Blazing sun, tuc-tucs, school kids, roaring
motorbikes, street vendors, debt collectors, drunkards, goats, housewives,
workmen, more kids, fire truck, stray dogs in all shapes and sizes… To say the
street leading to the Vista Hermosa neighbourhood is busy, is an understatement…
This was community mural painting at its best, with children who gave a willing
helping hand, lots of appreciative feedback from neighbours, drinks being
offered and happy teachers at the school we were painting at.
Little by little Vista Hermosa in
Jocotenango, Guatemala, is being transformed from a dangerous and ugly barrio
into a colourful, much cleaner and liveable community. Thanks to the UrbanHeART collective, an initiative from young people from this community, murals
keep popping up. In November 2021 we painted a 12-meter-long mural at the
public wash basin at the entrance of the neighbourhood. This year we continued
the collaboration with Urban HeART with a workshop for a group of young painters
and two murals, one at the side wall of the public wash basin, the other one at
the wall of the kindergarten, along the street that leads into Vista Hermosa. The
surface was a bit rough, but the dimensions nice and big (26 meter long!) and also
very public. It was a pleasure to work with Denilson Larios and Gustavo Illescas of
This project (the two murals and the
workshop) was sponsored by the Dutch Foundation Colour4Kids.
I like nothing better than when you meet someone on Friday to discuss a possible mural and the very next Monday the mural is up on the wall already! That happened when I met Lynn who is setting up an after school literacy program in San Lorenzo El Cubo, a small town not too far from Antigua Guatemala. We quickly agreed on the design and I happened to have time to go paint the next Monday, so here it is!
The program (ALAS, in collaboration with FFF Finding Freedom Through Friendship) officially starts today, so the timing was perfect. Congratulations and good luck with the project!
November 2021, I painted water in many of its facets on a 12-meter-long wall
along the public wash basin in Vista Hermosa, a neighbourhood in the town of
Jocotenango, Guatemala. The young people who set it up and helped paint, are
members of Urban HeART, a grassroots initiative to make their neighbourhood
more liveable through cultural activities. The transformation is clearly
visible after two years and the area has become considerably nicer and safer,
not only because the neighbourhood looks more cheerful, but also because people
are more united, are now proud of their community and keep the streets much
the living situation is still difficult and sometimes even dangerous. A second
mural had to be postponed. First because of COVID, then because of serious death
threats towards people in the community. Tragically, the brother of one of the
Urban HeART leaders was killed and a week later another (ex) member. The night
before we started painting, two brothers aged 14 and 18 were shot dead when
leaving the local cinema. (These deaths are unrelated to the mural initiative. But
unfortunately, this is the reality children and adolescents in this community have
to face every day.)
the kids from Urban HeART don't give up and still believe in art as an
alternative to a future full of drugs, gangs and violence. And that's why we
just keep painting!
time around, we painted the side wall of the pila or public washing area. Although
not very big (4 x 5 meter), It was a tough wall to deal with, made of adobe, quite
deteriorated and with lots of damage. It had to plastered first, then primed,
to be followed by a base colour. I painted two giant water birds (egrets), based
on ancient illustrations from ancient Maya codices. My colleagues painted the
background, combining spray paint with brush work. I varnished the birds, but
not the background, so the difference between shiny and matte background helps
the optical solution of seeing reflection on the water. (Unfortunately, hard to
see on the photos.)
while prepping the wall, I touched up the big mural there where it was somewhat
damaged by moisture. Now everything looks like new again, just in time for the
opening of the new soccer field right across the street. A little bit of colour
can make a big difference!
I can’t complain about my “office”! This time I
was working high up in the mountains above Antigua Guatemala, with a terrific
view of the Fuego and Acatenango volcanoes. The village of El Hato is a far cry
from the prosperous colonial town of Antigua. In El Hato, most people live in humble
circumstances. Many of them grow flowers (mostly cala lilies, agapanthus and carnations)
which they sell at the market of Antigua. The village just got a much-needed
brand-new school building with plenty of blank walls. A perfect spot for a
About two weeks ago I went up to meet the director
Patricia Toledo to hear about her ideas and have a look at walls. Initially her
idea was to have a mural painted around the sports court, but unfortunately that
wall was in a rough shape (lots of humidity) and would need lots of repairing
without the guarantee it would hold up a mural. In the end we decided on a
wall next to the director’s office, at the entrance of the school, quite visible
from the road. A perfect spot! The wall is 7 meters long and 3 meters high, a
nice size to work at. Theme? Something positive, something colourful and with
the flowers they grow in the community. And, as a special request, could we paint
the school’s emblem on the wall too? Well, why not.
The whole project got delayed a bit because
Covid finally caught up with me, but once recovered, Elio (AKA Henry) and I
went up the hill and up the ladder. We didn’t involve any kids this time
because of possible lingering Covid. The teachers had just started their
holiday, so we had the place to ourselves.
