Posted on February 17, 2018
In September, 2017, I headed to Stuttgart, Germany, where a huge influx of migrants and refugees had recently arrived, leading to a bitter divide in the country in whether to embrace or reject these newcomers. I joined forces with local youth and refugee organizations and the Park Inn by Radisson hotel to lead a mural project that highlighted this important issue. This was the latest in our Adding Color to Lives series.
We had an amazing group! They were a bit older than usual, in their late teens to early twenties, which meant that they were mature and well behaved, and their energy was calm and focused. There were about 18 all together, and they hailed from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Gambia, Ghana, the Dominican Republic, and Germany. What a mix! All spoke at least basic German and were therefore able to communicate amongst themselves, but I noticed that they often split up into language cliques. Many spoke various levels of English, though some spoke none, which was challenging for me. Luckily, I was able to practice my terrible-but-slowly-getting-better Arabic, and spoke Spanish to the Dominican girl, Yary. Quite a few had come over since the big migrant wave of two years ago, entering Italy before making their way to Germany, where they were struggling to learn a new language and culture, find work, and deal with the traumas of war and displacement.
As expected, language and ethnic diversity were challenges at first, but I was happy to see friendships between groups being made over the course of the week. They worked together on different sections, often helping one another out, and bonded as they did so. By the end, there was a great energy to the group, and they were very excited and proud of the final mural.
The Mural: In the workshop, the youth focused on the theme of “journeys” for the mural composition. We were careful to include symbolic life journeys as well as migrations, as the 5 German-born participants hadn’t made a physical journey but had still been through their own struggles. As the symbolic road weaves its way across the wall, there are three faces: that of an elder, a youth (modeled after a participant) and a baby (which I modeled after Amara, my newborn daughter), representing various phases of the life journey. The central image is that of two hands turning the pages of a book, alluding to the narrative that is unfolding in all of our lives.
We had a long and high wall, so there was plenty of room for their content. On one side of the symbolic road, they painted about leaving their homelands and experiencing various challenges and suffering. An Afghani participant, Tamim, painted the Kabul Airport, the last place that he saw of his homeland before leaving 2 years ago. Mohammed from Iran painted a sign along the road pointing back to “slavery” and forward to “freedom.” One young man from Gambia, Nuha, painted a mango hanging from a tree with a hand reaching for it. He explained that in his country, there was often so little to eat that mangoes were all they could find. Lamin, another Gambian, came up with one of the main images of the left side; a truck filled with people heading through the desert to escape conflict and poverty, which was his personal experience. The hotel manager, Norbert, an East German, got involved by painting the Berlin Wall.
As the road moves to the right, their artwork focuses on representing their current situations and, further along, their goals for what they’d like to see as their journey continues. These included personal objectives, such as family and career goals, as well as what they envision for their country or the world. For example, one Iraqi young man, Abdullah, painted a mosque and a church next to one another to show that he wanted different religions to peacefully coexist in Europe and the Middle East. Yari, the Dominican girl, dreamed of traveling the world one day, and therefore painted the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and New York City. Three German girls who were very passionate about art– Anika, Michaela and Anisa– created images of healthy families, flying balloons to show hope, space travel to symbolize shooting for one’s dreams, and a figure reading to allude to education and story-telling. The Ghanaian, Jonathan, created images of music and dancing to show joyful celebration and cultural heritage.
Challenges and Successes: The wall was very high, but luckily the hotel rented a lift, which helped immensely. On one of the final evenings, after everyone had left except me, I was up on the lift working on a top area. A group of football hooligans returning from a match at the nearby stadium decided that it would be funny to enter the cab of the truck and turn off the engine, making it impossible for me to come down on the lift. They ran off laughing and cursing me. I was so annoyed! I was able to climb down and turned it back on, but in order to make the lift come back down I needed someone to put their foot on a specific button on the truck while I climbed back up and realigned it. (I know, it sounds confusing, but that’s the way this lift worked– it basically becomes stuck if you turn it off and back on again, and you need two people to fix it.) Luckily, a nice couple came by (also football fans, but apparently not of the hooligan variety) and complimented our work. I thanked them and asked for their help fixing the lift, which they happily did, and I was able to climb up and make the lift work again while they pressed the button down below. Phew!
Another challenge, as is the case with many large-scale, one-week projects, was completing it in time without collapsing from exhaustion. I ended up working 12 and 13-hour days, and they brought out lights so I could paint past dark, after the kids had left. Luckily Sven from the hotel’s Responsible Business department was a huge help making sure everything went smoothly.
On the last day, they stood in front of community members and many Park Inn employees, who presented them with gifts and applauded their contribution to the city. There was food, music and plenty of photos taken. I was moved when some of the youth gave me gifts that they had collectively purchased, including baby clothes for my daughter, Amara, and chocolates, as well as a drawing and a letter of appreciation. Thanks to everyone Sven, everyone at the hotel and the local organizations, and the youth participants for all their inspiring images and hard work!
Posted on February 15, 2018
Check out more Joel’s Syrian refugee youth projects here
Posted on August 9, 2017
The Rafey barrio of Santiago, in the Dominican Republic, is a neglected community that is home to the largest trash dump in the city. Max Frieder and I, both co-directors of the organization Artolution, arrived in Rafey in April to facilitate a multi-media public art project in partnership with 3 Santiago artists, a group of local teenagers from the local San Pedro Nolasco High School, and the organizations Centro León and Meridian International Center. We all met on the first day for the introductory workshop, in which we explored important issues in the lives of the youth and environmental problems affecting the community. We got to know one another through activities and games, and had a group discussion about the imagery and themes we would paint in our mural. Our young participants were full of energy and ideas, and took their responsibility seriously to design a public work of art that reflected their perspectives, opinions, and identity. By the end of the day, after an intensive sketching session, we put everyone’s ideas together into one cohesive design. We were ready to implement our vision!
Given the environmental degradation in the country and the vital issues related to trash in Rafey, we chose to include in our mural a sculpture made entirely of repurposed trash from the dump and from the streets of the community. On the morning of the second day, our crew of students and artists visited the Rafey trash dump to collect material. It’s a sprawling sea of trash with many trash pickers, known here as busos, wading through filth each day in order to separate the various types of recyclables. It was an intense experience for all of us wading into what appears to be an endless garbage city, stretching on as far as the eye can see. Many of the teens remarked that they had never really thought about all the waste that they created; where it goes and who must sort through it. We chatted with several busos, who made me realize how vital their job is in society, and how unfair it is that they are not given the respect they deserve, resigned to live in shanties on the side of the dump.
Upon arrival at our wall, we realized how enormous it was. It was the outside wall of the school, facing a prison on the other side of the street. We got to work painting our mural, a process that took two weeks under intense Caribbean sun, sudden torrential downpours, and joyous moments of creativity and human connection. Our sculpture, known as the “boatstrument,” or “barcostrumento,” was integrated into the overall mural, and functioned as a percussion instrument, complete with drum sticks attached by wires. Everyone had a blast creating it, and it will now live on in the community as a permanent interactive work of art.
We had the pleasure of being accompanied by Dominican filmmaker Jean Carlos Ramirez, who created several videos over the course of the project. At the closing ceremony, the youth reacted with excitement as a short documentary was screened featuring them. It was the first time that they experienced adults valuing something that they had created and heaping praise on them for their exceptional work. Representatives from the US Embassy in Santo Domingo who sponsored the project, spoke at the event, as did those from Meridian and Centro León. Max and I congratulated the youth, reminding them that they can continue to accomplish big things in life if they work hard and join together with their peers to achieve positive change. We all headed out to view our complete mural and have one last jam session, led by our partner artists and percussionist, D-Troya Lion. As we said our good-byes to our new friends, we were proud of everyone’s accomplishments, though sad that our time together was coming to an end. Muchas gracias to everyone at Meridian, Centro León, the US Embassy, the San Pedro Nolasco School, the local artists and all the incredible students for making this project such a success!
