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!