime, donations for/of art supplies are welcome… 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Life in Colours

Another fun project! Life in Colours is a small physiotherapy clinic in Antigua run by a young Guatemalan woman called Ruth Quan. She offers therapy for very affordable prices of which se even dedicates a part for an art project for the shoe shine boys and street vendors in the central park. A lot of her patients are kids and it was her wish to transform one of the rooms into the clinic in a happy, fun environment to treat them. So, requested and sponsored by the Uno Más Foundation, I set to work to turn 14 meters of wall into a circus. The result is quite colourful and Ruth very excited herself, can’t wait to start working with kids in the circus.

Many thanks to Uno Más for sponsoring this project!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A Guardian Angel for the Sleepy

Back in January I painted a series of 5 small murals in the daycare centre of San Bartolomé Becerra, a small village near Antigua Guatemala. For a theme I chose traditional folk art from Guatemala because it's beautiful, colourful and something else from the Dora the Explorers and Winnie the Poohs you see all too often in educational institutions.
Shortly after I finished the project, the teachers came looking for me. A complaint? But no, they just wanted more! There was still a blank wall left, in the dorm, so could I please... I promised to try to come back. And indeed, it took a while, but I finally painted the 6 x 1.5m wall in the dorm. A wooden carved angel now looks after the sleeping children, flanked by vintage ceramic swallows. Sleep well!

This mural was generously sponsored by John Eby, thank you!.
And of course this is not the end of the story.... Because now the Daycare Centre in Jocotenango wants a mural too...

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Non-Violence Through Colours

For the last two months I’ve been to the middle school La Esperanza in Chimaltenango almost weekly to work with the students on the upcoming mural. We started from scratch and managed to cover a lot of themes, among them:
·   How to translate emotions or ideas into a tow-dimensional image through the works of Frida Kahlo
·   History, impact and importance of muralism
·   How to enlarge an image using a grid
·   Contrast in images, how to create grey scales etc.
·   Enlarging an image through collage
·   Deciding the theme
·   Exploration of the theme: how to visually express the students’ ideas about no-violence in a non-violent mural
·   Copying a mural design in scale on big sheets of paper
·   Preparing the wall

And then it was finally time to start painting!!!! Loaded with paint, brushes and other supplies, I arrived early to work a full day, hoping to finish the entire project in two days. This was the only option because of other activities, but also because it started raining in Chimaltenango. Fortunately we did not see a drop of rain in the two days that the painting lasted.

The plan was to work with each group for two hours and then with whomever wanted to come in the afternoon.. The work went well. The students needed little supervision and enjoyed it. In the afternoon, about ten students returned to help with painting. Excellent result the first day!

The next day there was no classes because the parents came to school for a meeting and to pick up the report cards of their children. The kids had the day off, but about 12 came to paint. The teachers also came to help after the meeting. And at five o'clock in the afternoon the work was as good as finished ...

The first panel, conceived and executed by the 22 pupils of Básico 1, presents 6 figures in a proud,  powerful pose, hand in hand, united against violence. Together they stand strong!

On the chests of the figures they painted the following symbols: heart (love); sun (heat, light), twig (growth, hope); peace dove; peace's symbol; and the logo type of the school (as a symbol for education as a means to prevent violence).

On the second panel is the logo (and name) of the school, surrounded by a boy and a girl in a superhero pose, ready to battle for education, perhaps? Both are armed, not with guns, but with tools and kitchen equipment. And then of course the boy with a pan and spatula and the girl with a hammer. Keywords for this mural were: equality between the sexes; collaboration; education, battle, but in a positive and constructive way.
On the T-shirt of the boy the motto of the school: That all may stand up and nobody stays behind, from the Popol Vuh.

The third panel is made by Básico 3 and represents a boy and a girl who keep each other in balance while they hold their fingers up in the peace sign. Keyword were: peace, love, friendship, balance, collaboration.

Many, many thanks to the Dutch foundations that sponsored this project, Colour4Kids and Uno Más; the staff at La Esperanza; Jessica Hoult and of course, the terrific kids who participated in this project.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

New Mural Project in Chimaltenango

I’m very excited to start a new mural project next week! It’s going to be a big project, logistically quite complicated, but it will hopefully be very interesting.

