Thursday, December 19, 2019

More murals in Guatemala!

About a year ago I worked with some of the coolest kids in Guatemala. I met them through my contact at the townhall in Alotenango, the town that was recovering from the deadly volcano eruption in June. I was about to paint a mural in the townhall and was offered assistance by the students of the Municipal Art Academy which turned out to be an art course for children and adolescents. The Municipality of Alotenango provides a teacher and classroom, the 15-20 participants bring their own materials.
I can always use some help, so, yes! And help they did! Although it was the first mural they ever painted, it was clear that they had both talent and some experience painting. They were eager to learn and we had a lot of fun. We finished the mural way too soon to their liking, the kids wanted more! So I decided to offer a few workshops and although the course had officially already stopped for the holidays, the kids were eager to assist.
 Since children in Guatemala don’t have regular access to museums or art galleries, I decided to do workshops on some famous and inspiring artists. The first one was Henri Matisse. We started the class hands-on, painting large sheets of paper with different techniques. The goal was to cover up the paper, not painting something recognizable, so the kids had a lot of fun experimenting with new techniques without the pressure of achieving a neat result.
Afterwards we explored the life and work of Matisse, which fascinated the participants. By the time the presentation was done, the sheets of paper had dried.  We discussed what we were going to create and decided on a volcano erupting butterflies, each one a symbol for the deceased after the eruption of the Fuego Volcano six months earlier. The kids starting cutting and pasting and soon the volcano took shape. It turned out quite beautiful and the concept was used again for a mural at the shelter in Alotenango, a few months later.
The Frida Kahlo workshop was also a success, this time resulting in beautiful self-portraits in soft pastels. Saying goodbye to those kids was tough, but I promised I’d try to come back…

By now I have changed the volcanoes of Guatemala for the north coast of Spain. But I haven’t forgotten about Guatemala and can’t wait to go back and paint some more…

I’m planning a trip in February of 2020. I already have a mural in a clinic lined up and hope to find financing for another project with those fantastic kids in Alotenango. This time the theme will be Diego Rivera and the project will take a full two weeks. We’ll of course explore the life and work of Rivera as well as the history of murals in general, in its socio-historical context. We’ll also study myths and legends of Guatemala. And then, like Rivera painted the history of Mexico on public walls, we’ll depict local legends on our own mural. It will be painted on a wall (approximately 3 x 5.5meters) in their own classroom of the municipal building, so they’ll be able to enjoy it themselves (as well as other people who make use of that space).

The kids and teacher are already very excited about this project, as am I! The only thing is… the financing I hoped to get fell through (the institution that offered to sponsor this project won’t decide till March and that will be too late) and actually also puts my whole trip in jeopardy, because I need at least two mural projects to make my trip worthwhile. So I’m desperately looking for sponsors!!! The whole project (two weeks of classes and painting) costs USD 950, including all materials and expenses. I hope to raise that amount, of course, but could adapt the project a little if necessary. Anyway, I hope there are some sponsors out there who are willing to make this happen! If so, thanks in advance for making this world a bit more beautiful!

You can donate using the button on this page or through PayPal (carinsteen at For bank transfer (in Spain or Holland), please contact me.


Sunday, September 1, 2019

MuralArte Guate/Int

Hopefully I'll be able to report soon on some new community murals in Spain! My new location in Asturias, Spain, is quite nice, but I haven't forgotten on Central America! I'm planning a trip in January of 2020, mainly to paint some murals at schools and a clinic. But MuraleArte is now expanding and thus in need of an addition to its name. So from now on, it's Mural Arte Guate/Int! may there be many new community murals in the future, internationally!

Friday, May 31, 2019

Last Mural at Home Base

I didn’t realise how hard it would be to write this out loud, but darn, I just finished my LAST MURAL IN GUATEMALA!

Well, for this year at least.
In a matter of weeks I’ll be moving to Spain, but the plan is definitely to come back next year and add some more colour to this part of the world.