The painting took a little longer than I had
expected. Elio worked on the emblem, just needed me for the letters, that was
all. Then he helped me with the background of geometric shapes that just take
an awful long time to paint. Although the wall was brand new with a fresh coat
of paint, it required no less than three layers to nicely cover up. Oh, and it
was HOT! Freezing cold in the mornings, but as soon as the sun started peeking
over the mountain, it was just blazingly hot with a blinding reflection on the
white wall. But, a few days of hard work in and the mural was done…
When I sent pictures of the result to the
director, she said she loved the mural, but when would I finish the school’s
crest? I was like: Excuse me? It’s already finished!
No, she said, it’s missing the school’s name!
One of those facepalm moments. No one to blame but
me… So soon I’ll make another trip up the hill… But, for now the work is done.
I hope the kids like it too!
This mural was generously sponsored by Dutch
Foundation Colour4Kids. (Thank you, Jos Ruijs!) Many thanks to Catherine for the
ride and to David Dean for the contacts.
square meters, thirty children, twenty litres of paint, five long days and lots
of jungle. That basically sums up the mural project in San Martín Jilotepeque.
has been almost a year since I visited this school for children with special
needs for the first time and met director Telma Calan. It’s thanks to her that
children with all kinds of special needs receive education at a place where
they are treated with love and respect. Not an easy feat because all her
students have very different needs and range in age from four to twenty.
school is located in the centre of the buzzling town of San Martín de
Jilotepeque. It’s a bit of a concrete jungle there, with lots of traffic, stray
dogs, dirt and noise. The children are from the town itself and its surrounding
villages, many of them from low-income families. They’ll likely never go on a
trip and are rarely surrounded by soothing nature. That’s why I decided to
paint them a jungle in their schoolyard. To have a bit of green in their yard,
even if it’s just paint, and of course plenty of animals.
course, the children were going to be involved in the process. The problem was
that I didn’t know them, so I had no idea about their abilities. With that in
mind I made a design in which they could help paint the background on which we
would add details later on.
The teachers had arranged for the children to come in small groups which worked
out quite well. Dressed in old T-shirts we had brought for the occasion, the
children happily grabbed brushes and rollers. Minutes later everything was pale
blue, yellow and green, including the floor and the children’s faces. It was a
lovely mess and the kids clearly had a lot of fun.
The next group of kids was a bit older and quickly finished the rest of the
wall, even the highest parts. We could barely stop them from painting the rest
of the wall which we need to keep blank for the children who’d come the next
the children painted their hearts out under Catherine’s supervision (some parts
of the wall received no less than three generous layers of paint!), Elio (aka
Henry) and I worked on plants and animals. I had planned to work from left to
right, but upon arrival, the director told us they were having a graduation on
Friday and planned to do it in front of the right side of the wall. So that’s
where we started in order to have it ready for the grand finale.
made the mistake of cramming too many things in the first section of the wall which
left us with barely enough time for the rest of the wall. It turned out that
with this kind of design, five long days of painting were scarcely enough. To
be honest, I would have liked to have painted more animals and specific plants,
but alas, we could only stay so long. But since we are already making plans to
paint the outside wall next year, I might be able to add a few critters then.
last day was a big one! It was the celebration of the end of the school year,
the graduation of kindergarten and sixth grade students as well as the
inauguration of the mural. The ceremony included the usual prayer, oath to the
flag, national anthem and the official entrance of honour roll students. Very
cute but a little bittersweet for the sixth graders who will now leave this
special place in order to continue their education at a regular middle school.
have never officially opened any of my murals in such a festive way! It was fun
to cut the ribbon in front of all the students and their parents. Then it was
time for a delicious lunch and afterwards a few more hours of painting for us.
Night was falling when we packed up and headed back home to Antigua. Exhausted,
stained, stinky and dirty, but quite happy.
mural is a true community project. Not just because it was designed for all the
students, their parents and teachers of the school, but also because it would
not have been possible without the help of a LOT of people.
the first place, thanks to Elio Navarijo and Catherine Corry for joining me on
this venture and working their butts off! Many thanks to director Telma Calan
and staff of the school for receiving us so warmly and for providing labour for
plastering the wall. Of course, may thanks too to all the students who helped
paint. So much fun! A special thank-you to Cristy Velasco, our friend in San
Martín Jilotepeque who introduced us to the school and who kept on spoiling us
with delicious snacks. And many, many thanks to all the people who helped
sponsoring this mural! The list is long and for privacy reasons I’ll just
mention first names:
Peter, Fredy, Argi, Wendy, Katie, Pilar, Ria, Casey, Jeroen, Linda, Bonnie,
Tamra, Indara, David, Cathy, Dana, Frank, Maureen, Kimberly, Ana María,
Patricia, Judith, Jeff, Chris, Maite, Debra, Buddy, Christine, Shoshi, Suzanne,
Rokus, Paulina, Judy, Liza and Catherine. Thank you all so much!
it doesn’t end here!!! We have been asked to come back to paint the outside of
the school… The wall already has a mural, quite cute in its own way, but my fingers
are itching… I’m thinking social inclusion as a theme… Can’t wait till next
It’s certainly the
most perfect spot for a workshop, the new Lead-up base in Finca la Azotea
(Jocotenango, Guatemala). It’s an oasis of peace and soothing greens,
especially after cycling through heavy traffic on the busy streets of Antigua.
