Friday, April 9, 2021

Commitment, Effort, Perseverance and Respect

April is not my favourite month in this part of the world. The air tends to be hot, dry and dusty, opaque and in unappealing shades of a yellowish grey. Gusts of wind scatter ashes from volcanoes or forest fires as well as sand from dirt roads. The mountains are brownish, the earth eagerly waiting to soak up the first drops of rain. But since it’s not raining, it is of course a good time for mural painting.

My time in Guatemala is finally coming to an end. I’ll probably paint no more community murals in the next few months, so I was very happy to end my stay with this one. I found a perfect wall through my assistant Henry Calel who went to his old elementary school to pick up some paper work. It turned out his then favourite teacher is now director of the school in San Miguel Escobar, a suburb of Ciudad Vieja in Guatemala. While catching up with her, he told her about the murals he had helped painting and she was very interested in having one at her school. The wall she offered was just the way I like it, big, in a good shape and very visible.

Finding funding for the mural wasn’t a problem either. The Dutch foundation Colour4Kids generously offered to sponsor the mural, preferably with a theme that involves children’s rights. A design was quickly made, the theme the right of every child to engage in play and recreational activities. Sport in this case, since the wall is at the school’s basketball court. The mural also represents the right to gender equity and equality as well as the values of commitment, effort, perseverance and respect.

So off we went! Unfortunately, we weren’t able to involve any children in the painting process because the school is still closed due to the pandemic, with only teachers present to prepare homework assignment for their students. The wall was in a pretty good shape and the weather good in the sense that it was dry. Very dry. Also, very hot and windy, with gusts so strong we were almost blown of the ladder a few times. But we managed and the mural is up!

While painting this mural I realised once again that, despite challenges such as the weather, there is hardly a thing I enjoy doing more. I hope to come back rather sooner than later to pick up my paint brush again and transform some more walls.

In the meantime, thanks are due! I couldn’t have done this without the help of my ever so lovey assistant Henry Calel who has become quite indispensable. Of course, many thanks to Erik, Hassan and Jos of Colour4Kids for sponsoring and all the support. And Catherine Corry, thank you for driving us there and back!

Friday, March 19, 2021

Dogs at the Lake

Funny how dogs make my world go round. Besides many fantastic pooches I’ve met some truly amazing people through my dog connections. Dogs also have become an important subject matter in the art I create. So it isn’t much of a coincidence that I ended up painting two big dogs in Panajachel, Guatemala.

You see, Selaine d´Ambrosi, director of AYUDA, an NGO that provides spay and neuter clinics around Lake Atitlan, posted a picture of a pretty dog mural on Facebook and commented she’d like to see something like that in Panajachel. That resulted immediately in a message from Dr. Jim Bader,a common friend and US veterinarian who has been coming down to Guatemala for years, providing free surgeries as well as many supplies for Unidos para los Animales, the NGO I volunteer for. He told Selaine he knows an artist (that’s me!) and that he was willing to sponsor the mural.

So here we are! Selaine found us a wall in the centre of Panajachel, owned by a family of dog lovers. On their request, I painted Chispita, one of their most beloved pets. She passed the rainbow bridge already, but is still in their hearts and now forever on their wall. The second dog was also a request, by Selaine. It depicts Tripod, the first street dog she picked up about thirteen years ago when she moved to Panajachel. He was hit by a car and his left front leg needed to be amputated. But that didn’t stop him. Tripod became an icon in Panajachel and was mostly found in the Palapa bar where he’d sing along with the musicians and let himself be treated as a king.

Selaine thought he deserved better than that and found him a real home. But despite all the cuddles in the world and the best food a dog can dream of, Tripod found an escape route and made his way back to La Palapa. This happened several times, so in the end she decided that would be the best place for him to be. It definitely was in his opinion.

Unfortunately, Tripod was killed by a car or tuc-tuc, from what I heard intentionally. (May the driver rot in hell.)

So off we set for Pana, my assistant Heny Calel and I, all prepared for working long hours in the sun. It is dry season after all, the mountains now yellow, the air suffocatingly hot and dry. We were quite surprised when the first day started with quite heavy rain. It did stay pretty dry the rest of the day, but it was uncharacteristically cold. But we made good progress. And day two made up for the previous one in hours of sun and temperature. But since the mural is facing north, we were mostly working in the shade. The eleven-meter-long wall is only two meters high, so we didn’t even need a stool to stand on. The surface was quite rough, it was like painting on corrugated (cement) carboard which made painting details a bit difficult. There was lots of traffic passing by, which is good of course, giving the work lots of exposure. All in al it was a fun job to do and we got great response. Many people recognised Tripod. Others reacted very positively to the message of the mural: So you don’t want to see dogs on the street? Well then: adopt, sterilize and don’t abandon! (I phrased it in a way it works both for people who hate to see dogs on the street because they love them, as well for those who hate them.)