I was glad that my last mural happened to be this one, at the school in San Bartolomé Becerra, for several reasons. For one, because I promised so about two years ago and I always try to keep my promises. But also because this wall is very visible from the street and the highway to Ciudad Vieja. And maybe most importantly, because San Bartolomé Becerra, or San Bartolo, as we call it, has been my home for the last five years. I have grown very fond of this community just outside of Antigua Guatemala and I’m glad I could leave something behind. It’s isn’t my fist mural in San Bartolo, but by far the most public one.

This was also the last time (for now!) I worked with my wonderful assistant Henry Calel Navarijo. He helped me paint for the first time in 2016 and since then he has grown a lot, in many ways. I’ll surely miss him!

I’d been a few times to the school to discuss the design and take pictures (I needed kids for modelling, no shortness of those at the school!), so the kids knew I was coming and most of me knew me anyway, living in the same neighbourhood. One kid came up to me and said:
“I know you”.
No big surprise, after all I have been living there for five years and painted two murals.
“Yes. You give hot-dog to the dogs.”
Well, yes, that’s me too. I think I would have cared more for a reputation as a renowned mural painter. But being known as the woman who feeds hot-dog to dogs is a pretty good second.

Anyway, off to work. The theme wasn’t my favourite of all time; the teacher insisted I’d include the school’s crest in the mural. A pretty ugly crest, I must add. I suggested camouflaging it a bit, maybe put it on a kid’s shirt? No, it had to be there and right in the centre. That took some thinking on my part but I finally came up with a design I’m okay with and that does include the schools emblem. So, ready to rock and roll.

The weather forecast couldn’t be worse. Somewhere off the coast of Guatemala a hurricane is brewing and it was indeed windy and drizzling. Drizzle is okay. Wind is doable. A tropical storm is not, for mural painting. But we were extremely lucky and didn’t get more than a few drops.

While we painted, yesterday, classed were interrupted for a celebration Día del Árbol, Tree Day. In familiar fashion, the activity included the national anthem, a prayer, a few speeches and a mini-parade of kids dressed in folklore outfits. Each class had made a huge tree which they presented to their peers. Ironically made out of paper. Even more irony: the background noise was provided by some handymen cutting down a tree at the schoolyard. But let’s not get me started on the educational system here…

So, besides a few wind gusts and thick fat raindrops, (oh, and the promised ladder that never arrived), the work went well and the mural is finished. Whether the result is better than before is for you to decide…  

A BIG thank you to Henry, not just for helping with this mural but many before and hopefully more to come.

And of course also a HUGE thank you to veterinarian Dr. Jim Bader who besides coming down at least twice a year to voluntarily sterilize dogs and cats for 14 years in a row now, he has also generously been donating towards my community murals! Thanks so much Jim!!!

So long, for now….

Monday, May 13, 2019

Busy Bees in San Cristobal el Alto

Now, this community mural was a true team effort!
For a while now the people in the small mountainous village of San Cristobal el Alto have been trying to attract tourists by offering hikes on nature trails and by selling food and homemade products. Volunteer Miki Iwatsuki (JICA) has been involved in the project and has set up a mural project to beautify this charming village. And yesterday we painted the first one!

While Miki arranged everything with the owners of the wall, Laurel Jacobson (Mesón Panza Verde) had the wall plastered. She also sponsored the materials and organized all the logistics (paint, brushes, transportation and lunch for the painters). Laurel teaches art to the scholarship students at CasaSito and it was her idea to get the kids involved.
I came in to teach the students how to copy and enlarge a design and to prep them for the hard work. I also made the design with nature as an overall theme and more specifically apiculture since the family that owns the wall has beehives.  

All nine of CasaSito’s art students joined us, as well as three of the students that participated in my mural project that we finished last week. CasaSito’s founder Alice Lee So Fong joined us too and off we went!

It was hot and humid but that didn’t stop us, not for a minute! The family of beekeepers helped us paint, as well as passersby and friends. The students did an awesome job and by the end of the afternoon the mural was on the wall, varnished and all.
What was incredible was that INMEDIATELY after finishing it, tourists started to pose in front of the wall to take pictures. People actually stopped their cars to get out and take pictures, causing a traffic jam in the narrow street. And the owner of the house already sold a bottle of honey because of the mural! I’d say, mission more than accomplished!