Posted on January 31, 2017
Since the presidential campaign, fear and anxiety have been especially high in the Central Valley of California’s largely immigrant agricultural communities, who are responsible for growing two thirds of the nation’s produce. This diverse region has large numbers of Mexican immigrants and migrant workers as well as Mexican-Americans whose families have been here since California was part of Mexico. There are undocumented and documented, Punjabis and Portuguese, white working class and Hmong refugees from Laos, all striving to succeed and give their children a better life than they had. In other words, this often forgotten but significant region of the country represents what makes America such a unique and dynamic country that has room for everyone and is stronger for it, an ideal that is currently under attack.
I arrived here in late November to facilitate a series of community-based mural projects in partnership with artist Professor Richard Gomez of the University of California, Merced, supported by the university and local public school districts in the towns of Planada and Livingston. Richard and I had been roommates years ago when we lived in San Francisco’s Mission District, but had lost touch once we both moved away, a common phenomenon in those pre-Facebook days. We reconnected after discovering that we were both involved in the world of social and community-based art, leading to this collaborate. For three weeks we led workshops with local youth and worked side-by-side with many incredible community members, students and teachers to design and paint 6 public murals.
Our workshops included discussions about what most concerned community members, including a lack of employment and educational opportunities, gang violence and other social issues. Also, there was a sense that much of the nation had turned against immigrants and Latinos, which was upsetting to many who felt just as American as anyone else and worked hard to contribute to society. These themes informed the designs for the murals, as did that which gave people pride: their identity as agricultural workers, their strong heritage and the individuals and families that made up these tight-knit communities. Together, we brainstormed and created sketches on paper, leading to cohesive designs that included everyone’s ideas. Over three weeks, dozens participated in the painting of these murals, contributing to the cultural fabric of their communities.
In both Planada and Livingston, we had a blast painting together, as people of all ages and walks of life came together to contribute their ideas and creativity. They reflected on their visions for the future, what they love about their communities and what they are striving for. Through this collaborative process, many new connections were formed and residents were pleasantly surprised at what they could accomplish together. Richard and I were received with warm hospitality, and were invited by several local families to dinner in their homes.
There were many incredible people who came together to make this initiative an overwhelming success, and it was beautiful to see everyone unite on a common cause. A huge thank you to everyone who supported this unforgettable process: Alex Garcia, our community project coordinator whose deep roots in the community and relationships with local youth was invaluable; our two awesome project assistants, UC students Clarissa and Perla, who have been learning the ins and outs of community-based public art; Planada Superintendent Jose Gonzalez; local artist Ruben Sanchez; high school student and future art educator Austin Smith; the dynamic duo Alex and Lucy; Tony Garcia and his family; Jose and Maria Morales; “Los Dos Juanes;” Tere; Jacob; Elias; Polino; Planada Principal Mr. Nava and Livingston Principal Mr. Arteaga (Mr. Arte!); Andres Zamora; all the amazing teachers and administrators at Planada and Livingston elementary schools; and, of course, all the hardworking students and community members who contributed their creativity to the artwork! Thanks to our institutional partners, UC Merced and the Planada and Livingston school districts, who made these projects possible. And, last but not least, a giant thank you to Professor Richard Gomez, who was an incredible partner over the course of this experience, and his wife Cely and three adorable kids for their hospitality, as they welcomed me into their home and put up with me for three weeks! Through the non-profit organization I co-direct, Artolution, we are planning further projects in the region with Richard, with the long-term goal of developing ongoing and sustainable community-based public art programming in the Central Valley.
Posted on January 9, 2017
In late September, I headed to South Africa to facilitate a community mural project at an orphanage in Johannesburg. My wife and frequent collaborator, CJ, joined me as the project manager and co-facilitator. This was the last of a series of four projects in 2016 for the Adding Color to Lives youth arts initiative in four countries, a partnership with Park Inn hotels in which hotel employees participate with local youth in challenging situations in order to initiate mentorships that will continue once the mural projects are complete. This concept is one that underscores all my work and that of the organization that I co-director, Artolution; that community-based public art is a tool that can build powerful positive connections between youth and their community and begin the process of healing the affects of trauma, conflict and social exclusion.
On the day of the first workshop, CJ and I were excited to meet the children and teens from the 5Cees orphanage who were to work with us for the next week. They arrived a bit shy and unsure of what to expect, but soon began to open up about their ideas for our mural design. We were joined by a group of student volunteers from the Sophie Kanza Foundation, who supported the participants as they went through the process of turning their ideas and sketches into a giant work of public art on the outside wall of their orphanage. Over the course of the week, the kids and local volunteers painted with us in a collaborative process as layer upon layer of the mural was created. We played music, laughed, and got to know one another as the artwork came to life. Each day, we began with team-building games and activities in which participants pondered critical questions regarding their community, their lives and their future. These explorations informed each section of our mural.
In one area, a giant woman is surrounded by clouds in which each child wrote their dreams for the future and their “superpowers;” or their special talents. As Johannesburg is a multi-ethnic and diverse city with immigrants from across the continent, we chose to paint a mosaic of cultural symbols and artwork in the afro of the main character, a statement of pan-African unity in the face of the xenophobia that has plagued South Africa in recent years. Her voice flows in yellows, oranges and violet tones, filled with portraits that participants made of people who support and inspire them. As the kids at 5Cees do not live with their families, we asked who fills those roles in their lives; perhaps a teacher, a staff member at the orphanage or friends. They were excited to paint homages to these special people and think of creative ways to represent them. They also created their future homes lives in the mural as a kind of public vision board. In the final section, youth answered the question “if you were an animal, what would you be and why?” They chose animals that represented characteristics that they identified with. Not only did they use brushes, but had the opportunity to make their own stencils of these animals and apply them with spray paint.
We greatly enjoyed the spirit of the 5Cees kids, an incredibly warm and talented group who taught us a great deal about their lives and culture. While they all spoke English, their native language is Zulu, and they found it hilarious to try to get us to pronounce words with the infamous clicking sounds. It was also a difficult place, one in which kids had lost their loved ones or whose families were unable to care for them. Over the course of the week, a mother came in to try to give away her baby, and another came with her 7-year old daughter, only to be turned away because the orphanage was at capacity. We became close with teens like Lindo, who had a passion for drawing but had no supplies, so we left him a sketch pad and pencils, and he’s been sending us drawings via WhatsApp ever since. An 18-year old girl named Margaret, who had been there since she was small, was a mother figure for smaller kids at the center and was an incredible singer. One of our most hard-working young artists, Napo, was interviewed for a feature about the project for South African news channel ANN7.
At the closing ceremony, we were sad to say goodbye to these amazing kids, but everyone was proud of what we had accomplished: a giant, colorful mural on the outside of the 5Cees center filled with hundreds of expressions of the kids working with Park Inn employees, volunteers from Sophie Kanza and local community residents of all ages. Park Inn staff barbecued in the South African tradition of braai and blasted music for everyone to dance to, with the event quickly turning into a festive block party, with the whole community coming out to celebrate. Many of us gave speeches and many of the kids performed with dances and songs. Thanks to everyone who made this project possible: the incredible 5Cees staff members, Khule and the Park Inn team, the Sophie Kanza volunteers, the whole community of Berea, my wife CJ and, of course, the amazing kids of 5Cees!