I’ll work with 54 adolescents from Instituto de Educación Media LaEsperanza in the outskirts of Chimaltenango.
This is a terrific middle school, started s a neighbourhood initiative to provide education for kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to study, due to economic circumstances and the danger to travel in this not so nice part of Guatemala.

The methodology used at school is Educación Popular, based on the works of Paulo Freire, a renowned Brazilian educator and philosopher. The kids are challenged to think and participate. The students follow the regular governmental curriculum, but every subject is being taught through multidisciplinary activities, related to the students’ own reality. Gender equality and nonviolence are big issues. There is of course a lot of time and space for the arts. The kids are very expressive, so it will be a joy to work with them.

I’m planning a series of six workshops (a different one for each of the 3 levels, so 18 workshops in total) in which the kids will learn the technical aspects of painting a mural, but more importantly, how to visually transmit a message through various disciplines. Then, the kids themselves will determine the theme(s) and paint the mural on the 20 meter long outside wall of the school. The whole process will take about three months.
This whole wall will soon be transformed!!!
Last week I visited the project to meet staff, kids and inspect the wall. It was great to be met with such enthusiasm for this project! So I’m looking forward to get started on February 1st. The only thing missing, of course, is money! I have so far raised $300 in donations, but I’ll need $600 more towards art supplies, paint and travel expenses. So if you think this project is worthwhile, please consider making a donation!
Thank you!

Monday, January 15, 2018

A New (School) Year, a New Learning Environment!

What better way to start the New Year than with a brand new series of murals?

While painting a mural back in December, in the community centre of my neighbourhood (San Bartolomé Becerra, just outside of Antigua Guatemala), I was approached by two women who work at the local day-care centre. With the question, of course, if I could do something in their day-care. I went to have a look straight away and was happily surprised that the patio wall in question was quite small, so not a major job. Yes, and here, the teacher continued, pointing the entrance hall, and something here in the corridor and two more murals over there. Oops. That was five murals in total, but at least none of them very big and all easy accessible. So I said yes. That is, I specified, if I could get the donations together to provide for paint, prints and other materials needed. Fine, they said, as long as I would have it finished please by January 15, the first day of classes in this escuelita. Oops again, but I had said yes anyway.

Thing is, I have a weak spot for day-care centres and also one for my funky neighbourhood so I was happy to commit. Happier even when by January first I actually had all the money I needed! So the first week of January I worked on the designs. I wanted to do something colourful, happy and apt for young children (the centres caters to 30+ kids age 6 months-6 years old), but nothing cheesy or predictable. No Frozen or Winnie the Pooh. So I came up with the idea to use traditional aspects of the particularly colourful Guatemalan culture with things kids might like, such as a piñata, a wooden dog, birds, a baby. Oh, and some angels. Aspects of Guatemalan folklore that appears in the work are papel picado (paper cut outs used for streamers), carved statues, a sawdust carpet from the processions and motifs from painted crafts and the same papel picado.

I was about to print out the designs and show them at the day-care for approval when there was a knock on my door. The teachers from the day-care. Whether I had forgotten them? Hell no! Between fundraising, prepping paint and making the designs, the day-care had been on my mind quite a lot! But those are the invisible sides of mural painting that few people realise are just as important. They were relieved anyway that I was ready to get started.

A nice surprise was that the teachers had not only cleared the walls from posters, staples and years of layers of masking tape, but had actually whitened the walls too! The patio wall was a different matter. The small original wall has been added to so often, it was total crooked, uneven and partly unpainted. Fixing the gigantic holes was not an option without re-plastering the whole wall. There was also an ugly cable hanging over the top of the wall. So I decided to go the easy way, making the mural a tiny bit smaller and that way avoiding the worst part on top.

I started painting on Thursday and finished on Saturday afternoon, only because on Saturday I had help! Alice Lee was so kind to paint a whole panel, otherwise I would have had to disappointed the kids.
I don’t know yet what the kids think of their new environment, but the parents and teachers who saw the results were very happy. Except that… Could I please paint something in the dormitory too? And maybe transform the little playhouse as well?
Well, we’ll see… J

For now, one more mission accomplished. Thanks A LOT to the people who sponsored this project: Kristin Landau, Jody Paterson, Shoshi Parks, Tommy O’Donnell and Wendy Russell. You guys ROCK!