So all in all we had a great day. Lunch at Doña Angela’s (across the street from the mural) was delicious, as was the cinnamon bread with honey the family treated us to celebrate the completion of the mural. The only one not quite satisfied was the little boy of the house who was slightly disappointed that we didn’t paint Spiderman on the wall. Other than that, it was one of those days with a golden edge…  

Please do go visit San Cristobal el Alto, it’s worth it!

Monday, May 6, 2019

A Hole in the Wall

Four adolescents and now four painted walls. Check!

For weeks now I’ve been working every Saturday with Joshua, Isa, Eduardo and Leonardo (all CasaSito scholarship students) on how to make a mural. They started from scratch learning about the history of muralism and the differences between murals, street art and graffiti. We did a class on colour theory and of course the students learned how to copy and enlarge a design.

Little by little we came up with ideas for the mural. We took in account the space with all its possibilities and limitations as well as its purpose (a waiting area or space for workshops and relaxation). The students were very much into murals with optical illusions, although we agreed that a design with giant 3D creepy insects might not be the best of ideas.
In the end we came up with this design, which is tied to the mural downstairs.

So here we are!
The hole in the wall makes the space look bigger, the view is that of the Fuego and Acatenango volcanoes. The butterflies can represent the metamorphosis students undergo during their time at CasaSito. Also, they won’t be stopped by a wall, there’s always a way to fly even higher!

The umbrella is a bit of a joke, inspired by street art. The handle of the umbrella is an actual tube with actual faucet that “can regulate the rain”.

The mandala is a spiritual symbol that represents the universe.

This was a fun project which will hopefully inspire the participants to make many more murals! Many thanks to Dr. Jim Bader who sponsored this mural! And of course to CasaSito and participants:

Carlos Joahua Gutiérrez Paredes (16)
Isa Gabriela Samayoa Gómez (16)
Gabriel Eduardo Samayoa Gómez (18)
Edgar Leonardo ”Da Vinci” Orellana Santos (17)

And a big thank you to my talented assistant Henry Navarijo for helping paint!

Friday, March 22, 2019

Volcano Erupting Butterflies

I had almost given up on ever painting this mural, but am very glad I got the chance to paint it. The idea of a volcano erupting butterflies came out of a workshop I conducted in December last year for a group of kids from Alotenango. It was actually a workshop on Henri Matisse (click here for the full report), but that’s how things go, one idea leads to the other. Painting this mural would be the final activity wrapping up a series of art workshops for kids in the shelter after the volcano eruption last June. The design was there, as well as the funding, the volunteers and the wall. The only tiny thing missing was permission.
Long and boring story short, the permission never materialized and I thought this commemorative mural was something I should delete of my to-do list.  But then Suzan of the Carpentry Project in Alotenango reminded me that within days the opening of the brand new activity centre at the shelter would take place and wouldn’t that be a good location?
Indeed! This classroom is designed to be used for workshops, reading and other fun activities for kids and adults at the Santa Isabel Shelter in Alotenango. The special thing about it is that the whole building is made of trash! The construction was an initiative of Susana of PuraVida, and NGO specialized in using trash for building materials. Hundreds of kids were involved in the process, stuffing soda bottles with all kinds of trash, turning them in “eco-bricks”. The Municipality donated the terrain, the Carpentry Project offered to build the wooden frame and within a few months, this building was a fact. Last Wednesday was the official opening, attended by lots of kids and even two real mermaids who told the children what an impact all that trash has on their environment.

As usual, this mural is the result of a collaborative effort, so many thanks to the following people and institutions!
Dr. Jim Bader for Sponsoring this mural; Henry Navarijo for helping paint this mural and the logos; the Carpentry Project Alotenango for paying for the wall to be plastered and Susana of Pura Vida for having organized it. And of course the kids from Alotenango who made the original design.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Painting Opportunities


CasaSito has been around for 15 years now and has changed the lives of thousands of young Guatemalans by giving them the opportunity to finish their high school and/or university education. CasaSito gives more than just tuition but expects more than good grades. All students have to do certain hours of community service as well as participate in one of the organization’s activities, such as art classes, the debate club, math tutoring or theatre workshops.