Posted on November 21, 2016
Krakow, Poland. To me, this was always a place from a faraway time, the city where my great-grandfather, Harry Baum, had been born, back when Poland was divided up between three regional powers. It was the setting for unimaginable horrors during the Second World War, then became part of the Soviet sphere for decades. But upon arrival, I found that Krakow has been transformed into a modern, upbeat urban center, known for its art scene and vibrant culture. I was mesmerized walking along the streets of the old city center, exploring the former Jewish quarter and Wawel Castle.
The setting of our new community mural project was far from this picturesque center in a large area known as Nowa Huta, famous for its rough, gritty working-class vibe and Soviet-style block apartments centered around an old steel mill. On the first day, I checked out our blank canvas, the outside wall of a community center, where I was greeted by our excellent host: a friendly, excited guy named Łukasz who would later show me around the city. The wall was large and windowless, with a staircase right in the middle, leading to a door. Perfect for a mural! I was joined by employees from the local Park Inn hotel for the third installment of the 2016 Adding Color to Lives youth arts series. Together, we would work with a group of teenagers from two local group homes, who would have the opportunity to design and paint their own work of public art, a contribution to their city’s cultural fabric. What a responsibility!
As expected, they started out a bit shy and reserved, so we broke out the games and team-building activities on day 1. Unlike many Polish teens, who are proficient in English after years of study, this group had not had many educational opportunities and had a tough time with the language. Luckily, I had a team of amazing local Park Inn staff members, who ensured that we could all communicate. Before long, we were laughing, getting to know each other and brainstorming about the images, themes and messages that would be included in our mural. By the end of the first session, we had decided to create a city on the back of a dragon, one of Krakow’s most iconic mythological characters who, legend has it, still lives in a lair under Wawel castle. Also featured would be a trumpet player in reference to one of the city’s most famous traditions: every hour on the hour, a trumpeter plays a song from the window of St. Mary’s church in remembrance of the time may centuries ago when, with the Tatar invasion closing in on the city, a musician played his trumpet to warn the citizens. He was promptly shot with an arrow by the invaders, but his bravery was never forgotten.
For five days we created our fantasy world, one that reflected the bright future that each young participant was striving for, so different from the lives they had led up until now. While they each had a unique story, all included a common element: that of being taken away from their families and sent to live in a group home. The chaotic cycle of abuse, violence and dysfunction was one that every kid wanted desperately to escape from. To this end, we set out on a mission to envision what an alternative future would be, knowing that one must imagine it before being able to make this dream a reality. In our city, each participant painted themselves as they hoped to be one day be: as a hair stylist, an athlete, a chef, a world explorer. They lived in stable homes surrounded by family members with whom they had positive, healthy relationships.
In this city of dreams on the back of a dragon, they were able to take control of their lives and construct their own community. They painted themselves and their loved ones surrounded by the icons and cultural figures that they held dear. These included the local steel mill and St. Mary’s church. There was also the mythological dragon-slaying peasant boy, who was the only one clever enough to trick the dragon into eating a sheep that he had filled with sulfur, leading to the dragon’s demise. And, of course, there was Krakow’s beloved local dog Dzok, who is famous for waiting for months in the place where his master had died in an act of loyalty that so moved the city that they erected a statue in his honor after he died.
Each day I introduced new subject matter and activities so as to keep the teens engaged. The biggest hit was the spray paint (no surprise there!). Each participant carved their own unique stencil, which they then sprayed onto the wall. Once that was completed, they discovered that they could also decorate their clothes using the stencils. One girl, Paulina, got especially excited by this, and arrived on the last day with many articles of her clothing and stencils she had made at her group home, ready to custom design her own shirts and pants with spray paint. I ended up being allowed to give her some spray paint to take home, under the watchful eye of her staff member (I went over safety with them first) so that she could continue to design clothing. Another girl, Sonia, who had initially been shy, ended up being one of the most talented and motivated painters on the mural! The lone boy of the group, Darek, expressed in our post-project assessment that his favorite part was having the opportunity to interact in English. As these examples demonstrate, there is something for everyone to get out of the experience.
On the final day, we had a giant celebration in which the entire community came out to see the completed mural. The proud teens couldn’t believe what they had achieved! There were refreshments, performances and speeches, and congratulations all around. I spoke to Ula, the Park Inn in Krakow manager, who told me the plan for the continuation of the new relationship that the hotel had with the kids. The hotel would begin mentoring all of the kids at the group home, inviting them to BBQs and other events to meet and interact with their staff. They had developed custom-designed plans for each individual teen. Two of them who are interested in becoming chefs will be invited to participate in internships with the Park Inn restaurant chef to learn the trade, and they are hoping to be able to hire them as cooks after that. Another teen who is interested in computers will intern with the hotel IT specialist. One very bright girl, Emilka, is interested in psychology and is a big fan of a particular author whose book inspired her in this field. They have secured her an opportunity to attend an expensive conference—with all fees waved—with that same author, where she’ll have a meeting with him. After that, they have further plans to support this direction for her. I was moved that the hotel had turned the relationships formed during the mural project into an incredible, life-changing program for these kids.
Special thanks to Sven, Magda, Ula, our awesome volunteer Lilly and everyone at Park Inn who made this incredible experience possible! Thanks also to Łukasz and his wife Elżbieta, 101 Murali, the staff at the group homes and, last but not least, all the amazingly talented and hardworking young participants! For more info on the Adding Color to Lives program with Park Inn, visit https://www.parkinn.com/addingcolor
Posted on October 29, 2016
For this year’s addition of the Welling Court Mural Festival in Queens, New York, I had the honor of collaborating with two friends who also happen to be incredible artists, Chris Soria and Marc Evan. We chose to depict an underwater scene that alludes to exploring the subconscious. My favorite thing about working with these guys is the way our styles flow seamlessly, as we understand and respect each other’s styles. As usual, Welling Court had an amazing block party vibe, relaxed and unpretentious, with artists, art-lovers and neighbors all admiring the dozens of new works being created and soaking up the early days of the New York summer. I can’t wait until next year!
Posted on October 19, 2016
Where is Tallinn, Estonia? This was the question on my mind as I walked out of the plane and onto the tarmac, suddenly realizing that I was embarrassingly ignorant about the location for the latest installment of the Adding Color To Lives mural arts youth initiative. I mean, I had a vague notion that Estonia was one of those small, Eastern European country that was once in the Soviet sphere until it all came crashing down in the early ‘90’s, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. With a little help from my phone, I realized that I was right on the Baltic Sea, and would soon learn much more with the help of some upbeat, creative young people who I would have the privilege of working with.
Tallinn’s local Park Inn hotel had developed an awesome plan for a community outreach program in which its employees would participate in activities with youth from a local in-patient drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, bonding with them and forming positive relationships that would assist them in their recovery. As part of this innovative Responsible Business initiative, I was brought in to facilitate a community-based mural project with the kids as well as the hotel employees. On the first day, I arrived at the rehab center to a packed room of over 30 teenagers and even children as young as 11, none of whom knew what to expect. Many were shy or distracted, but the arts have an amazing ability to stimulate conversation and engage those who may otherwise remain uninterested.
