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...

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A New Mural in the Old Capital

Driving through Ciudad Vieja, the former capital of Guatemala, is hardly eventful. Besides a glimpse of the brilliantly whitewashed cathedral with the Agua volcano as a backdrop, the town is unremarkable and mostly full of traffic. Even in the midst of a pandemic, without the regular flock of chicken busses and only alternating plates allowed to circulate, traffic is overwhelming and crossing the road is not for the feint of heart.
The streets are narrow, with one-story homes and businesses on both sides, leaving little space for pedestrians. Whereas the architecture is mostly typical colonial, the paint is too drab, the walls too covered with fading ads, the air too polluted for the town to be considered beautiful.

How different it must have been in its heyday! It wasn't called Ciudad Vieja (Old City) then, and it wasn't the country's first capital either. That one was named Guatemala, which means 'Forested Land' in Nahuatl, the language of the Spanish's allies who came from what is now Mexico. This Maya Kakchiquel settlement, Iximché, the second most important city in the Guatemalan highlands, was declared capital in 1524. It didn't last long. The Kaqchikel were initially allies but soon started to rebel against the Spanish conquistadors. They deserted the city which two yers later was burned down by the Spanish. They packed their bags, saddled up and founded a new capital on the south-west slope of the Agua volcano in 1527, July 25th, feast day of Saint James for which the town was called Santiago de los Caballeros.

The big boss in town was Pedro Alvarado, but he was off fighting the indigenous further up north in what is now Mexico. It didn't go too well and while dying on the battlefield, he bequeathed his wealth and right to rule to his wife, the Spanish noblewoman Beatriz de la Cueva (not his first wife, he was previously wedded to Beatriz's sister Francisca, until she died). Beatriz received notice on August 28th and was besides herself with grief. She immediately ordered the walls of the beautiful palace, overlooking the town, to be painted black, both inside and out. But she wasn't so out of it that she forgot about her responsibilities. Actually, her brother Francisco had been put in charge during her husband's absence and it was only logical that he would continue with his duties. But no, Beatriz summoned him and the rest of the city's upper crust and declared that she would take over from that moment on. On September 9th, she signed the paperwork that put her in power as “la sin ventura”, the unfortunate one, because of her recent loss. Little did she know there was much more to lose...

Because... there was a plot against her.
The royal treasurer and his supporters had been planning a coup for the early morning of September 11th. But Beatriz, now the first female governor in the New World, found out about it and sent her brother Lieutenant Francisco, in charge of day-to-day matters, to arrest the men. They hid in an abandoned house and avoided arrest.
Now, history might have taken a turn right then and there if it weren't for a combination of unfortunate natural disasters. There are conflicted theories of what really happened, but most versions contain one or more of the following phenomena: a strong earthquake; the wall of a volcanic lake collapsing causing a flood; extensive rain; mudslides; lahar.

Beatriz heard the rumble, grabbed her little daughter by the arm and ran for shelter in the chapel. Unfortunately, the roof of the chapel collapsed and crushed her to death. And that was the end of it, both for the first female governor and for the second capital of Guatemala. (Some have used this story to illustrate the fact that women should not enter politics, but that is, of course, utter nonsense.)

The town was completely destroyed. But two years later, we're in 1543 now, a new capital arose in the nearby Panchoy valley, carrying the same name of Santiago de los Caballeros, now known as Antigua (as in “Ancient Guatemala” versus “Guatemala”, the current capital).
The town suffered major earthquakes in 1565, 1575, 1577, 1585, 1717 and 1751. But the one in 1773, that destroyed major parts of town, was the last straw and lead to the decision to move the capital once and for all to its current location.

And to make a really long story short, it has absolutely NOTHING to do with what this post is about: a new mural, in Ciudad Vieja!

The Corona virus has affected my mural plans quite a bit. I was just about to start painting with a group of adolescents in Alotenango, after a week of preparatory workshops, when the schools were closed and the state of emergency announced on March 16. It is very unlikely we'll be able to continue the project this year, so I was looking for other opportunities.

About two years ago, one of my neighbours in Antigua asked me if I could paint a mural at the school she worked for in Ciudad Vieja. I promised I'd keep it in mind, but nothing ever came of it.

