Saturday, December 8, 2018

Painting with Scissors

So through the Marimba Mural (see previous post) I got to know the awesome kids who attend the Community Art Academy. They were a great help painting the mural and very eager to learn. Not at all tired after two days of painting (them, not me!) I offered them an artwork shop, if they were willing to come in their free time because the art course actually ended for the year just last week.

Of course they were interested! I promised them a Frida Kahlo workshop, but did one on Henri Matisse instead, who happened to be the subject of this weeks art history course that I’m teaching. One of my favourite artists and a great one to share with kids.

What the kids didn’t expect was that we’d start painting straight away. Even before the teacher arrived, be had already set up the paint stations in the corridor and the kids were hard at work filling one sheet after the other. At first they were a bit shy and conventional, but soon they opened up and started exploring with different colours and techniques. It’s a good thing we ran out of paper, otherwise they’d still be painting.

Next a lecture on Henri Matisse and a selection of pictures of his work. His paintings are fascinating enough, but truly marvellous are the cut-outs that he started making well into his 70s while recovering from bowel cancer.  

That’s when the kids started to have an inkling about what we were going to do…. But not yet about the subject matter. I asked them to think of the volcano eruption, how it had affected their lives and community, and how they could translate those feelings and experiences into images. Not an easy feat. But they liked the fact that the images could be (half) abstract and only meaningful to themselves.

So off to work again! This time we “painted with scissors”, as Matisse himself used to say. A volcano, of course, as well as a surprising number of butterflies… So, why not, instead of an eruption of lava and smoke, create an outburst of butterflies??? As a positive image rather than a scary one and also representing all the people who passed away. Everybody liked the idea so butterflies it was. And that’s how the idea for the next mural was born….

And just when I thought we were done it turned out we weren’t. Classes were over, but the kids hadn’t had a formal closing ceremony yet, so that was going to happen next. And if I could do the honours by presenting the diplomas? Well, if that is all, why not? I wasn’t exactly dressed for the occasion, but well…
Little did I know that we had to wait for the mayor and two other VIPS as well as lemonade and snacks. It was fun and I had to run to catch the last bus back home.

Oh and yes, of course Ill back next week for a workshop on Frida Kahlo…

Friday, December 7, 2018

Marimba Mural in Alotenango

When I started with the art workshops for kids in the shelters shortly after the volcano eruption of June 3rd, a mural was always in the back of my mind. But of course then and there was not the time or place. Maybe in the transition shelter? Neither. Although the wooden structures would look waaaay better with a lick of paint, the central government doesn’t allow them to be painted, explained Sandra Barragán my contact at the Municipality of Alotenango. But if I was looking for as wall, she sure had some ideas! Could I please paint the wall in the “Marimba Room”??? And have the kids from the Community Academy of Art help me???

It turned out I knew the “Marimba Room” al too well. It was the room stacked till the ceiling with donations right after the eruption, from where a team of municipal employees coordinated visits and activities in the shelters. This was where we would pick up our nametags and permission slips in order to get into the shelters. 
The Community Academy of Art I did not know, but it turned out to consist a group of kids that receive weekly free art classes offered by the Municipality. Although most of them were not direct victims of the volcano eruption, all of them, as everybody else in Alotenango, were affected by the disaster in some way or another.

I prepared a design (marimba players, of course, in the colours of Alotanango) of which parts could easily be painted by my young helpers. And they did not disappoint!!! What a great group of kids! They were so enthusiastic, eager to learn and dedicated! We had a lot of fun and advanced big time during our fist day of work (Thursday November 29).

The next day 6 of the kids showed up for more painting, although not much could be done except for some details that I had to do myself. Sandra and art teacher Rolando Callejas later came by and helped by painting the hard to reach spots near the ceiling.

Yesterday I went back for the final details and then the work was done… But the project is not over yet! To be continued….

Many thanks to my fellow painters:

Jorge Alejandro Astún Lajuj (10)
Luisa Fernanda Astún Lajuj (15)
Brandon Daniel Astún Lajuj (12)
Heidy Pada Rafael Marroquín (13)
Sofía Valentina Pérez Santos (10)
Eber Josué Chayac Ojot (8)
Dulce María Rafael Marroquín (11)
Keila Daniela Chaval Ojot (13)
Kimberly Liliana Azucena Pérez Vásquez (13)
Rolando Callejós (Art Teacher of the Community Academy)
Sandra Barragán (Municipality of Alotenango)

And my friend Donna Jessen.