At a few occasions I had the chance to work with CasaSito’s students and it always is a great pleasure to work with kids so curious and eager to participate. CasaSito just moved into a new office, so hence the idea for a new educational project: to teach a group of students how to create a mural “from scratch”, resulting, obviously, in a mural.
While I was at CasaSito’s new headquarters to discuss this new project with founder Alice Lee, she mentioned that she also would like a mural in the downstairs patio, the space that will be used for meetings and for the students to relax. And it would be absolutely fantastic if something could be done before the official inauguration on February the 10th….

This meeting happened January 31st, so there was little time indeed… Let alone funding for a mural… Or a design….But! We did it! (Sort of…)

For once funding for the mural was not hard to find. Ana-Maria Ackermans of Uno Más and John Eby of Developing Scholars (both NGOs that support CasaSito) kindly offered to sponsor the mural as a present for CasaSito’s fifteenth anniversary. But the design was the second hurdle. Not so much the design actually, but the communication. Alice and staff were in Cobán, where they have a regional office and the majority of their scholarship students. The area is remote and decent WiFi as rare as the splendid quetzal. So it wasn’t until after Alice got back that, after a bit of tweaking here and there, we agreed on the final design. I bought paint and supplies and then there was only one day to go before the opening. I didn’t expect to finish the mural, but if we could get at least a layer of paint on the wall???

Four walls, actually. About 45 square meters. Can be done in a day, right?
Thanks to my assistant Henry, Alice’s fantastic skills as a Classified Level 7 Swirl Painter and some of the students, especially Minor and Joshua who were there basically all day, we DID do the base! There was paint on the wall all around!

The inauguration was a success and people liked the mural, even in its unfinished state. Many people didn’t even realised it wasn’t finished. (Not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing…)
After the opening we went back a few more days to work on all the swirls, curls, curves and leaves and this morning yet again to varnish. And now it is officially DONE!  Happy with the result and ready for the next adventure…

Sunday, January 20, 2019

More Murals Demanded by the Elderly!

Doña Lucrecia Musus with current residents

Last week I went by the nursing home Fray Rodrigo de la Cruz, in the centre of Antigua to drop off some leftover art supplies from the Art Relief project I recently concluded. I had planned to go much earlier, but for some reason I kept postponing my visit. I think it had to do with the fact that it had already been two years since I last painted a mural in this place and I was afraid many residents would no longer be around.
Don Rosalino Ramos
But there was no need to worry. As soon as I entered I saw many familiar faces. And they recognized me too! Where had I been so long? When was I going to paint a new mural???
I explained that there wasn’t much wall space left but one of the residents took me by the arm and showed me several places that could use a bit of paint. And so it happened that I walked out the door with the promise to paint yet three more murals…
Henry Navarijo and the portrait of Don Agripino he painted.
Painting murals at this nursing home has been one of my best experiences ever and this time around it was just as fun. I was joined by Henry Navarijo, my assistant/apprentice, who had started working with me over two years ago, actually with one of the murals in this nursing home. This time around he was no longer helping out doing the groundwork, but painted a whole portrait by himself.

I had forgotten how much time we’d need just to chat with the residents and staff and how often we would be summoned to help one of the elderly to give them a supporting arm or tie their shoelaces. They don’t care that we’re there to paint, we were there, so we might as well put to service!
Of course we had a constant audience and had to admire all the art work made by those residents who love to paint too. We also got many suggestions for more portraits. So hopefully we’ll be back soon… I love this place and its people!!!

These murals were sponsored by Dr. Jim Bader who besides offering his services a s a veterinarian to Antigua, also contributes to make this place even more colourful. Thank you!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Art Relief after the Eruption, it's a Wrap!

Final Report Art Relief after the Volcano Eruption

The Day of the Eruption
The Fuego volcano had been pretty active for months. There was nothing unusual about its constant puffs and deep rumble, so nobody paid close attention. Not even when a black rain started that noon. That was unusual, but not exceptional either. It had happened before, in different places, depending on which way the wind blows.

That Sunday, the 3rd of June of 2018, the area around the volcano, up to 100km away, was quickly covered in a soft layer of ashes. It was like walking through black snow, all sounds muffled. My neighbourhood had transformed into apocalyptic scene from a SF movie. People wandered around in astonishment and awe before picking up a broom to start cleaning up.