With the work done, Henry and I treated ourselves to a little excursion to San Juan la Laguna, a village across the lake famous for its murals. Nice to admire other people’s work for a change!

This mural is truly a community effort of dog-loving people! Thank you Selaine d’Ambrosi of AYUDA for initiating this project and all the great work you do with AYUDA. Thanks also to Maggie and family who provided the wall as well as drinks and snacks for us painters. Many, many thanks to Dr. Jim Bader of Mapleview AnimalHospital and Headin’ Home Pet Rescue Inc. for all you do for animals both here and there, and of course for sponsoring this mural. You are the best! Also thanks to Regine Herzog for putting me up; to Gerson Ordoñez for being our trustworthy designated driver and of course to Henry Calel, my super assistant. Feeling tired but content and infinitely grateful!




Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Women & Dogs in Jocotenango

Jocotenango is a buzzling town leaning against Antigua Guatemala. It has about 22,000 inhabitants with as many dogs and cats it seems. Luckily, a lot of them have responsible owners interested in having them spayed or neutered. That’s why  Unidos paralos Animales, a local NGO, keeps going back there with its sterilization campaigns. (For my blog post on those campaigns, please click here). During three clinics between December 2020 and February of 2021, no less than 278 animals had surgery, with many more on the waiting list.

Part of the success of those campaigns is the perfect way it is organized by Dirección de la Mujer, the Municipality’s Women’s Office. These women (and a few men) are in charge of the publicity, inscriptions, disinfection at the entrance, carrying the animals from operation room to recovery, disinfecting instruments and a lot more. The clinics in Jocotenango are always as smooth as can be and a joy to volunteer at.

Henry at work
As a thank you for this great service (as well as promoting a good cause) I offered them a small mural at the entrance of their building, which they happily accepted. Today my assistant Henry Calel and I got to work and were spoiled rotten in the process. Juice? Cookie? Lunch??? They could not have taken better care of us.

This mural was (yet again!) sponsored by the ever so generous and art loving Dr. Jim Bader, our very favourite veterinarian who comes down several times a year from the US to do surgeries, in Jocotenango and other places in and around Antigua Guatemala. Thanks so much, Jim!

This girl and her dog were attended at a clinic in Jocotenango in November 2019

"Each puppy deserves a happy home. Let's sterilize."

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Colours & Critters in San Andrés Itzapa

Work in progress...

So things don’t always go as planned. Exactly one year ago I arrived in Guatemala for a two-month stay, to paint some murals with kids. But just as we were about to start painting, after a full week of workshops, the state of emergency was declared because of Covid-and the project postponed.


Exactly a year later and I’m still here. Very excited to be able to work with kids again, this time around in San Andrés Itzapa, a town about an hour from Antigua Guatemala. I've been coordinating the project with Colleen Supanich and her husband Luís Azurdia who run a small NGO called Compartiendo Nuestros Bendiciones in this town. During the pandemic, Colleen and Luís have been distributing food for those most in need in their community as well as organizing educational activities for local kids who have missed a whole year of school. These kids have no computers or internet, often they don’t even have electricity at home, so no virtual classes. Colleen and Luís got permission for the mural at a public bilingual kindergarten (Spanish/Maya Kaqchikel) that caters mostly to children from poorer families on the outskirts of San Andrés Itzapa. Colleen has been planning to organize a clean-up in the neighbourhood as a supportive activity for the mural that promotes a clean environment for both people and animals. Older kids from the neighbourhood were going to help paint and for the little ones I designed colouring pages with the same images as the mural, to involve them as well. More activities were in the making, such as singing the wonderful environmental children’s songs by Guillermo Anderson.
I bought new paint and other supplies, including oversized used T-shirts for the kids to paint in, lots of hand sanitizer and extra face masks. The afternoon before the start of the mural I sent Colleen a message that I was ready to go. Promptly I got the one reply I wasn’t expecting:

Permission for the mural had been revoked.       

San Andrés Itzapa had just gone from orange to red on the scale of Covid cases and all public events were prohibited. Darn!

Luís, Colleen, Henry and Marissa

But thanks to Luís’ perseverance and persuasiveness, basically talking to everybody in the hierarchy of the ministry of education, we did get permission after all. As long as we didn’t involve the kids, practice social distancing and wear masks. We were somewhat disappointed but relieved that the project didn’t get cancelled altogether.