By midway through the workshop, the kids were laughing and shouting as they competed in an intense game of Pictionary, followed by an engaging discussion that focused on our mission for the day: to decide on the imagery and subject matter for our mural, which we would begin the next day in a popular area of the city. It was big responsibility! After coming up with a long list of themes and then a focused sketching session, in which each participant drew their ideas on paper, we collectively created our mural design that included everyone’s input, but focused on one main scene. The inspiration for this central image was an epic battle between the mythological national hero Kalevipoeg and the demon, Sarvik, which would serve as a symbol of the battle that the young mural painters were fighting against their own demons.
The first thing one must know before working with youth in Estonia is that the country has a large Russian-speaking population along with the Estonian majority, and the two groups live quite separate lives in which they often can’t even speak the same language. At the rehab center, the Estonian kids spoke varying levels of English in addition to their native Estonian language, whereas the Russian-speaking kids often spoke no English and only a little Estonian. Luckily for me, in swooped Olga to save the day! Olga, who works for Park Inn and did much of the organizing of the project, spoke fluent Russian, Estonian and English, and would spend the project doing linguistic gymnastics as she constantly switched between the three languages in a tireless effort to ensure that we could all communicate.
Throughout the week, we worked hard, had fun and got to know one another. We had many visiting Park Inn staff members who would come by to bond with the young people and paint with them. Sven, the project manager from the Responsible Business department in Brussels, was with me all week making sure things went smoothly. Each day, we asked the kids to reflect on various themes, which they would then add to the mural. They explored their life challenges, painted portraits of supportive people in their lives, created scenes of nature and depicted healthy activities that bring them joy and keep them on a positive track. In one section, a girl flies as she holds on to balloons, which contain the goals and dreams of each participant. A flying squirrel, a favorite local animal that has amazing and surprising abilities, accompanies her, reflecting the nature of the youth themselves.
Carmen, one of our most enthusiastic teens, created many incredible paintings throughout the mural. I enjoyed speaking to her and to others who opened about the extremely challenging time they were currently facing, and their goals and dreams for their lives once they had graduated from the center. One young man, Rauno, created a fascinating self-portrait in which he was half negative and half positive. He told me that this reflected his feeling that he often felt conflicted by which direction to go in, having impulses inside himself that pushed him to exhibit self-destructive behavior as well as other, more healthy and positive impulses. Rauno was also very keen to try out spray paint, so together we created a stencil of his favorite animal, a spider. Upon seeing this, many others created their own stencils, and we had a blast spraying them onto the wall and creating custom T-shirts!
On the seventh and final day, we all felt great pride in what we had accomplished, but also sadness that our experience together had come to an end. After some speeches, we enjoyed the refreshments and chatted, took lots of selfies, and reflected on our time together. I told them that I too had a rough adolescence in which life didn’t always go in the direction that I had hoped, but that they had an opportunity to turn things around and make their dreams– which they had painted in the balloons– come true. To make this happen they would need to work hard and take advantage of the resources available to them, especially the incredible, supportive staff members at their center.
Thanks to all the incredible teen artists, Britt and the center staff, Olga, Sven, David, Toma and the whole Park Inn team for making this project such a success!!
Posted on October 14, 2016
The community of Kløfta, outside of Oslo, was the scene of the first of four in a series of youth public art projects this year with Park Inn by Radisson hotels, known as Adding Color to Lives. For this initiative, I partnered with a youth center called Huset Kløfta, where 20 young people designed their own mural in the opening workshop and then spent the week turning their vision into a large-scale public mural on the outside wall of the center. Employees from the local Park Inn in Oslo had the opportunity to get involved in their community and build relationships with the youth through the process of creating art together. The project was intended as a catalyst for the hotel to continue the relationship with the youth center with a series of planned activities throughout the year. I believe that for young people experiencing challenges in their lives, forming bonds with their peers and with positive adults in their community is essential to receiving the support they need to overcome adversary. That, along with the production of an artistic contribution to Kløfta in the form of a beautiful mural, was the goal of this project.
Over the course of the week, I enjoyed working with the team, which included my wife, CJ, the project manager; staff members from the youth center and the Park Inn employees. We had a blast getting to know the teenage participants, who included several from Norwegian descent as well as those from Iraq, the US, Thailand, Angola, Russia, the Philippines and more. Each day, we reflected on topics that were then included in specific sections of the mural. One side focused on moments from the past that were significant for each participant, while another area focused on the transition to the present and future. The teens painted local wildlife as a reflection of their passion for environmentalism, depicted activities that they feel keep them on a positive path, and a variety of trolls, which are an important aspect of culture and folklore in Norway.
Many of the teens really shone in the project, forming friendships and learning new skills. One example of this was Cali, who had moved from Hawaii a year ago and had struggled with her new environment. A truly talented and creative girl, Cali stayed each day for many hours after the session had ended, painting many of her creations on the wall. Her mother came by one day to tell us that, over the course of the project, she had finally snapped out of the funk she had been in since arriving and was now herself again. This experience underscores the importance of positive, artistic activities that young people can focus their energy on in which they can connect with others and make a contribution to their community.
Our closing ceremony included speeches by the mayor, the directors of the youth center and Park Inn, myself and three of our most enthusiastic participants: Cali, Jesse and Jelson, who discussed the meaning of the artwork and the process by which we created it. We had a live performance by another teenager, a ribbon-cutting ceremony and then lots of festivities, with refreshments and congratulations all around. Many of the young people seemed genuinely shocked at what they had accomplished and the outpouring of support from the community residents, many of whom attended the event. Congratulations to everyone involved, and a special thanks to our team who made this project a success!
Posted on July 23, 2016
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is among the most intractable and complex in the world today, with local politicians and world leaders alike unable to find a viable alternative to the unsustainable and violent status quo. With no solution in sight and the political situation having deteriorated in recent years, the only positive developments possible are the ones happening on the grass-roots level, between regular people yearning for a brighter future and ready to sit down and have a constructive dialogue with those who they have been taught to fear and hate.
My collaborative partner Max Frieder and I, co-directors of the organization Artolution, recently returned to the region to facilitate a series of 8 short community-based public art projects with local youth across Israel and the Palestinian territories: East Jerusalem, Akko, Jisr az Zarqa, South Tel Aviv, Nazareth and Nablus in the West Bank. Much of our work involved bringing Palestinian and Israeli teenagers together to explore the issues that are important to them and their communities, learn from one another and envision what a brighter future would look like for all the inhabitants of the region. By working together collaboratively, they chose the themes and imagery for the murals they would create, bringing together dozens of ideas into one cohesive design. The painting process then unfolded in a frenetic whirl of colors. By working toward a common goal, the participants formed bonds and had fun together, something that is extremely rare in this highly segregated region. It was incredible to witness the teens embracing the opportunity to connect with one another and opening up in a way that many had never had the chance to do in their lives. Our work was supported by the US Embassy in Tel Aviv through the Artist Envoy program, the US Consulate in Jerusalem, and a variety of local grass-roots community groups, schools and organizations across the region.
Beyond the coexistence projects, we also addressed the situation of African refugees in South Tel Aviv, where residents face intense discrimination and racism from the local population and are almost never granted asylum by the Israeli government, despite having fled violent conflict and oppression in Sudan, Eritrea and other nations. Their children, though born in Israel, are not granted citizenship, rendering them stateless. There are also locals who support them, like the organization UNITAF, as well as an NGO started by the spouses of diplomats from over 50 countries. We worked with these two amazing groups to facilitate a mural project with some adorable children and their staff members at a daycare center that serves the refugee community, bringing life and color to a difficult situation.