A few hours of sweeping later, with blisters on my hands, I took a break and turned on the computer. That’s when I learned this disaster went way beyond blisters from sweeping…

If I recall correctly, the first shocking news was that the golf resort and luxury hotel La Reunión was completely devastated. Nobody was hurt, all guests and personal were evacuated on time. (Later a rumour went around that CONRED, the Guatemalan emergency management agency, had warned the staff at the golf resort but not the people in surrounding villages. This was denied both by CONRED as well as the manager of the resort. That is likely the truth, but it does show how yet again money matters: the safety of the guests was after all the manager’s responsibility and the resort had the resources to evacuate whereas the residents of the village were hesitant to leave their meagre possessions behind and didn’t have how to leave or where to go.)

Then the first deaths were reported. Grim images of people covered in ash being rescued. The volunteer firemen and women were the heroes of the hour, working tirelessly while the soles melted off their boots. The government  conspicuous by its absence.

A live video on Facebook: a dozen or so people stand near a bridge on highway RN14, a huge cloud of grey ashes approaching. Towards the bridge a truck with two fire fighters, stopping the people from getting any closer. The cloud comes closer and closer, faster than anyone expected. People start to run. The cloud takes over the highway. The footage stops. 
Later it became clear that everybody who had been standing there had perished. No bodies were recovered.

The cloud, it turned out, was pyroclastic flow. Nothing to do with the slowly descending streams of lava, this current of hot gas and volcanic matter can reach speeds and temperatures into the hundreds. It’s fast, hot and deadly. It came down as a fatal surprise, through riverbeds and valleys, burying everything in its way. Whole neighbourhoods where covered. Very few people who were surprised by the flow managed to survive.

Everybody Wants to Help
Schools and churches were opened as impromptu shelters while donations started to pour in. It seemed everybody in Guatemala (and beyond) want to help, give, do something. But for President Jimmy Morales who announced that not a penny was available for this kind of emergencies.

Relief efforts started to get organized. Donations at collection centres were being classified by hundreds of volunteers. The First Lady helped too. The goods she handled weren’t even donated by her or the president, but it did look good on Twitter. 
Cooking stations were set up to feed the people in the shelters as well as the fire fighters and other volunteers.  

Within days after the disaster, the municipalities of Alotenango and Escuintla, the towns which communities had been hit hardest, had taken over the operation of the shelters and donations. Although some sort of organization was desperately needed, by now the shelters had turned into semi prisons where hardly anyone was allowed in or out.

At a national level, the president announced that no international help was needed. Later he changed his tune and said that all financial aid should be channelled to one bank account, to be managed by the government. Meanwhile, dozens of trucks full of goods collected by solidary people in Honduras and El Salvador were stuck at the border.

I Want to Help Too!
This disaster really struck home. The volcano, so near by; the town of Alotenango, settled on the slopes of three volcanoes, so familiar. Of course I wanted to help too, but how? I had no spare money to give and doubted very much that I’d make anybody happy with a bag of old clothes or food from my kitchen. So besides fostering a puppy that was rescued from Zone 0, I decided that the best thing I had to offer were art workshops. Not formal classes, but, for starters, a bit of painting, drawing, crafts, story telling and yoga. To distract the kids, to keep them busy, and to provide them with a bit of entertainment. Maybe later I’d be able to offer more structured activities focused on art therapy, in collaboration with other artists.

I announced my plans on Facebook and soon received some donations towards materials. So far so good. Getting into the shelter for the actual workshop turned out to me a whole different matter. A special permission was needed but the coordinator to grant that permission seemed to be a different person every week with no one ever answering any calls or messages. But thanks to the perseverance and contacts of Abi Ruíz, administrator at the Carpentry project Alotenango, we got in!