First thing I noticed when we arrived on this chilly but brilliant Tuesday morning, was that the wall was much bigger than I had anticipated. Somehow it looked much smaller on the pictures I had been sent. Reality was 42 meters of wall, about 2.75 meter high at its lowest point and over 4.5 meters at its highest. I wondered if I’d brought enough paint and planned enough time…

But we did pretty well. No kids to help us, but Luís was a great asset, as well as my ever-lovely assistant Henry Calel. The second day my friend Marissa Loterina came along and somehow we managed to finish the whole thing in just two (loooong!) days! What helped a lot was that we were taken care of so well. Luís and Colleen provided us with a delicious snacks in the morning and both days we were invited to their home for some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Piluyada and pepián, both super delicious.

The last two were so far my favourite days of the year! Yes, the wall was pretty rough and we all ended up with blisters and sore wrists. The sun was brutal, the chill on the shady side of the building biting.  The ladders were a bit wobbly and quite heavy, but no complaints. It was lovely to see the reaction of the kids that were walking by. “Look, they’re painting my school! ¡Qué chevere! How cool!”

The one thing we didn’t get to do (or rather, didn’t want to, too tired), was painting the base at the bottom. But I left some money with Luís to buy paint and hire someone and it has already been painted! Just when we were finished the director of the school, Wendy Roxana Machán Cán, came by with a diploma for each of us and words of appreciation. I suggested the metal door at the entrance could use a new layer of paint and she promised to take care of it. She’ll also have signs with the name of the school made, to be put at the two designated spots on either side of the entrance. Then we were really done. We left behind a colourful corner in San Andrés Itzapa and new friends. Hopefully we’ll be back one day!


Henry, Marissa, Carin, director Wendy, Luís

This mural (as well as 250 colouring pages for the kids) was possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of Dr. Jim Bader (of Mapleview Animal Hospital, Holland, MI, USA). Many thanks, also from Colleen, Luís and their community in San Andrés Itzapa!

And of course, also many thanks to Colleen, Luís, Henry, Marissa and Gerson for driving us…

The base done too...

Colouring page






Friday, December 4, 2020

Four Pups and a Kitty in San Martin Jilotepeque

Oh, how I’ve missed this…. The noise, the dirt, the inconvenience, the silly comments by passersby, the heat, the teamwork, a shared lunch, the exhaustion afterwards… That’s what painting a mural in public is all about! Since March 16, when the state of emergency (Covid) was declared here in Guatemala (the exact day I was to start a mural with a group of adolescents), I’ve only been able to do just a few community murals (in a cat shelter, a clinic and library of a school), but none so public. This was so much FUN!

So how did we up in a town called San Martín Jiloptepeque? Well, it’s the dog connection. I met Cristy Velasco during one of Unidos para los Animales’ sterilization clinics in Antigua. Cristy is an incredible woman who loves (LOVES) dogs and does whatever she can to protect, rescue or care for them. This in a rural area where there is very little awareness about animal care and many dogs and cats have very tough lives. Sterilization is not common thing and not easily available, let alone affordable. Cristy explained that people keep dogs as doorbells, tied up to a tree or fence, just there to bark when someone approaches. Often the dogs are chained up their whole lives, the chain padlocked around their neck for lack of a collar. Dogs get kicked at, abandoned when sick or old and unwanted puppies, well, let’s not go there…. In the meantime, dozens of unsterilized dogs roam the streets of San Marin Jilotepeque, rummaging through garbage, spreading disease, reproducing and attacking when feeling threatened. And this of course leads to more opposition against the canine population, as if they have a choice or it were their responsibility.

Although sometimes it feels like fighting a losing battle, Cristy is not one to call it quits. She has over a hundred dogs in an abandoned construction site for a hospital (which unfortunately she’ll have to leave soon), about a dozen in her restaurant, I don’t know how many at her home, plus a whole bunch on the street that she feeds and has spayed/neutered whenever she can. All this with very little support from the community. And on top of it, a pandemic and two hurricanes. Leftovers from her restaurant are given to the dogs, but with the Covid restrictions, she has had little business, especially now that the international medical brigades she usually caters to, have postponed their trips. But again, Cristy never gives up! Only last week she went to Campur in Alta Verapaz, a village hit hard by tropical storm Eta, followed by Iota. The whole village has turned into a lake. No human lives were lost but people had to leave in a hurry without any possessions or pets. Cristy and some likeminded friends went off to see if they could rescue any animals left behind. She told us the situation was heartbreaking. Some animals were able to make it to shore, where they now roam, starving and disoriented. Others were trapped on top floors of buildings or small islands that have formed amidst the debris. The problem is that the water level keeps risings, even as we speak, and many animals will drown, soon. Already there are lots of carcasses floating in the water, alongside stoves, beds and other objects that were once valued possessions. Cats are hiding in the branches of trees. Dogs bark day and night from roof tops. Cristy and friends left food on the shores and managed to rescue 11 dogs and 3 cats. Sadly, one dog jumped back in the water, desperately searching for her puppies that Cristy knew had already drowned. They were not able to catch her again.