We also worked with groups of Palestinian youth from contested East Jerusalem and the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus, who have grown up with severe limitations on their lives and the suffering of trauma related to the conflict. Through the Artolution workshops, the participants addressed these difficult topics and discussed that which gives them strength and hope: their culture, families, community and their belief that they can be agents of positive social change to affect their own future. These concepts became the basis for the murals that they then created together, public monuments to the pain and the hope that embody these talented young people.
This whirlwind of community art projects expands the Artolution’s body of work in the Middle East over the last few years, created by hundreds of children, adolescents and families across the region. We plan to use this momentum to take the initiative to the next level: the founding of an ongoing, sustainable community-based public art program led by local Palestinian and Israeli artists and educators. Stay tuned for more details on the future of the Artolution in the Middle East.
Posted on May 1, 2016
The 100-foot pedestrian tunnel that runs under the Cross Island Parkway in the far-flung community of Bellerose, Queens had been a source of irritation for residents over many years, racking up complaints to the city that it was filled with trash and broken beer bottles, the smell of urine and profanity-laced graffiti, all of which was taken in by locals simply trying to make their way to work and children heading to school each day. As is so often true of community improvement, it took the right partnership of people and institutions to finally resolve the issue. Concerned residents organized to petition State Senator Tony Avella and the New York Department of Transportation, who partnered with the nearby St. Gregory school and a local artist and educator (yours truly) to make this transformation become a reality this Spring.
I had the pleasure of working with some incredible, creative and talented 8th graders at St. Greg’s, along with their inspiring teacher, Joseph Paniccia, aka Mr. P, and other faculty members. We began the process by having several workshops in the classroom in which I introduced the students to public art, facilitated discussions and activities in which they explored issues that they were concerned about in their community, and finally guided the process of bringing together everyone’s ideas into one cohesive mural design. As the two walls of the underpass are incredibly long, we came up with many images and themes related to the importance of educational opportunities, the value of creativity and the tension that many students said they felt between negative and positive influences on their lives.
In one section, a boy is struggling with the world on his shoulders, while a giant student made up of many smaller people comes to help him with his burden, symbolizing the importance of the entire community and society coming together to support those who are most vulnerable. In another part, a boy presses his headphones to his ears and listens intensely to positive messages he is receiving, while attempting to block out the negativity that threatens to tear him down and lead him down the wrong path. In the circular shapes on either side of him, students created works and images that related to the specific negative and positive messages that they receive in their daily lives. At one of the tunnel entrances, a giant character, modeled by one of the students, reads a book under her covers in bed, while in the darkness the participants painted dozens of storybook characters, a nod to the importance of reading and imagination.
On the other end, a giant Mr. P is seen watering a garden, which stretches down the wall into the tunnel. This is no ordinary garden, but one filled with quotes and messages that the students researched and felt inspired by. The image of a teacher watering a garden full of inspiration and learning is intended as an homage to the educators and other adult figures who play such an vital role in the development of our children. Across the tunnel, a woman, modeled after my wife, CJ, is braiding her hair, but coming out of her braids is an immense flow of creativity and color, with a horse galloping ahead toward the rest of the students’ images. The braids symbolize the creativity that flows from all our minds if we cultivate it, leading us to imagine a better world and working toward that goal. Both CJ and our friend, multi-disciplinary artist Ridhima Hegde, worked with us throughout the mural-making process, adding so much to the experience.
After an intensive two weeks of painting, we completed it just in time for a giant celebration in the tunnel with the students and their family members and entire school, as well as members of the Department of Transportation and State Senator Tony Avella, who made speeches praising the students for their hard work. Several students also had their first experiences in public speaking; they were nervous but did so well! I also spoke, thanking all the young artists for truly taking their responsibility seriously to work hard and create a thoughtful and high-quality work of public art, which will live on an be an inspiration in the community of Bellerose for many years to come. I was then honored to be invited to return in June to be the keynote speaker at the students’ eight grade graduation. Thanks to Principal Lynn Alaimo, Mr. P, everyone at the DOT, Senator Avella, CJ, Ridhima, and all the young artists who participated in this unforgettable experience!
Photo credits: Ridhima Hedge and Joel Bergner
Posted on March 25, 2016
Kolkata, formerly called Calcutta, is often synonymous around the world with the misery of poverty, conjuring up images of Mother Theresa giving refuge to the destitute and dying. While even today this characteristic of the city does exist, it is unfortunate that the world is often unfamiliar with another Kolkata, one that is more well-known to Indians: the nation’s capital of arts and culture, with colorful street life, breathtaking scenes of life along the Ganges River and a population passionate about its politics and spirituality. My wife, CJ and I fell in love with the city on our first day as we wandered through the colonial-era bazaars, bombarded with the intensity of the sites and smells of the bustling crowds, street vendors, Hindu shrines, rickshaws and rain-battered British-era buildings. I didn’t want to look down for an instant for fear of missing another magical scene, which would seemingly appear around every corner.
Near a leafy lake in the south of the city lies the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, a hub of ancient and contemporary Bengali visual art. I was excited and honored to have the opportunity to paint a mural on a large outdoor wall on the side courtyard of the center. The project, organized by the Meridian International Center, the US Consulate in Kolkata and the local NGO, Banglanatak dot com, was to be a collaboration between myself, a team of Bengali artists and a group of teenagers who were receiving support from five local NGOs. These young people had been through a variety of tragic life situations at early ages, facing issues including homelessness, human trafficking, poverty and addiction, but were working to overcome their pasts and were specially selected for this project because of their passion for visual art.
At the introductory workshop on the first day, I met with all the participants and gave a presentation on mural art. To break the ice, the group took part in some games and activities, before settling down to design our mural. After some discussion, we decided on representing a journey from a dark past to a future full of hope. The teens each came up with drawings to illustrate the different phases of the journey. The adult artists and I were all impressed by their skill level and creativity in turning their concepts into imagery. We ended the day by contemplating all the drawings and deciding how they would be woven together to create a cohesive mural design.
The following day, we were ready to begin our week of painting! CJ and I began each day with team-building activities, and each day the kids opened up more with each other and with us. In one section, they painted the personification of the demons in their lives and communities, portrayed as a giant fiend terrorizing a city. This concept was originally conceived by one of our most enthusiastic teens, Prantik, who is deaf and announced on the first day that he communicates with the world through his art. He did not allow his disability to get in his way by any means, and was among the warmest, most playful and personable young people in our group. He volunteered to model for the face of the demon and succeeded in doing a great monster pose!
In the next section, each student painted representations of that which gives them peace, strength and support to fight these demons: positive relationships with family and friends, activities such as art and music, religious faith and education. A giant girl towers over the city, a reference to the tendency in Indian art to paint important, powerful people as being larger than others. In a twist, this girl is portrayed as large and powerful despite being a normal teenage girl who has been through struggles, much like the participants themselves.
A boy and girl, modeled after Ravi and Jyotsna, members of our young artist team, have their faces joined together in the center of the mural, referencing the half male, half female Hindu deity Ardhanarishvara, and balance in the universe. The girl reaches out from the city and unleashes a river from her hand, which is filled with the future versions of our students: we asked each one to envision how they see themselves in the future. They painted their future selves as athletes, fashion designers, graduates, artists, politicians, scientists, and as having families. This exercise is intended to encourage young people, especially those who have been through trauma, to envision the positive future that they wish to manifest in their lives. The background is filled with Bengali folkloric art, which the local artists gave the teens a lesson on, and a typical Ganges River boat rests on the water.