Fourteen adolescents got together for my workshop on how to create a community mural.
Some are high-school students from Los Patojos with an interest in the arts, there
were a few Lead-up champions and some who are already established artists
themselves, such as Samuel, Chiripa and Denilson of Urban HeArT.
Although the workshop
was on how to create a community mural, we left the artistic part aside and focused
on what is maybe the hardest part: how to turn your mural project into a true collaborative
work of art. We started with strategies to define the people who benefit from
the project and their interests and/or issues within their community. Once the
target group and their wishes are established, we can focus on the theme. A lot
of the issues that will come up during this phase will be negative ones, such
as violence, contamination, poverty, corruption or domestic abuse. If such an
issue will be the theme of the mural, the challenge will be to turn it into a constructive
and positive message, and translate that into a striking visual. Not an easy
Next on the agenda was
to talk about how to deal with volunteer painters. As the leader of a mural
project, you’re not only responsible for the creative process, but also in
charge of coordinating the volunteers in a way that will make them feel
involved and appreciated. We talked about what language (not) to use, how to be
conscious of our body language and how to be inclusive. We specifically talked about
how to work with children and how to secure their safety and wellbeing wile in
The last theme was on
how to make a design that is of a high artistic quality but easy to implement with
a large number of unexperienced volunteers. I shared some techniques I have
used in the past that might be helpful to someone someday.
The workshop wasn’t al
talk. In between each topic we did a little painting. The first assignment was
to paint something beautiful (non-figuartive) on small pieces of paper. Quickly,
so as not to over-think it. The next step was to repeat the same, but trying to
paint something UGLY! This is much more difficult because we all have this natural
tendency to create something beautiful.
Step three was to compare the “pretty” pictures with the “ugly” ones. It was
quite obvious that the “pretty” pictures contained bright colours and clearly
defined shapes. The “ugly” ones were much darker, no white coming through. More
abstract and less figurative. There were definitely differences between the two
piles of paintings, which, we might conclude, means there are some universal preferences,
despite our different tastes and styles. Interestingly, the “ugly” paintings
were done in a much freer style. Some were crumpled up, in some the paint was
scratched with the back of a brush, others stamped, smudged or folded.
The last part was to divide the group in two and make a quick collage, using
both the “pretty” and “ugly” paintings. The goal was to show how something “ugly”
can be transformed into something beautiful and how to make a collective work
of art making equal use of everybody’s input in a very short time with limited
supplies. The final results were very different, but equally beautiful.
Next step is to do
some real mural painting! In December I’ll paint no less than three murals with
the youth of Urban HeArt in their neighbourhood Vista Hermosa, where we painted
a mural at the entrance of the barrio, just a year ago. Looking forward
A big thanks to all
the participants of this workshop for their input; to Katie and Lead-up for the
use of their wonderful space, to Denilson & Co of Urban HeART and of course to Dutch foundation Colour4Kids for
sponsoring this workshop and the upcoming murals.
You don’t normally think of a hospital as a
“happy place” but this one sure is. Clínica Los Tulipanes is located on the
outskirts of Antigua Guatemala and caters solely to children with cleft lip or
palate. Tessa de Goede, founder of the NGO Tess Unlimited that runs the clinic,
made her dream come true by now having her own place where children receive the
best care they can get. For years, Tessa brought in medical teams to do the
surgeries on location, which was always complicated and rarely comfortable. Now
the children receive surgery in a top of the bill location, as well as any
other care they might need. Think a special milk program for new-borns, psychological
consultations for the parents, speech therapy and dental care for the older children.
Tessa managed to turn a clinical space into a warm home with lots of details
that will most definitely bring a smile to anyone’s face.
I feel honoured to have been involved in the
art design part of this project. The opening of the hospital was much delayed
due to the pandemic, but that gave me all the time to paint cute animals (al
with cleft lips!) in the recovery rooms. Earlier this year I painted some animals in the
dental clinic, including an installation that hangs from the ceiling, depicting
a hole in the ceiling that opens up to the sky. That and the butterflies that hang
from it give the children something to look for while in the dentist chair.
Just last week I painted, on Tessa’s
request and kindly sponsored by the Dutch foundation Podia4People, a large map
of Guatemala. It’s actually a cork-board that will be used to pin down the
hometown of each patient. Next to it a quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala.
A perfect spot for selfies, of course!
It’s wonderful to have seen the clinic transform
from a construction site into an buzzling beehive of activities. Dozens of
children have already benefited from this happy place, and dozens more are on
the waiting list.
Does that mean that my work is over? Thank
goodness no! The next step is to build a temporary home for patients’ family.
Tessa and team laid the first brick last week, so the work has begun. And
contrary to the clinic, there are not so many healthy and safety regulations to
take in account, so we can go as crazy as we want. Looking forward to it!
Many thanks to Colour4Kids and People4Podia