Art Relief
That first day, June 8th we went in with Abi, three of her friends, and plenty of supplies for several activities. The shelter we were assigned to was the smaller annex of the public elementary school and housed around 120 people, of which 70 were children (about half of them babies and toddlers). We set up in the courtyard and were soon at work. Around 40 kids painted on the big sheets, the volcano being a favourite subject. The older ones, including some of the mothers liked the adult colouring pages. It was a bit of a surreal experience. The kids were just kids, laughing, running and having fun, completely oblivious of the fact that in one corner coffins were stacked up till the ceiling and a steady flow of donations being stored away. Residents crossed the patio on their way to the makeshift showers or to hang up laundry.
It turned out that besides the activities organized by a group of psychologists of Save the Children, there wasn’t much going on for the kids. Except for piñatas and plenty of candy. Somehow people think that that’s what kids need in times of distress. The kids were actually so saturated with candy that they left their half eaten lollipops and bags of crisps all over the place. They were barely interested when another church group with more candy or cheap toys would come in. But they were very much into the art activities and storytelling. And they themselves had some stories to tell too. Oh my, how hair raising it is to hear a four-year-old tell you about how he and his mum ran for their lives while grandpa decided to stay behind, trying to convince them that nothing would happen… 

The Surreal World of the Aftermath
For the next three months a visit to the shelter in Alotenango became part of my agenda, but never a routine. Wandering around Alotenango was a surreal experience… For starters, the busses didn’t drive all the way into town, but dropped its passengers off at the entrance, quite a walk from the town’s centre. That made sense right after the disaster with so much extra traffic, but three months later?
A huge tent was set up in the Central Park where wakes were held for the victims, their coffins lined up on stage. The first week there were dozens of funerals. In the weeks to come the number went down, as did the number of attendants, but still, almost daily the saddening tones of a Catholic funeral march or Evangelical hymn would set the tone and became daily life for those in Alotenango. Every time a funeral left from the Central Park on the way to the cemetery, a solemn silence would descend, to be quickly replaced by the hubbub of life-goes-on, the annoying tinkling of the ice-cream vendor’s bell, the yells of the guy selling sugar candy as well as kids, dogs and traffic, as soon as the last mourner was out of sight.

Always busy too was the big tent where food was prepared and distributed to the people in the shelters and volunteers. Next to it, three yellow tents of Scientology. And lots of traffic. People kept coming with donations. Some of them refused to drop their donations off at the Municipality and instead wanted to give their donations directly, not taking in account that the people on the receiving end shared a limited space with other families and didn’t really have any space to store anything but the most needed.

It was great that the tragedy created (initially) such an outpour of generosity but maybe we really should wait and think hard, next time disaster strikes. I’ve seen tons, literally tons of donations at the municipality, enough to supply half the town and that was just at one recollection centre. I also saw, only weeks ago, a lot of those donations been thrown away. Nothing worthy, just stuff that didn’t survive or got mouldy, such as boxes of milk and noodle soups. But more than ever I’m convinced that donating goods in the spur of the moment is not a solution at all, it is a logistic nightmare. Why not give those people cash? That way they can buy the goods they want or need and support the local economy at the same time.

Getting our permission slip and then our tags wasn’t as routine either and despite the fact that we reserved a timeslot a week beforehand, it often coincided with other activities or a change of, yet again, the coordinator of the agenda. So we never really knew how many kids to expect or where we could set up, Flexibility became the main  rule to prepare our workshops by.

The stream of visitors didn’t slow down after the first few weeks. The shelters had become sort of a tourist attraction. Visitors from different organizations, churches and enterprises came in, sometimes in big numbers, to... to do what, actually? I saw a few groups doing fun games with the kids, educational activities or group prayers with the adults. Others came in and just handed out bags of candy, leaving with a blissful smile on their faces. Some visitors rudely interrupted our activities, even our storytelling, by handing out their donation right there and then, rather than waiting two minutes till the story was finished. And some people gave really stupid donations too. Besides the candy, what about cheap knock-off Crocs, for only half the number children present??? Or brand new soccer balls while the only place to play was the tiny yard that also doubled as laundry area, classroom and dining hall? But I was most baffled when a group of Scientology volunteers swarmed in (all in the same blue shirt) and set down at our activity table, without even asking or presenting themselves. The children got up one by one and soon I was left with a group of grown-up volunteers who didn’t speak any Spanish but had apparently quite fun doing the art activity of the day.

It was clear that the people in the shelters were beginning to get tired of being on the receiving end and of having to be grateful. It was also clear that the kids had become rather used to the fact that everything was a donation, considering the ridiculous amount of art supplies we lost every week.

