Sunday, December 12, 2021

Macaw Visits


Entering Honduras was somewhat strange: instead of the expected tropical heat, the colour of the sky turned from a brilliant blue into a drizzly grey as soon as we crossed the border. And then it started to rain! Quite odd for the month of December. Fortunately, it was just that one "cold" and wet day. Copán was otherwise nice and tropically hot.

And I know that heat all too well, because I have lived in this village for seventeen years! My last visit was a six years ago. Not much seemed to have changed. A few new businesses opened up, others are gone. Friends still the same, though we all have a gained few extra pounds and wrinkles. How nice to be "home" again!

But there wasn't much time for visiting friends and nostalgic musings, because there was work to be done! After all, I came here to paint a mural. This time for Casita Copán, a children's home and day-care that I have seen grow and flourish over the years. Nearly forty children live in small family units and meet at the shelter during the day for lunch, tutoring, recreational activities or any other help they may need. I have always wanted to create a mural for Casita Copán. When I heard a few months ago that their dream had come true and they had been able to buy their own building, I knew the time had come. I asked director Emily Monroe if she was interested and her response was so positive that we immediately started making plans. Thanks to the financial support of Colour4Kids, it all worked out.

Emily sent me pictures and ideas for inspiration. Children having fun, nature, Copán, being together, playing, Casita's dog Vishnu, lots of colour and joy. I got to work in Photoshop and Emily, her staff and children all approved the design at once. The wall was of unfinished concrete blocks, so it needed tobe plastered first,  a task Emily's staff would take on, with the material costs covered by Colour4Kids. A week ago it was time to get started. What a lovely long, white wall! A 13.5 meters long blank canvas. Nothing makes me happier!

With the help of  Catherine and two adolescents from Casita Copán, Estrella and Naun, we started painting the wall. It all went very well. Not a single setback and the working conditions were fine too: not too hot, shade from the trees, water and a toilet nearby. We were also offered lunch by Casita Copán every day. And very special was thescreeching of the scarlet macaws (Ara macao) that hung around in the trees around the property and regularly flew over. These birds were already flying around at the time when the ancient Mayans built their temples and palaces in the valley of Copán. The scarlet macaw represented the sun god and is considered sacred in Maya culture. Like many exotic birds, it was threatened with extinction, but thanks to the Macaw Mountain bird park in Copán Ruinas, some of their rescued birds began breeding. So many, that they could be released a few years later.

Macaw Mountain also began caring for the birds in the archaeological park. These were traditionally fed only dough, whereas the birds need lots of fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts. It wasn't long before the skinny and bald birds (they picked their feathers out of boredom) started flying around there too. To protect the birds, the people in the valley need to be involved. So an educational program was set up, Guaras en Libertad, to teach 10,000 school children in the valley about the cultural importance of the scarlet macaw and how to protect the animal, in collaboration with a number of local organizations. I was also involved in this and it is heart-warming to see how now more than 80 macaws fly freely about the village and archaeological park. They are the pride and joy of the village. A scarlet macaw could not be missed on the wall!

Three days later, we were done. Emily came with her staff and children from the home to see the result. We received presents and said goodbye. What a pity that this project ended so soon!

Many, many thanks yet again to the Dutch foundation Colour4Kids for sponsoring this Mural. Thanks to Emily, Zoila and the rest of the staff of Casita Copán for taking such good care of us. To Naun and Estrella for helping paint. To Catherine for her help all around. To the scarlet macaws for accompanying and inspiring us. Ad to Copán for just being Copán. Always!

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Water on a Wall

The result!

It all took a Little longer than planned, but that’s nothing new in Guatemala. What matters is that the mural is up!

We started a couple of weeks ago with a series of workshops for the members of Urban HeART (see previous post for more information on this initiative). The kids learned a bit about murals throughout the history of art which was fun and something the kids knew little about. Each participant received a copy of the manual I wrote last year on how to create a community mural from scratch. We discussed the theme and all agreed that water would be it, since the mural was going to be the backdrop for the local pila, the public washing place. Many households in this neighbourhood lack running water, so a place to do laundry (think many kids, and even more dirty clothes!) is not just a necessity, but a hub of activity.