And of course the ones who made all this possible thanks to their generous donations: Dr. Jim Bader and Jenneca Fevos.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

In the Land of Cats, Three Spot is King

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a place where cats could go to live happily ever after.
Among rolling green hills, overlooking volcanoes and a field of lilies, many cats found their way to this home, often after a life of struggle and hardship.
Here they spend their days napping in the sun, stretching on the grass or curled up in a comfortable bed. They even have their own human to serve them food and clean up after them. This sanctuary is an oasis of calm and more than thirty cats live here in perfect peace and harmony.

That is, all but one.
Three Spot!
I met Three Spot when I was asked to paint a 15 square meter garden at Unidos para los Animales’ cat sanctuary. Most cats seemed to enjoy my company and would come up for a polite meet and greet. However, for Three Spot I instantly became his own personal entertainment station. Three Spot would sit on my lap, examine the water jar, jump on my shoulder and crawl in my bag. He’d rub my butt, sniff the paint and of course leisurely walk trough the still wet paint. Whereas all other cats quietly did their thing, Three Spot was right there all the time! Except maybe for a few moments when it occurred to him it would be fun to attack another cat. That cat has more personality than all others together. You got to love him, there is no way around it!
Three Spot...
For four full days I had the pleasure to be surrounded by feline company while painting plants and flowers that can’t be destroyed by cat paws. It was fun and furry, not in the least thanks to Three Spot.

This garden was painted in loving memory of an angel. It was sponsored by the ever so kind and generous Dr. Jim Bader. And I also would like to dedicate it to my own cat Leo, whom I had for 14 years and who died only hours after I finished the mural, purring in my arms, the way pets should go…

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Back to the Shelter!

Time flies, time crawls. It’s been almost five months since the Fuego Volcano erupted and uprooted the lives of thousands of people. Much has happened since, but many people still live in shelters and depend on handed-out meals every single day.

Shortly after the disaster struck I started, in collaboration with several volunteers and donations towards the supplies, conducting art workshops for children who were then accommodated in the public schools in the towns of Alotenango and Escuintla. Two months ago the residents were moved to a bigger and more permanent shelter, just outside of Alotenango, along the (now repaired) road to Escuintla. This was about the same time I traveled to Europe, so it was over two months since I had been to the shelter. I was eager to pick up the routine again, but not sure I’d be able to get permission. Or even where to start asking…
Wooden living quarters at the new Transition shelter
Luckily I quickly got the contact of one Sandra Barragán who works at the Municipalty of Alotenango. To my delight she immediately answered my messages and offered to take me the very next day to the ATU (Albergue de Transición Unifamiliar, or Family Unit Transition Shelter) and put me in contact with the person in charge of the agenda. If only I could bring a written proposal of what kind of activities I intended to do with the kids. No problem!
House Rules
Once at the shelter I got a short tour and information about the shelter: it accommodates 147 families (over 600 people in total), more than half of them children. The families live in wooden structures consisting of four one-room units. Each family has one or two units to live in, depending on the number of people. There are two areas with toilets, showers and pilas (sinks for laundry). Very much like any camping. The wooden structures are erected closely together, leaving but narrow open spaces. Open fire is absolutely forbidden because of the fire hazard. So no cooking, and that’s why the residents receive three meals a day in the dining area. There’s a fully equipped kitchen, but I’m not quite sure if that’s where the meals are being prepared, let alone by whom.

Next to the kitchen area are several wooden buildings that are being used as offices, both by the municipality and NGOs. 
The Centre of the Universe...
But to get back to the whole permission thing, I DID get permission! Not a small feat, because a group of psychologists was turned down right before me and apparently there are still many institutes that offer services and goods but are rejected. I don’t know why I did get permission where others didn’t, but it might have helped that the coordinator, Jorge, turned out to be someone I had seen many times before (and more importantly, he had seen me!), as well as the kids who came running up to me for a hello and a hug.
So I could get the Tuesday afternoons and even a (rather small, dark and unfurnished) work-space. With the promise that I would send the required detailed list of planned activities and that Jorge would arrange furniture, electricity and enroll participants, we agreed on two workshops a week for two different age groups. Now that the school year in Guatemala is ending, the only problem could be that there would be too many participants, because the work-space doesn’t allow for more than 20 kids per workshop and there are 251 kids between the ages of 10 and 17!
Henry at work with some of the little ones
That same afternoon, last Friday, I sent a detailed list of proposed activities. Art, crafts, yoga, mindfulness exercises and storytelling for kids 4-9 years old. For the older ones (10-17) painting, drawing and art history. The space is limited yes, but it does allow me for more intimate and better planned classes. The first workshop scheduled consists in decorating individual folders in which the participants can keep their art work.
On Monday I went shopping for supplies and hired my some-times-assistant Henry Calel to help out preparing and during the workshops. No reply yet on my detailed lesson plan, so I let Jorge know I was all set and would come the following day.