While discussing the future of the Alotenango project with the kids' teacher, he told me that his wife is director of a small school and she very much would like a mural. Turns out it was the same school in Ciudad Vieja, so it felt like it was meant to be.
Of course normally we would involve the kids in the project, but with the schools closed, there was no way. Logistically there were some challenges (no public transportation, alternating circulation of cars etc.) as well as our safety to think about. But in the end it turned out to be a perfect project under these circumstances.

The school is located in one of those buzzling, narrow side streets of Ciudad Vieja, this part of town well known for its woodworkers and coffin manufacturers. The school was founded in 2009 by a group of teachers who wanted to offer quality education to children from nearby rural communities whose parents had come to Ciudad Vieja to look for work or because they had lost their homes. These children come from difficult and very poor backgrounds, quite often behind in their academic skills. The school currently caters to 58 elementary students and 12 kids in kindergarten.

Soon, the school will have its own digital library. The teahers already made space for it, but it just looked like a dump. And that's were MuralArte Guate came in. I decided on a background of monochrome colours, in the same colour scheme as the logo of the project that is called Monocramía. It now looks a bit like Guatemalan typical fabric. On it are several dots or holes with scenes representing various elements of life: outer space, jungle, kids with books, the ocean and a scenic view of Ciudad Vieja with its cathedral and volcano in the background. There's also a laptop representing modern technology and a cable connecting all these elements.
It was so nice to be painting a mural again, together with my fabulous assistant Henry Calel. Such a pity we couldn't involve kids in the process, but we hope they'll enjoy their new library a lot.

This mural was made possible thanks to a legacy of the Eben Haëzer Church in Klazienaveen in Holland.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Ancient Art and Modern Kids in Alotenango

The early afternoon light makes colours pop out even more. Overwhelming fuchia-pink and purple bougainvillea grows over bright white walls, set against a deep blue sky. Dramatic clouds of cotton white and menacing grey, with little shades of grey (much less 50) in between, flock around the top of the volcano.
Blurry colours flash by the windows as the bus speeds over the highway, weaving in and out of traffic, faster than the Knight Bus in Harry Potter. Music blares over the speakers, but not loud enough for the driver to stop talking on his phone. Who needs hands on the steering wheel when the bus and its load is protected by a teary-eyed Jesus over the rear view mirror, flanked by two Playboy bunny silhouettes?
No room for more thoughts as the ayudante wriggles his way through the isle, squeezing through tight packed bodies while charging $0,50 for the ride. Just ten more minutes of elbows, buttocks and thighs. I'm on my way to work.

A little over a year ago I promised the kids of the Escuela Comunitaria de Arte (a municipal art course) in Alotenango to come back and here I am, for a series of workshops and the creation of a mural. And as usual in Guatemala, the project is yet again one big lesson in patience and flexibility.
My initial plan was to paint a mural in the classroom where the course is being taught. The teacher and kids were all for it, we got the new mayor's permission too, but after the Christmas holidays, the space looked like this:

Now, two months later, the space looks like this:

And since the mayor has only recently been installed, things are moving sloooowly...
Nonetheless, teacher Rolando and his students have been assigned another space, on the top floor of a lawyer's office, which is located above a convenience store and something they call here a “bookshop”. It sounds big, but it isn't, much less for 20 students. But it does have a perfect view over the soon to be painted wall, a stair-step-shaped partition of the sport complex across the street. When we asked the mayor permission to paint this wall, I was planning on the side within the sport complex, but this side, facing a busy road, is much more visible. And since we didn't specify which side we wanted to paint in the first place, we decided to go for the more public side. But I'm getting ahead of things...
The soon to be painted wall, the sport complex and in the background the Agua Volcano

I started preparing this project back in December and the worksheets I was working on soon turned into a 45-page manual. It begins with a section on murals throughout the history of art and goes on to explain in detailed matter how to create a community mural, including on how to collaboratively decide on a theme and design. Adding a section on art history might seem a bit unnecessary, but most of the kids I wrote the manual for have very little access to any cultural context, and I know from experience they are actually very much into it. Especially this group of 20 students. The youngest is 8, the oldest in her 60s, but most of the students are between 12 and 16 years old. So far I spent a whole week teaching art history and it was great fun! From the earliest cave paintings we went on to study the Maya murals of Bonampak, San Bartolo and Calakmul. The Romans taught us about fresco technique and in the section about medieval art we discovered how the image of Jesus Christ has changed over the centuries, with lots of intercultural Copy/Paste. The kids had no idea that the first depictions of Jesus were actually of a chubby boy with curly hair and a wand. Or that Nike's logo represents a wing of the Greek goddess of victory.
Furthermore we dove into the Renaissance, the Mexican revolution, all the way to today's graffiti and street art.