One of our stand-out participants was Binod, whose warm, outgoing spirit seemed to be in direct contrast to his life circumstances, which he was open about sharing with the group. He did not know where he was from, nor to what family he belonged. He had a chaotic upbringing, with bouts of homelessness and instability in which he frequently moved around. Now, at 18, he lives in a rehabilitation house for substance abuse. Despite his past, or perhaps because of it, he reached out with generous affection to his peers and to adults, even taking to calling me “dad” and CJ “mom” during the project. He invited us to visit the center where he lives, as well as another for younger children who also had suffered from addiction. It was shocking to see kids as young as 8 living there, but soon we were laughing and playing and dancing with the kids, who were hungry for our attention and affection. While I was glad to see that some support existed for these children, I knew that it could never replace the families that weren’t able to care for them nor the stability that is so important for a young person’s development.
Several of the local artists who partnered with us on this project live in a community in north Kolkata by the Ganges, and we were honored to be invited there to meet their families. Our friend and artist, Sayak, took us to his home and studio, and his mother cooked an absolutely delicious Bengali lunch. We visited the homes of Broto and Babu as well, and took a ferry down the iconic Ganges, or Ganga, River. That evening we all visited the famous temple to the goddess Kali, which was full of worshippers giving offerings to her and placing flowers in the river.
At the closing ceremony for the mural project, dozens gathered around to celebrate the artwork and its message. The teens were clearly proud of what they had accomplished, posing for photo after photo with the mural and with each other. Speeches were given, folkloric Bengali music was played and there were congratulations all around. It was sad to say goodbye after our time creating together and forming bonds, as we didn’t know when we’d all cross paths again. But we had all learned from one another and discovered something about ourselves through the process. Thanks to everyone who contributed to this project: the Meridian International Center, the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, the US Consulate in Kolkata, Banglanatak dot com, CJ and all our incredible adult and youth artists!
Posted on March 18, 2016
Looking at a map of India’s eastern state West Bengal, one will notice that it has an unusual shape. At the top, a tiny sliver of land shoots hundreds of kilometers north, like a little tree growing out of rest of the state, which includes the capital city of Kolkata and the iconic Ganges River. This sliver pushes up into the Himalayas, and borders on Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, not far from Chinese-controlled Tibet. It is a fascinating place, with incredible mountainous views, the world-famous Darjeeling tea fields and Buddhist and Hindu temples spotting the landscape. However, it was none of these things that brought me here, to the small city of Siliguri. Upon arrival, I met with my team of local artists and Nishi Kant, director of the Indian NGO Shakti Vahini, who educated us on the situation here.
Underneath the physical and cultural beauty lies a tragic reality; this area is the epicenter for human trafficking in South Asia, where tens of thousands of people a year are taken from their communities here or from neighboring countries, where they are trafficked through Siliguri on their way to their various destinations throughout India and beyond. Also known as modern-day slavery, this issue takes many forms. Women and underage girls are sold into sex slavery in brothels across the region, while some are forced to marry older men. Others are sold into forced labor, with females usually ending up as domestic maids and males as agricultural laborers. Violent and powerful, international organized crime rings control this lucrative business, with tactics that include offering impoverished, vulnerable people with “golden opportunities” to work in supposedly legitimate jobs, their victims only realizing their fate once it’s too late. Others are simply snatched from the street by men driving by in cars, never to be seen again.
Combatting this crisis requires the tireless dedication and coordination of many societal actors, including NGOs, law enforcement, the Indian government and the international community, many of whom came together in Siliguri in February of 2016 for the International Anti-Human Trafficking Conclave. Organizers included the US Consulate in Kolkata and Shakti Vahini, dedicated to ending trafficking and supporting the survivors in their struggle to re-integrate with society and combat the stigma that they often face once they return to their communities. As part of the conclave, my team of artists and I were to paint a large-scale public mural in a highly visible location in order to raise awareness for this issue.
As Nishi explained to me, one of the most important aspects of fighting trafficking is educating the public and enlisting them in the struggle. Ordinary citizens must understand what it is and recognize it when it takes place in their community. They need to have the information about who to inform when a girl disappears, understand that not every job offer is legitimate, and have compassion for returning survivors of trafficking, rather than rejecting them. For this reason, artists have an important role to play.
The main figure in our mural is a woman who had been trafficked, named Sangeeta. She is a dancer and works with the organization Kolata Sanved, which uses dance as a form of therapy for trafficking survivors. As part of this work, photographer Brooke Shaden partnered with the women and girls to create a series of photographic self-portraits in which they each chose a pose that they felt represented their stories. Sangeeta portrayed herself having her ankle gripped by a menacing hand, while she reached toward another hand for support. When Kolata Sanved collaborator Laura Price showed me this photograph, I was moved by the image and the story behind it, and received permission to use it as the central figure in the mural.
Inside Sangeet’s sari, the artist team, who included the four Kolkata-based painters Anindya, Saptarshi, Santanu and Binod, depicted the variety of issues that surround human trafficking. Interwoven throughout the piece are images from Bengali folkloric art. Working with this talented team was a great experience for me. We painted together, learned about each others’ lives and cultures, and ate lunch together at a nearby local Bengali outdoor eatery, where the artists taught me how to eat in the traditional Indian manner: with your hand, which requires a special technique when eating foods like rice and daal, a chickpea dish. When the mural was complete, we took a day trip up through the Himalayan mountains, to the breathtaking city of Darjeeling. Later, while working together on another project in Kolkata, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit their homes and meet their families; a real honor!
On the opening day of the International Anti-Human Trafficking Conclave, dozens of people gathered in front of the mural. Local musicians and dancers performed, including a group of women dancers who had also survived the trafficking experience. It was an inspiring moment to witness the power of people who had gone through so much, yet were determined to be part of the solution and support others who had suffered. Thanks to everyone involved in making this mural project such a successful, positive experience: The Meridian International Center, Shakti Vahini, the US Consulate in Kolkata and my four amazing artist collaborators.
Posted on March 5, 2016
After a jam-packed month of arts-based social projects in slum communities in Delhi and Mumbai through the Shanti Arts for Action project, it was time for new adventures through a program organized by the Meridian International Center, based in Washington, DC. The program began in South Bombay’s Sitara Studio, where my wife, Karla-Jayne Thomas (aka CJ), and I joined forces with local artist Krishna Sharma to facilitate the creation of a 40-foot canvas mural designed and painted with a group of 25 local students, to be displayed at one of India’s most prominent art festivals, Kala Ghoda.
Together with our project partners from the US Consulate in Mumbai and local organizations Develop Matrix and Safe Cities, we met for the first time on a Saturday to plan the mural with the students. After some ice-breakers and introductions, we had a group discussion about gender-based issues. The participants had a lot to say and it was clear to me that these were topics that they had thought a great deal about and related to their daily experience in an intense way. They brought up issues of harassment, domestic violence, forced marriages, patriarchy in Indian society and shared personal stories of how gender inequality and sexism affected their lives. We then turned these ideas into images, with each student creating a sketch, which we then used to create a cohesive mural design. By the end of the day, we had a solid concept!
The left side of the mural is dedicated to the daily struggle for equality, and features a dark, intense color scheme. The female character’s hand is being tied down as she struggles to become free. Throughout her long hair and hand, the students wrote messages and images related to this theme. The right side focuses on a celebration of women and girls, and of the achievements that have been made toward gender equality. Participants created patterns that celebrate a diversity of females: school girls and grandmothers; professionals and house- keepers; party girls and creative types. The hand on this side has broken free and is covered with images of female accomplishment. Both sides feature male faces as well, as the students felt strongly that gender equality is an issue that affects everyone and that men had an important role to play in counteracting the forces of sexism and inequality.