By the following mid-morning I had still no confirmation (those who live in Central America know that nothing gets done here without confirmation, re-confirmation and sometimes even re-re-confirmation). At noon I got a message back that all was set. Right on time.

But I had an inkling that not all would be set, So I already deviated from the schedule and prepared a low key art activity instead.

And surprise-surprise, our work-space was still dark and unfurnished. And there were no kids enrolled whatsoever. But if we wanted to, we could set up in the refectory. And so we did.

No publicity was given to our activity at all, so not one kid showed up at first. But luckily, we were in the area where cell phones can get charged, so there was quite a bit of traffic of mums who were happy to leave their little ones with us. Those kids could barely look over the edge of the table, but they had fun drawing nonetheless. One little girl in particular wouldn’t put down her crayon, but was so tired she fell asleep over her artwork several times.
So tired.... Waking up from a nap...
One by one kids started to drop by and join the group. It was great to see old friends back, there were only a few I hadn’t met before. It was a bit chaotic and messy, working in such an open space, offering an activity without a beginning or an end, but actually not very different from our previous workshops with those kids in the corridor of the school building they were then living in. All in all it was a lot of fun )and lots of volcano paintings) and all kids promised to join us next week. We even might have a furnished work-space!

Thanks to all who made this possible, too many to name every time, but your help is very much appreciated. More to follow soon!
Our great friend Yosselin!
As for the murals I hoped to paint? That’s not going to happen the way I hoped for because the central government doesn’t allow the wooden structures to be painted. But there are new plans in the making, so stay tuned….


Monday, August 20, 2018

Art, Rain and More Art in Alotenango

 Although I no longer post every week about our art workshops in the shelter in Alotenango, it doesn’t mean the workshops don’t continue. And things are finally changing…

Last week we actually didn’t go to Alotenango because the people in the shelter were being relocated to a transition shelter at the outskirts of Alotenango. Here the army has constructed wooden units, one for each family. I haven’t been there yet, but from what I understand it is rather cramped. The residents will have no opportunity to cook in those units, but there is a separate kitchen where they will receive (or cook?) their meals. There is an old school building where the kids will receive classes. A woman called Suzan is constructing a building for recreational purposes out of eco-blocks: plastic bottles filled with waste (chips bags and such). The students of the Carpentry Project are making the wooden frame for this structure. As soon as people are settled in we hope to continue our art classes here as well as some other activities.

In the meantime things start to look “normal”. The tents in the Central Park of Alotenango have been removed. Even the road to Escuintla (RN14) is accessible again thanks to a major effort by the government to clear away the debris. The same government still does not allow residents from the affected areas to keep searching for remains of their loved ones because it is “too dangerous” (and yes, body parts are still being found.) Experts keep saying that the dangerous thing is actually to reopen the road because it is more than likely that soon it will be covered up by millions of tons of debris from the flanks of the volcano. I guess we’ll just wait for the next disaster to happen.
Suzan and Yoselin
But back to the art classes.
On Thursday August 2nd I went to the shelter with Suzan Eleveld, director of the Carpentry Project (not to be confused with the Suzan I mentioned before). She had been away from just days before the eruption, so this was her first visit to the shelter. It was a happy encounter with her student Ermelinda who lives at the shelter with her whole extended family, as well as other acquaintances.
There was no activity going on this day, so all kids came running up to me, barely giving me the chance to set up the activity. I had expected about 15 kids, but there were more than 30 and most of them rather young. I had planned to make decorated paper bags, but that turned out to be a bit too much for so many kids. So we just drew and coloured and had plenty of fun. Later on a group of the older kids did get to work on their bags with some beautiful results.

In the meantime it had started to rain heavily and the little kids playing with their push cars on the patio moved up to the corridor where we had set up the art station. They were playing “ambulance”, mimicking sirens on top of their lungs while racing past the tables. All in all a crazy afternoon that left me pretty exhausted.

One moment that stood out for me was when a little boy, not even two years old I guess, climbed on a chair and grabbed a piece of paper. I gave him a crayon and with a very serious expression he drew a line on the paper. His whole face lit up when he saw the result (a blue line) and he looked up at me with an ecstatic look on his face. I gave him another crayon and he squeaked with pleasure when he drew a red line. This went on for quite a bit. Oh, the delights of making your first work of art…
Neftali and on the left the Youngest Artist
A week later, August 9th, we made it to the shelter despite yet another tropical downpour. Henry Navarijo and Rudy of the Carpentry Project joined me to help the kids make thread spinners. The things actually have a name here: chajaleles. Who knew!
There were some other activities going on so we had a slow start but ended up with about 25 kids. They all loved the thread spinners and some coloured more than one. All went smooth and well, very different form the chaos last week.The only short interruption we had was when we heard a funeral march coming by and all the kids ran out "to look at the dead".