Even if the people of Campur would like to go searching for their animals, they can’t. There are only two boats available (of course, in this mountainous area where normally the biggest body of water is a just a creek) and the boat owners charge $1.25 per person or animal. That doesn’t seem a lot, but it is, if nothing is all you have. Cristy and friends rented one of the boats for a time way too short to explore the entire community, because at $200 an hour, their budget didn’t allow for more. But they’re planning on going back soon. Donations towards food, medical attention for the rescued animals and “boat time” are very welcome (a boat they can borrow would even be better!). Below information on how you can help.

Back to the mural. Although things are changing in San Martin Jilotepeque, slowly, a lot more needs to be done to educate people on how to care for animals, the importance of vaccinations and sterilization etc. That’s why Cristy asked me if I could paint something on the wall of her restaurant to help create awareness. Well, if that means paining a few dogs, yes of course!

So I made a design around a few existing painted elements, in such a way there was no need to paint the whole wall from top to bottom, but giving it a serious facelift nonetheless. Quite a big job that I hoped to do in just one day, because of the distance and costs involved. My assistant Henry Calel was there to help me, as well as his friend Keith (pronounce Kate) Salazar and indeed, we did manage, although it was a loooong day, painting from 8.30am till 6.30pm! Not quite non-stop because Cristy made us a delicious refacción (pizza!), followed by a very special treat for lunch, Suban-ic, a local delicacy consisting of chicken cooked in a sauce wilt loooots of chile. Delicious!

Anyway, the mural design is of a few cute pups, a cute kitten and the quote: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated”, apparently wrongly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. Hard to say if my work will make a difference, but, well, the wall looks better now, I think. And it was fun to do, although not easy, in this narrow street with its constant stream of cars, goats and trucks with barely enough space for just one car to pass. And we had to share the narrow sidewalk with a furry audience. But it’s done, and just in one day, as I hoped for.

I’d like to thank Henry Calel and Keith Salazar for their help; Cristy Velasco for the delicious food and for taking care of the dogs of San Martín Jilotepeque. And of course, the sponsor of this mural, our favourite veterinarian Dr. Jim Bader! Jim was initially going to sponsor the mural I had planned for last March, but when I asked him if we could redirect the funding towards this mural for Cristy, he wholeheartedly said YES! So, thank you very much!

If you’d like to help Cristy taking care for the dogs of San Martín Jilotepeque or the rescues from Campur, you can do so by lending your boat (seriously!) or making a donation to her Guatemalan account (María Cristina Velasco Toj, Banco Industrial # 059-006050-5) or her daughter’s Paypal. I asked Cristy if she had any plans on formalizing her project but she says it is very hard to find support in the way of board members for an official NGO. She tried a Facebook page, but any publicity has resulted in more animals being dumped on her, rather than help coming in. But she’s totally legit and any donation will definitely go directly towards the dogs.

PS. In San Martín Jilotepeque I realised yet again how important a role education can play in creating awareness about animal welfare.  Especially educating children, who mostly love animals anyway and are more receptible. That’s why I’m working on a book for children with lots of colouring pages, activities and practical information on how to look after a pet. The book is particularly designed for Guatemalan kids in lesser developed areas. To design, print and distribute 1500 copies of this book, I’m still looking for funding (about 2.500 Euros). If you happen to know of any available funds or NGO’s that support these kind o projects, please let me know!

Thank you!

Be well, be safe and pet your pet.


And this is Mango! One of our all time favourites! Rescued by Cristy Velasco, fostered by me for Unidos para los Animales and adopted by another Christy in the US. Mango is living the life now!




Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Critters with Cleft Lip and Palate

It's a little weird to report on a mural project I started way back in February, but thanks to Covid it has been dragging on till now. I've already shared pictures here and there, but now I'm officially done, so here it goes!