Art workshop with the Urban HeART members

The wall, cinderblock with many coats of paint, was in pretty good shape, but since it is in such close proximity to the audience, I decided to give it a smooth finish, in order to work in lots of details in the design. We all got together to plaster the wall, something none of us had done before. It turned out my talented assistant Henry was quite good at it. Much better than me, but it turns out anybody would be better than me at plastering.


Unfortunately, the product I tend to use (the marble dust in it results in the most delightful of smooth surfaces!) was not available. I got something else, exactly the same according to the vendor, except that it wasn’t. Not half as smooth, and worse, it doesn’t dry as fast, so the actual painting was delayed with a week. But on Monday the day was finally there…


It was quite cold when I arrived at 7.30am. With temperatures falling during the night to a chilly 12°C, a cool breeze and the sun still hiding behind the mountain range, it was a bit unpleasant, but as soon as the sun peeked over the mountains, the temperature went up quickly. I started out drawing a 1 x 1 meter grid. I had divided the design in vertical patches, which would make it easier to work with a big group, side by side. About 10.30am I was joined by Henry and 5 members of Urban HeART, plus a few kids from the neighbourhood who also wanted to help out. We made great process and wrapped up the work at 5pm, just when the sun disappeared behind the mountains in the West, immediately cooling down the valley with its absence.

Day two started pretty much the same. The two small boys were back and couldn’t wait to get started. Would we be able to finish the mural that day? It looked like we would, but it’s always hard to tell. But we did! At 5pm we had the whole wall finished and varnished.

The mural depicts various appearances of water, mixing modern day problems of pollution with ocean life and ancient Maya imagery. On the left, next to the water drops, are three midwives performing a purification ritual with water, as it appears in the Maya Madrid Codex. 

Next some coral reef as found it this part of the world. To the right, a whale, also to be spotted on the Pacific coast of Guatemala; a pelican; and a canoe with ancient Maya spiritual beings, based on a finely carved bone found at Burial 116 in Tikal. Two paddlers, the old Jaguar God who represents Night, and Stingray God (Day) manoeuvre a canoe that represents the Milky Way towards the Underworld. In the middle of the canoe sits the dead Corn God, accompanied by an iguana, howler monkey, parrot and peccary, who represent the constellations, making the whole scene a representation of the world as it tuns.

The pelican, native to Guatemala, can be seen as a symbol of freedom and eternity.

It was a wonderful experience working with the Urban HeART youth and get such positive feedback from the community. The location couldn’t be more perfect, it’s THE place where people meet, wait for tuc-tucs or gather together. It was a joy and an honour to leave this mural to the community of Vista hermosa, Jocotenango.

Rests me to thank all those people without whom this mural wouldn’t have been possible: the Dutch organisation Colour4Kids and the people behind it, Erik, Jos and Hassan: thanks for sponsoring this project. Thanks to all of Urban Heart’s members who participated in the project, especially Denilson Larios and Katie Pokorny for setting it all up. Many thanks to Henry Calel for always being there and to Catherine for lending equipment and transportation. ¡Mil gracias!

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Urban heART


Mural by Urban heART artists and collaborators at the bus terminal in Jocotenango

Visitors to Guatemala often name the vibrant colours as one of the most striking features of this country. True, up to certain extent. The typical dress of Maya women; bougainvillea in a shade of pink that’s eye-blinding; tropical birds; a dozen shades of blue, purple and turquoise at Lake Atitlan… But for most Guatemalans it is the dull grey of cinder blocks that dominates their surroundings.