From Monday through Thursday, groups of students joined us throughout the day to paint, adding their personal voices to the mural. I can’t express enough how impressed I was with their dedication, talent and energy that they poured into the project! We often had long discussions about all kinds of things, from serious to silly, and I learned a great deal from them. It was also a pleasure to collaborate with the bright young female artist Krishna, who added so much to the project. By the end of the week, Krishna, the students, CJ and I had become a tight-knit team. We didn’t want the project to end!
On Friday we completed some finishing touches and then the giant canvas was rolled up and moved to the festival grounds, where we unveiled it for the public on Saturday, the opening day of Kala Ghoda. It was a huge hit! Art fans crowded the mural to take in all the incredible details that the participants had painted throughout the piece. Everyone took photos and asked us questions. All the students came for the opening, and we had a good-bye circle in which we reflected on our shared experience. We were proud of our accomplishment, but sad that our time together had come to an end. Thanks to everyone involved for making this project such a huge success!
Posted on December 20, 2015
In December I finally made it to Miami for the Art Basel Festival, where I stayed with fellow Brooklyn-based artists and friends Chris Soria and Marc Evan. I spent the week in the street art mecca, Wynwood, where I met dozens of incredible artists from around the world as well as local Miami artists, and was truly inspired by the sheer quantity of mind-blowing work. As seems to be my habit, I ended up making friends with a bunch of Brazilians, mostly graffiti artists from São Paulo, and spent much of the time running around with them. Of course, I couldn’t leave without leaving my mark, and after several days of failing to find a wall (it’s not easy!) I landed one in the parking lot of studio space. I collaborated with NYC artist Iliana Price on a piece that features a man grabbing hold of a mandarin fish, which cannot live in captivity. We humans feel compelled to own, to conquer, to exploit for our own purposes. Instead, we should live in harmony with our natural environment and learn to appreciate beauty without need to put it in a glass bowl.
Posted on November 5, 2015
This collaboration between myself and Moroccan-born, Brooklyn-based artist Rocko was created in the Bushwick neighborhood. Rocko’s style is influenced by Arabic symbols and calligraphy, specifically from Morocco. His initiative, Spread Art NYC, works with communities artists to bring high-quality murals to the streets of Brooklyn. This piece was inspired by the work of legendary New York photographer Barron Claiborne, who was involved in the design process. By including the hamsa and other imagery that is common to many peoples of North Africa and the Middle East, it highlights the brotherhood among Arabs, Berbers, Jews and other ethnic and religious groups of the region, a reminder that is particularly important in the current climate of division and conflict.
Posted on October 31, 2015
As I write this, I’m flying home to Brooklyn after an incredible two months of non-stop community mural projects for the #AddColourToLives initiative. There have been highs and lows, excitement and exhaustion, and so many interesting and inspiring people who I’ve met along the way. The final project took place in Cape Town, South Africa, in a remote community called Strandfontein, where we painted the exterior walls of the public library. The project partners included two Park Inn hotels in Cape Town, the You2Africa organization and the youth program 9 Miles Project. Founded by Nigel Savel, 9 Miles engages children from a nearby informal settlement through surfing and skating. I was greatly moved by what an important father figure Nigel had clearly become in the kids’ lives and the family-like bond that they had formed. Surfing had become a central focus in their lives and a catalyst for making positive connections with their peers and adults in their community. This connection is essential for guiding these young people into a healthy and safe future, no small feat in an area rife with violence, substance abuse and broken lives.
The first day, I led activities and games with the kids and gave a presentation on mural art. Together, we discussed the theme and imagery that the youth would like to paint in their mural, and I guided them through the design process. For the next week, we met every day to paint, and on a couple mornings the kids took me surfing and taught me some of their techniques! The Park Inn and 9 Miles staff members were all on hand, and we all bonded over painting and conversation. Renaldo, a media specialist, documented the project with photography and video, and streamed the project live on the app Periscope. The project became a hit, with up to 900 people a day tuning in from around the world!
The mural included a girl from the group surfing on a book, referencing their passion for surfing and the importance of learning. One of the participants, Lizé, wrote a poem on the book. Another section shows a giant shark, which is filled with monster-like faces that are the kids’ interpretation of the negative elements in their everyday environment: crime, violence and lack of opportunities. Around the corner is a boy, modeled by a participant named Bibo, who is swimming directly toward the shark, confronting him with a look of determination on his face. All around him are the youths’ expressions of the positive elements surrounding them as they work to overcome the negativity, such as family bonds, education, friendship, and positive adult role models. A final section depicts a tree growing from the ground and winding its way onto the walls, where the participants wrote and drew all the ways in which they had grown in their lives and what they dreamed of for their future growth.
On the final day, we had a ribbon-cutting ceremony and invited the community to see the mural. Many of us gave speeches about what the project had meant to us, including a couple of the kids. I then had the opportunity to visit the informal settlement where the children live, and they invited me into their homes to meet their families. It was a pleasure to work with these vibrant, highly animated young people, full of attitude and youthful energy. They were so proud to present their accomplishment to their community. Thanks to them and to everyone at the 9 Miles project and the Cape Town Park Inn hotels!!
Posted on October 26, 2015
After an incredible couple of weeks in London, I was off to Brussels for the third project of the #AddColourToLives tour, which features a partnership between myself, Park Inn hotels in five cities and local youth organizations. I literally went straight from the airport to the first workshop- no rest for the weary! The first project was at the Clair Matin group home for children who have been taken from their families, where we led workshops and painted a small mural on an indoor wall. The kids were so sweet and helped me learn some French. Within a day I knew all the colors! Of course, it was also difficult to see these children suffering, having been through so much during their short lives.
We then began on our big public mural in Brussels, which was to be on a giant wall on the outside of the southern train station, a very prominent location. It was a massive undertaking: at 56 meters wide and 4 meters high, it was split into 9 garage doors that were no longer in use, each separated with a big concrete slab. The crew was enormous as well: we had a core group of young people and staff from three different local youth organizations, but we also invited homeless people who sleep in the train station, outreach workers from the station, Park Inn employees and community members. By the end of 8 days of painting, over 150 people had participated! As with all the #AddColourToLives projects, the imagery and the theme were created by the participants themselves during the introductory workshop that I facilitated on the first day. The area around the station has a heavily immigrant and refugee population, so we chose to focus on the importance of creating an inclusive and welcoming society. This was especially relevant because our project was taking place during the massive refugee crisis in Europe.
The mural begins with a sea of migrants painted by all the participants. The colors are dark and their journey perilous. A giant hand reaches out to welcome them as three migrants walk onto it. These characters were painted by Valence, who cleans rooms at the Park Inn by day and is a talented artist by night, along with her son, Rémi. A second giant hand cradles a sleeping homeless woman, modeled by one of our participants named Muriel, who sleeps on the streets around the station and became an integral member of the team. The shapes inside the two big hands are filled with the participants’ expressions regarding the importance of an inclusive society and welcoming those who have gone through hardship. The hands belong to a character with two faces, male and female, who makes up the centerpiece of the mural. Two of our most active youth participants, Ussin and Ajer, were excited to see their faces reproduced on a massive scale for this section!