And that was it for now. We’ll see what will happen this week in the transition shelter.
Thanks to all of you who made these activities possible!

Monday, July 30, 2018

Of Ninja Turtles, a Balloon Animal Making Police Squad and an Erupting Volcano

By now the road to Escuintla is familiar and we no longer let Google Maps lure us into the maze that is the centre of Amatitlán. But it still took us more than twice as long as it would have before the eruption of the Fuego Volcano destroyed Route 14 on the 3rd of June. Not that no work is being done! COVIAL (Road Maintenance) is working hard to clear, repair and amplify the road!

In the meantime volunteers and survivors from the nearby communities of San Miguel los Lotes and El Rodeo keep searching for the remains of their loved ones, without any help (or permission) from the government. The public machinery that would be so helpful is being used to clear a road that according to experts will mostly likely be destroyed anyway by the millions of tons of volcanic debris that still needs to find its way down. Last week the heavy equipment illegally made way in between the houses in San Miguel Los Lotes in order to amplify the road. Human remains that were found were put in plastic bags and dumped on the side. This is only days after Sergio Cabañas, head of CONRED (Coordinadora Nacional para la Reducción de Disastres) talked down the find of likely 68 people as: “They’re not bodies, just pieces of people.”

Hundreds, if not thousands of people still lie buried on the flanks of the volcano and nothing is being done (except for efforts made by survivors from those communities and initiatives by volunteer groups such as Antigua al Rescate.)
If an archaeological excavation before the construction of a new building would reveal ancient human bones, they’d be treated with all the possible professional care and respect.
And here we’re talking about people who died LESS THAN TWO MONTHS AGO!!! It is as if the government can’t forget them soon enough. 

But back to Escuintla.
When Jessica Hoult and I arrived at the school, the kids were already being entertained. Four blond missionary children were performing a dance for them and afterwards there was for each a colouring sheet of Faith being the light that helps you to believe.
We set up our supplies and when the missionaries were winding up their activity, the kids started coming to our table. We had brought big sheets for free painting as well as materials to make masks. Just like last week, the kids went wild and created one piece of art after the other. Kitten and Ninja Turtle masks appeared as out of nowhere. Paintings were created collectively or individually. Or, as in the case of one boy and a girl, together without even realizing it. When they saw that their skies matched, they decided to continue working together on an erupting volcano. What a creative bunch!

We had a bit of a WTF moment when a group of about 20 police men and women walked into the shelter. Turns out they came to entertain the kids with balloon animals and a clown.
Although the kids were very concentrated painting, we cut the activity a bit short because the police were waiting for them. So no story telling this time, for which my throat was grateful.

While Jessica and I cleaned up after our activity, the clown was doing a great job entertaining the kids, including his colleagues in the show. The kids were interacting with the police in a fun way. But not all activities seemed to have been well thought through. Jessica and I were in shock when three police guys picked up three young adolescent girls to give them piggy back rides over the patio. “They’re groping their butts!” cried Jessica, appalled, while I mostly couldn’t get over the fact that the police guys were ARMED! But everybody else was laughing and having a great time. 

In Alotenango things seemed to be pretty much the same. Ringing bells summon people to a funeral mass. The stage in the central park is still being used for wakes for the ongoing stream of victims. This day it was Doña Vicenta López , a 65 year old resident from San Migiuel Los Lotes. A day later there would be a funeral for 7 members of the Pamal family.  

Accompanied by Henry Navarijo and Marlon of the Carpentry Project in Alotenango, we quickly set up shop at the shelter for a bit of mask making. Just like last week we had mostly younger kids who needed quite a bit of help so they kept us pretty busy. The same psychologists from last week were around with activities too, so we ended up with only about 15 kids.

Now that the kids go to school and other groups are working with them too, I don’t think there’s much need for us to keep coming to the shelter for some art and fun, but we have decided to continue anyway. Because, well, why not? The kids are having fun, so do we and it can’t hurt to keep this thing warm until the people are settled in transition shelters where we could plan a bit more elaborate art projects or art therapy sessions. For now we’ll just keep going!

Thank you Wendy, Ineke, Will, Jenneca, Colour4Kids, Debbie, Judy and Maureen for your support. And of course Abi, Jessica, Henry, Otoniel and Marlon for coming along.