Rather than having a blissful smile on my face I’d feel frustrated and sometimes downright appalled by the things I saw. Many a time I felt completely out of place and useless, swearing I’d never be back. But as soon as the kids saw us and asked what we were going to do this week or if I would read that specific story again, I was, yet again, completely sold. We might not have contributed greatly to the emotional wellbeing of these children, or whatever benefits the arts can provide, we were a constant factor and a familiar face in an ocean of strangers and uncertainties. And that’s why I kept going back.

Art Relief in Other Shelters
Since it was rather hard to get in the shelters in Alotenango right after the eruption and also because we thought that other shelters might receive less attention all around, me and my friend Jessica Hoult went to Escuintla a few times to see if we could set up something over there. The first shelter we visited was evacuated soon after. At the second shelter we visited we had a great experience with the kids, but we also had to be realistic: at the time highway RN14 to Escuintla was still inaccessible and to go “the other way around” was quite gruesome. Once it took us 4 hours to get back, by car. That’s a lot of driving for a 2 hour activity! So that was one of the reasons to decide to stick to Alotenango.
I also taught a workshop at the main building of the school, but decided it was more fruitful to keep working with the same group of kids.

Art Workshops in the Transition Shelter
By late August, the people moved out of the public schools, into what are called ATUs (Albergue de Transición Unifamiliar). The one in Alotenango, located at the infamous but now repaired highway RN14 (which after being fixed for millions of Quetzales will sooner or later, but rather sooner, be covered by volcanic debris again), houses 147 families, about 650 people total. Each wooden barrack is divided in 4 and is home to 4 or less families, depending on the family’s size. There are 2 areas with showers, toilets and pilas, sinks for laundry. Because of the fire hazard, people are not allowed to cook in their unit and receive three meals a day. 

  This transition coincided with my trip to Europe, and by the time I came back, people had settled in. Although far from ideal, the situation is an improvement. Not only for the families that now have a tad bit more of privacy, but also for the youth in Alotenango that can go back to school again.

In the meantime, coordinators had changed, of course, but I got a new contact at the Municipality, Sandra Barragán, who proved to be very helpful. I was asked to come by the shelter with a written proposal and was actually officially granted permission, not in the least because we had already been present for months. In order to get started I had to write a detailed plan of what activities I intended to do and after that I was ready to go. I got the Tuesday afternoons, 2-5pm and we decided on two workshops per week, one for the little ones, the other for age 9+.
So far we had mostly worked with the little ones (some as young as 2 years old!), so I was excited to work with (pre-) teens. I suggested art activities centred on the history of art, which was approved. We even got our ”own” space to work in, one of the wooden sheds that could fit, with a bit of squeezing here and there, about 20 kids. Not ideal, but it would give me the opportunity to work on a different, more personal level with the kids now that we had the privacy of four walls.

I was excited to get started and enjoyed spending money on new supplies. I also officially hired Henry Navarijo, my sometimes mural assistant, to help out with the classes and mostly for crowd control. For the first workshop I prepared 40 folders that the little ones would paint and the older ones would create prehistoric art on, the theme of the first workshop. It was a lot of work, but the idea a practical one, since the kids could keep their future artwork in that folder. I thought that would be a fun activity. Except that things went a bit different than planned.

That first workshop there was no furniture in “our” shed, so we had to set up in the dining area. An open and much transited space due to the fact that it is what I call The Centre of the Universe, the place where mobiles can be charged.  We had about 25 kids, mostly tiny ones. None of the older kids showed up at 3pm for my well prepared lecture on prehistoric art.  Well, maybe next week.

The next week, there was furniture, but since the shed is a bit secluded, only 15 kids showed up. Things didn’t improve over the next two weeks, so we decided to go back to the refectory. There we always had between 20 and 30 kids, albeit usually the little ones, almost all of them from the shelter we had previously worked at. All together we had a lot of fun and made some great art and crafts.