The teacher has asked me to consider including some samples of different art movements in the mural, even before he knew I was going to teach some art history workshops. So that was a given. To take the idea even further, I figured it would be nice if the students would paint several famous artworks on the wall, as if they were hanging there, framed and all. It would not only be a great exercise in painting a mural and a fun exploration through the history of art, but a permanent art exhibition in the classroom!
If only the space hadn't been stocked up to the ceiling with toilets....

Plan B. We still painted famous artworks, but on cardboard. Unfortunately on a much smaller scale (because of lack of space), but otherwise with pretty much the same techniques. It wasn't easy, especially how to figure out what scale to use for the grid, but all in all the students did well and learned a lot. We have a few more things to go over before we start the real work on Monday....

This project in process is being sponsored by Dr, Jim Bader. The manual is sponsored by the Dutch foundation Colour4Kids.

To be continued!

Sunday, February 9, 2020

A Forest for Cats

If it's true that the purring of cats lowers your cortisol while raising serotonin and oxytocin levels, then I'm now as relaxed as one can physically be. Two days in a cat shelter does that to you, especially while doing what I love most: painting murals.

After a seven month pause (due to my move to Spain), it was great to pick up a brush again and even more so doing it at one of my favourite spots in Antigua Guatemala, Unidos para los Animales' rescue.
In 2018 I painted a tropical garden at the cats´ home while new walls were erected on both sides of the garden. Now those walls were ready, as smooth and white as can be. An 18 meter long canvas waiting to be transformed.
The request was to paint trees, birds, nature. Since the tropical garden with its kittens is pretty wild, colour-wise, I opted for a more subdued design this time. Soft pastels in the background with trees in shades of a greenish blue. The result? You decide for your self.

Besides the constant back-rubs and occasional affectionate nibbles by the cats, it was also great to see my human friends at the rescue and to work again with my assistant Henry Navarijo Calel. He has painted a few murals himself in my absence and he is getting really good!
Henry and Macey
So, one mural down! More to come in the next few weeks!

Monday, January 13, 2020

The brand new Manual for Making Murals!!!

My trip to Guatemala is coming closer and I'm very excited about the two projects on my agenda! One is painting a mural in the two dorms of a brand new clinic for children with cleft lip and palate, currently under construction, by Tess Unlimited. This project is sponsored by the Dutch foundation Colour 4 Kids.

The other project is a mural with the students (age 9-17) of Alotenango´s municipal art course. I'll be teaching the kids over the course of two weeks about the history of muralism, how to create one from scratch, how to pick a theme etc. This project is generously sponsored by Dr. Jim Bader.

While I was working on my lesson plans, the worksheets were getting more and more elaborate and I figured it would be pretty cool to actually turn them into a a real book. And so the Manual for Making Murals was born!

It's 43 pages long and includes:
  • A short history of muralism through the centuries (prehistoric art, ancient Maya culture, Roman murals, medieval art, Renaissance, Mexican muralism, street art and graffiti)
  • Colour (colour theory, colour psychology)
  • Why painting community murals (impact, audience, how to get involved)
  • Picking a theme (exercise to collaboratively pick a theme)
  • Making a design (composition, background, symbolism, scale, enlarging through grid)
  • Preparing the work (prepping the wall, getting materials ready, how to take care of equipment)
  • Painting the mural (how to divide the work, mix paints, cleanup)
  • The aftermath... (inauguration, press release, credits, thanks, report etc.)

The manual is written in Spanish and include a lot of activities for kids to do. The graphic design is in black and white, to make reproduction cheap and easy. (The coloured cover is optional). Right now I'm the process of finishing editing (many thanks to Neyla González for her corrections) and then the mural is ready for print! The students in Alotenango will of course each receive a copy, thanks to the Colour 4 Kids Foundation.

For the near future, the idea is to offer the manual in PDF format to whomever plans to create a community mural, in exchange for a $25 donation towards MuralArte's projects.

Soon more news on these upcoming projects!!!