February 2020. I was excited to be back in the Land of Eternal Spring. And not just happy to be back in Guatemala, I couldn't wait to get started on the new project by the NGO Tess Unlimited. This organization was set up twelve years ago by Tessa de Goede and it is one of the very best organizations I know in Guatemala. Tessa and her team ensure that children with cleft lip and palate, and there are quite a few in Guatemala, receive free surgeries. It goes way beyond just surgeries because there is also excellent pre and aftercare. Scouting takes place throughout the year in search for new cases. Because babies with clefts cannot always swallow properly, they are often severely malnourished. Through the Tess Unlimited milk program, babies receive special bottles and formula. They are regularly evaluated until they are healthy enough for their surgery. Psychological help is available for parents, if needed. The children are also closely monitored after the operation and some older ones participate in the camps for adolescents with cleft lip and palate.

Until now, Tessa has worked with international teams of specialists in local hospitals. Logistically it's quite time-consuming and it is of course much nicer to have your own, specialized clinic. And that's exactly what had been in the making.

Guatemala might not have as many regulations as other countries, but when it comes to building a clinic, there are an awful lot of rules and special permits to take in account. Painting murals was therefore limited to the recovery rooms and waiting areas. Tessa wanted cute animals on the walls, not a problem at all!

The clinic was not quite finished when I arrived, but the construction workers were mainly working on the second floor. My workspace was on the ground floor away, so although there was still no electricity (but lots of dust, yes!), with a few lamps set up, I had enough light. The first recovery room got some exotic animals. I wanted to do something more than just paint cute animals, so I made them all come out of the wall, as if they were breaking through the wallpaper. Except the giraffe, she secretly lifts a corner of the wallpaper. Even though none of the patients will ever have seen an orangutan or a koala bear, they do have one thing in common, they all have had cleft lip or palate surgery!

The second room got a bit of a Dutch touch with some farm animal and a landscape with windmills above the door, as request by the sponsor Colour4Kids, as a nod to one of the biggest donors for this project.

In the hall between the two recovery rooms, I painted a little boy that had long been on my wish list to use as a model. It's a spectacular photo taken by Tom de Goede of Fernando, one of the ex-patients of Tess Unlimited, with his radiant smile as he pulls up his pants with all his might. When I came across that photo on Facebook, I immediately knew I wanted to paint Fernando one day. And now he's on the wall, with the logo of the clinic on his belly. And wearing Dutch clogs.
After six days of work, the only thing missing were small kaleidoscopes of butterflies all throughout the building, small splashes of colours that would tie the different spaces together. Tessa also insisted on having a seal in the bathroom. But then the first Corona case was registered on March 13, a state of emergency was declared three days later and the world stood still.

So I didn't go home at the end of March, as planned ...

During the first two months after the declaration of a state of emergency, everything just stood still in Guatemala. But after a while things started to move again. A day without work is a day without food for many Guatemalans. The construction workers went back to work in the clinic, albeit with masks and social distancing. In May, Tessa and her team continued to paint the clinic, using the paint donated by Colour4Kids. I went back to paint the seal and make some improvements to Fernando.

Suddenly it was three months later. The clinic is basically finished now and butterflies are swarming all over the building. The first operations are scheduled for April 2021. It will be wonderful to see some patients there!

This project was made possible thanks to the Colour4Kids Foundation that not only financed the murals, but all the paint for the entire clinic. Thanks so much!

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Happy Dog Mural


Spot, The Happy Dog
It isn't a big mural, this latest one, only 5 x 2.2 meter, but it incorporated everything that makes painting a mural fun and challenging: soaring heat, threatening skies, ultimately a tremendous rainstorm, some big fat flies that would not leave us alone and the sheer pleasure of painting on a large scale. Even better to do it together with my assistant Henry and painting one of my very favourite subject matters: a dog!

Henry Calel sketching

We painted this mural at the entrance of El Chucho Feliz (The Happy Dog), a facility that offers training, daycare and accommodation for dogs in Antigua Guatemala. The dog depicted is a special one. I never had the pleasure to meet him in person, but the stories about Spot are legendary. He was a Great Dane, born deaf and blind. Completely white with just one black spot. A gentle giant who, after being rescued, lived a happy live at El Chucho Feliz. Sadly, Spot suddenly got ill earlier this year and crossed the rainbow bridge. Spot touched the lives of all who knew him and will be fondly remembered. This painted tribute will help to do so.

Work in progress (42ºC in the sun, no wind!)

El Chucho Feliz has plenty of wall space, so hopefully this won't the last one!

Chilli (portrait by Carin Steen)

This mural was sponsored by another great dog, though much smaller in size, the ever smiling Chilli with her wiggly butt. She's one of the dogs I've been sitting while stuck in Guatemala and I couldn't have wished for a better companion! Chili loves it at El Chucho Feliz, and has learned tons from Marjolaine Perrault, hence this mural sponsored by her owners in appreciation for all the good care. Thank you so much, Chilli & Co!!!

Spot and me

And another one of Chilli...