The last workshop was conducted on December 18. It was really tough saying goodbye to those kids, but we had to end the project somewhere. The next Tuesday would be Christmas, the week after New Year’s and then the kids go back to school. So it was goodbye, and a tough one it was…

Art Workshops and Mural with the Community Academy’s Students
From the very start I had this idea to do a mural somewhere (I’m a muralist, after all) to commemorate the people (and animals) who lost their lives. Of course that was not something to organize soon after the disaster struck, but I hoped to do something once the people where settled in the Transition Shelter. Like painting the wooden barracks in individual units, giving the place a sense of community as well as individuality….
Alas, the central government didn’t allow any painting done (several paint producers had offered). But, my contact at the Municipality of Alotenango said, why not doing a mural here at the municipal building? And involve the kids that attend the “Community Academy”??? Well, why not. Even though the kids in question were not residents of the villages affected by the volcano eruption, the whole town was affected as such and the disaster was now part of their history too.  Also, the space they wanted to be painted I knew all to well, because it was one of the places where donations were collected and where we got our permission slips to get into the shelters. In normal times, the room is used for marimba classes, so the theme was set…

Painting with those kids was fantastic!!! They did not only do a great job, they were so eager to learn and just couldn’t stop! They were so disappointed when the job was done, so I offered them a special art workshop on Henri Matisse, which went really well, and just because we couldn’t get enough of it, another one on Frida Kahlo too. And this was actually already in their vacation time, the course had already officially ended for the year!

During the Matisse workshop we painted sheets of paper and then made cut-outs. The kids created a volcano but instead of lava and ash they created an eruption of butterflies, representing the souls of the people passed away.
And that’s how the idea was born for yet another mural, this one at the Central park in Alotenango painted together with those kids. The idea was to finish it right before Christmas, and that would be the perfect ending for this project.
Alas… In December pretty much every thing closes down and we couldn’t get permission for the mural (the wall is property of the elementary school). But the wall will still be there in January, so hopefully we can properly finish this project soon…

And Now?
And the people in the shelters? As for now, the free there meals a day have stooped as of January 1. That will mean people have to somehow provide for their own food (communal kitchens will be provided). For some it will be an incentive to leave the shelter and go back to their community, despite constant threats of another eruption. Some might accept one of the 1,000 houses the government is building, although without consent of neither victims nor consultancy by any expert organizations. The 1,000 homes are inadequate and too small (42m² for an entire family) and too many because actually only 416 new homes were needed.
In the meantime, without any governmental help (rather the opposite) people are still looking for their loved ones, hoping to provide them with a proper burial.

The eruption brought out the best and worst in people. The stories -good and bad, heart warming and breaking- are endless, the disaster now a landmark in Guatemala’s history. But the after-effects are far from over. At least not for the people whose lives were shaken to the core.

All in all we have conducted 25 workshops for 550 kids and painted one mural (with one in the making.)
Am I happy about the results? Yes and no. It has been an interesting experience but I would have liked to see more depth in the art classes. I think the children could have profited greatly from a bit of art therapy, individual art sessions or yoga. But the circumstances did not permit it. It was after all emergency art relief, something I just jumped in, not a well thought-through project.
I am absolutely sure the kids enjoyed the art and hopefully it helps them in ways they don’t even realize. I do know that I have become very fond of many of those kids. I will miss them and hope that this awful tragedy will somehow work for them. They are awesome and deserve the very best.

For more information on the workshops and mural, please visit

Thank you….
And of course, all this could not have happened without YOU! There are plenty of you, your donations in time, money or goods were thoughtful and generous.

I’ll donate the remaining of the art supplies to the nursing home Fray Rodrigo de la Cruz in Antigua where the old folks I met when I painted a series of murals there, will surely make excellent use of them.

Thank you all for your tremendous support.
I wish you the very best in the New Year!

Volunteers: Abi Ruíz, Suzan Eleveld, Rudy, Marlon and Otoniel of the Carpentry Project Alotenango; Henry Navarijo; Jessica Hoult, José Carlos Barahona; Sharan Gainor; Donna Jessen; Ana María Ackermans

Sponsors: Wendy Russell; Judy Sadlier, Debbie Pate; Maureen Mack; Jenneca Fevos; Jim Bader; Ineke de Smidt; Lies Joosten; Judith Bardoel; Timmerproject Guatemala; Will & Cees Griffioen, Stichting Colour4Kids; Stichting Uno Más/ Marianne Kiwanis;