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 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!