Barrio Vista Hermosa in Jocotenango is no different. This neighbourhood on the outskirts of Jocotenango is located next to a dumping ground. The neighbourhood is nicknamed El Papelillo (“Piece of Paper”) for the remains of paper and plastic that whirl around when the wind stirs up the garbage. Vista Hermosa (“Precious View”) it is, looking out over the valley, but that’s as far as beauty goes. Houses are built against a mountain slope without much thought for aesthetics or safety, just wherever there is an inch to spare. Poverty, drugs, lack of water and electricity, limited access to school or health facilities are the norm in this “typical” neighbourhood. Vista Hermosa is divided in territories run by gang members and drug traffickers. Up until recently you couldn’t just go anywhere nearby. Even the police wouldn’t enter the neighbourhood, unless in a massive operation. You couldn’t even cross the football field. That corner of the field was most definitely a red zone. Not the best of places to grow up in. But things are changing…

Denilson and Yorman

Yesterday I had the pleasure to go on a tour guided by Denilson Larios and Yorman Vega, two young men from this community who have decided to make a difference. Their initiative, Urban heART, aims to change the community through the arts. Yorman told me how he met Denilson when they were small kids with nowhere to play. They hung out with the bigger kids around the fountain on the main square. Most of those older guys had little to look forward to and were involved in drugs and delinquency. Denilson and Yorman might have followed the same path if they hadn’t enrolled in an afterschool project that offered creative courses. And that’s how Denilson became a mural painter and Yorman a break dancer. 

Yorman and Denilson at the football field in Vista Hermosa

In collaboration with Lead Up International and inspired by successful mural projects in Comuna 13 in Medellín, Colombia, Urban heART’s uses the arts (mural painting, paste-ups, break dancing etc.) to make a difference. And it is working! Already many depressing grey walls have turned into an explosion of colour with meaningful and positive messages. The football field looks much more cheerful these days. The pila, the public laundry area, has been cleaned, repaired, painted and provided with light and plants. The effects of Urban heART’s efforts are already visible: the grassy area in front of one of the murals used to be a dump. After a clean-up campaign organised by Urban heART, the grass is still, surprisingly, neat and clean. During our tour we spotted a small mural high up a wall. Denilson told us it was recently painted by a kid that lives in the house, who painted the mural hanging upside down from the window! A little later we saw another brand-new mural painted by the same kid, next to his front door. Heart-warming.

Spontaneous murals...

Yorman told us how a while ago at the central square of Jocotenango, he was approached by some of the “bad” guys.  For a moment he thought they were going to rob him. But no. They asked him whether he was one of the people involved in the mural project. When he confirmed it, they said that was cool. And if they could paint the houses on their turf, on the “wrong” side of the football field too? Things like that are priceless and means the project works.

Walls awaiting future mural project at the "wrong" side of the football field.

Denilson and Yorman then led us to a small building high up the hills. Soon this will be a Lead-Up Café, a place where visitors can have a drink and members of the community participate in workshops and other activities. The place is basic, pending its renovation, but even so, the view is spectacular.

Future Lead-Up Café with paste-up art by one of the Urban heART artists.

After a breakdance performance by Yorman, the tour ended at the pila. Then it was time to talk shop because next week I’ll start a series of workshops for the young painters from this neighbourhood and together we’ll paint the 11-meter-long wall behind the pila. I’m very much looing forward getting started. Denilson and Yorman were excellent guides and the whole project is incredibly inspiring. I feel humbled to be able to collaborate!

Our wall, soon to be painted!

This project is sponsored by the Dutch foundation Colour4Kids.

To be continued!

Denilson Larios and Carin Steen

Friday, April 9, 2021

Commitment, Effort, Perseverance and Respect

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 19, 2021

Dogs at the Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Women & Dogs in Jocotenango

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Colours & Critters in San Andrés Itzapa

Work in progress...

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


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

Permission for the mural had been revoked.       

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

Luís, Colleen, Henry and Marissa

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

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

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

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

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


Henry, Marissa, Carin, director Wendy, Luís

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

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

The base done too...

Colouring page