Further down, a third hand holds a bowl of fruit with a traditional Belgian carnival character. The last hand serves as a diving board for a girl (another participant, Mabrouka) who jumps off and flies over a crowd of cheering, diverse characters. These hands feature the reflections, in words and images, of the participants regarding the great contributions that immigrants and refugees make in Belgium, and to all societies. Together they make a strong statement that inclusiveness is not only for the benefit of those currently in need; that everyone will reap the rewards of a welcoming society that nurtures a diverse cultural, political and social life. By including the participation of homeless people, refugees and community members of all types, the creation of the mural itself was an example of how people can come together in common cause and respect each other’s humanity.
Of the many people to participate I would like to highlight one man, Said, whose story illustrates the power and importance of this type of community project. While not originally part of the project, this community resident who seemed to know everyone stopped by on the first day of painting and never left: he immersed himself in the work and stayed from morning to night. I painted a giant portrait of him as the representative of the wave of migrants. At first we could only communicate with the help of others, or in the few words we knew of each others’ languages. On the third day, I was ecstatic to discover that he speaks some Spanish, which I also speak. We could communicate! Soon, he was telling me his life story.
Said grew up in a port town in Morocco, where poverty led him to leave school at age 12 to embark on a highly dangerous career as a deep-sea fisherman. After witnessing the death of many of his friends over 11 years, he left and embarked on a colorful life as a circus performer, a competitive body-builder and a wood worker before taking a rickety boat to Spain in his 20’s in search of a better life, eventually ending up in Brussels. At 39, his life has gone markedly down hill. He has been out of work for three years, his stormy relationship with his wife came to a painful end and his daughter who he adores, age 6, is currently living in a group home for kids who have been taken from their families, where he is only allowed one visit every two weeks. He sometimes drinks too much and gets in fights, as do his rough friends in the neighborhood. He teared up as he told me about his family struggles, and how he is ashamed to visit his 80-year-old mother, who lives nearby, because she is so upset by the way his life is going. But the project, he told me, had given him a new outlook on life (in fact, it was Said who gave the mural its title, “A New Life”). He made positive connections with many people, all of whom were greatly impressed by his work ethic and noticed how tender and helpful he was with the kids and the homeless. He poured himself into the work every day. I could tell that he had turned a corner, and many of us began asking around the various project partners in search of a job for Said, knowing that is what he really needs to continue this upswing and finally move his life in a positive direction. This is why community projects can create positive change: it’s not principally about the artwork, but instead the positive human connections that are cultivated, often lasting far longer than the project itself.
After 8 marathon days of painting, the project culminated in a big public event hosted at the Park Inn. Many of us spoke about our experiences of the project and were excited and moved by all we had accomplished and the new friends we had made. We went across the street to view the mural and take group photos, and then had a big dinner. The festivities went late into the night, with all of us sad to say au revoir but proud of what he had accomplished. I want to thank Phillip and everyone at the Park Inn in Brussels and Leuven, all the youth and adult participants who worked so hard, everyone at the train station and—last but not least– Carolyn and Inge for making this all possible and being such a pleasure to work with!!
Posted on October 19, 2015
In September, I had the honor of joining forces for the second time with one of my favorite organizations, Street Child United, which organizes an international network of NGO’s that focus on working with society’s most vulnerable and marginalized populations, homeless youth. Last year at the mega-event Street Child World Cup, groups of boys and girls from 19 countries who had experienced the street life all came together in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to play a soccer tournament, create art and advocate for the rights of their fellow street youth around the world. It was a truly unforgettable experience for all of us who participated, and many lifelong bonds were created. Concrete results were seen, as evidenced by Team Pakistan, who were greeted as heroes when they returned to their country and awarded scholarships to further their education.
This year, they organized the Street Child Summit in London, where street youth advocates from dozens of countries joined forces in common cause. Among these advocates were six “youth ambassadors” from Brazil, Pakistan and Burundi who had all experienced the street life and were now participating in a 10-week advocacy course in London focused on exploring the international plight of homeless youth and studying English.
Nearby at the Village Underground, a legendary music venue with a giant outside wall that has been blessed with murals by some of the world’s most renowned artists over the years, I was given a mission: to create a huge, impactful mural that would raise awareness for the plight of street youth around the world in only four days! Luckily, I had the assistance of two talented artists (and awesome people!), Bec Dennison and Meghan O’Malley, as well the participation of the youth ambassadors. We painted a giant youth (modeled by the Brazilian youth ambassador Jessica Medeiros) filled with many smaller young people, all shouting and cheering and protesting. The figure has a megaphone, and out of the darkness she shouts into it, producing a vibrant explosion of colors, animals and a message that reads, “I may be a child/ I may live on the streets/ but I am somebody!” In line with the theme of the Street Child Summit, the mural makes a statement that while they may be excluded and oppressed by the societies of the world, street youth and those in solidarity with them can achieve a strong voice by joining together and pushing for concrete reforms.
For four grueling days we worked from dawn to nightfall, through London’s notoriously dreary weather, loud trucks and traffic coming within feat of us, and lots of coffee. The street in the popular Shoreditch area was always packed with passersby, who stopped to check out the mural and learn about its message. On the final day, the entire group of summit participants arrived at the mural singing a beautiful South African song. Several of us gave short speeches, including one of the youth ambassadors, and it was moving moment in which so many incredible people came together in unity. Thanks to Jo, John, Bec, Meghan, the folks at the Village Underground (especially Javi!), the youth ambassadors and everyone involved in the Street Child Summit!!
Posted on October 18, 2015
I arrived in Cologne, Germany in the midst of the refugee crisis that is engulfing Europe, with Germany at center stage of the quickly unfolding situation. The fourth installment of the #AddColourToLives tour was, therefore, very timely, as it explored the refugee experience and the importance of social inclusion in a diverse society. The project was a partnership between myself, the Cologne Park Inn hotel and the Anna-Stiftung center for children and teens who do not live with their families for a variety of reasons. Many of the teenagers who participated were refugees who had recently arrived in Germany- some only days ago- without any family. I tried to imagine arriving alone at such a young age in a strange land where no one spoke your language or understood your culture. They had experienced great hardships and trauma in the countries they came from in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, which they now had to attempt to recover from while dealing with the painful separation from their loved ones.
Needless to say, the language barrier was a challenge with this project, as many recently-arrived participants did not speak German like the other children and staff, nor English. But we made it work because of our great desire to communicate with one another,and the initial workshop was a great success. After games and activities and a presentation on community mural projects, we got down to the important business of designing a mural to be painted on the long outdoor wall of the center, which faces a busy neighborhood street. The youth decided to depict the migration experience as a river of faces flowing from dark grey hands, in reference to the difficult experiences that lead to a person leaving their homeland. As the river flows along, a teenager- modeled by a participant named Marwan from Western Sahara- drags a ball and chain behind him on his foot, but despite this baggage he is flying toward the a brighter future. He throws a paper airplane in the direction he is moving, representing the goals and dreams he is striving for. On the airplane the youth wrote questions the have for their future. Marwan is made up of puzzle pieces, which was one girl’s idea for a way to show that when one has been through trauma, it is as if one has fallen apart and needs to be put back together again.
It was a massive effort to paint the big wall on outside of the youth center where they live in the remaining four days, but the kids were up to the challenge! They would paint starting after school each day, and many simply could not get enough, not wanting to leave each evening when it was time for dinner. One boy named Justin was obsessed with spray paint so we decided to make stencils so that the kids could use the spray paint to their hearts’ content on a wall around the corner from the mural. On the final day we had a big barbecue and enjoyed a beautiful sunny afternoon. Thanks to Mike and all the staff and youth participants at the center for the unforgettable experience, and also to my amazing hosts and collaborators at the Park Inn: Paul, Oliver, Ricarda and the whole crew!