Sunday, November 19, 2006

Rocking la JEM

La JEM is known to rock the boat. Its rocker attitude makes them rebels, crazies, creative. They wear KORN hats with ripped jeans and spray painted t-shirts. They carry around guitars and sing in public. They have Christian rock concerts where they sing about the environment. They wish to be more crazy than they are but don’t know how.

In August la JEM began collaborating with Young Achievement, a non-profit aimed at teaching business skills to young adults. One of the small businesses created was a café, Rockafé, aimed at young music lovers. I first was called upon to help create a sign for the street, which you see in the above photo, but I also learned that Rockafé had other problems. Since it’s run by sweet, immature 16-year-old girls—who can’t cook and who adore the light pink walls—they have little rocker business. Not only did I teach them a few recipes in the kitchen and serve as a facilitator and role model within the complicated dynamics of the group, I also designed paintings for two of the largest walls. The resulting murals gave me the opportunity to show la JEM that I understand it and love it.

Girls tending to the café asked if I could paint some fruit and a lush green landscape. I cringed. I’m not a rocker, but I did live in New York. I was joined by two aspiring JEM painters, who took advantage of the paint to do their own original pieces on other walls. We created a small artist community with frequent coffee breaks and blaring music.

Ian posed for the protest piece, and we used repeated messages of la JEM to proclaim its ideals to all clientele. The sign of the figure in the middle reads “Para un mundo más justo,” or For a more just world. The squatting figure below holds a placard, “Hay mucho que decir pero mejor lo vamos a hacer,” or There’s a lot to say but better yet we’re going to do it. In the left corner one silhouette holds high the JEM logo, a rockerized drop of water and its slogan, Unidos por el Aqua, United for Water and next to it reads “Aprender haciendo y hacer pensando,” or Learn while doing and do while thinking.

The next painting shows a Williamsburg-type landscape with a red forest foregrounding a white and yellow sky. Below, a blood red background illuminates a rock-band sketch, which plays while break-dancers visually confuse the viewer.

After the first day of painting the jóvenes threw us a going-away party in Rockafé. About 60 friends from all different communities came to send us off and it was fun to see the viewers’ initial responses to my bewildering work. A good friend told me when asked what she thought, Why does it have to look so weird?
But the president of la JEM, Ever, exclaimed upon arriving, Now it’s Rockafé! and a visiting marimba player recognized the message of waking youth finding themselves in an unjust world and commented that he had never seen before in Tacaná anything with such energy.

During the meal many people got up to toast to our presence and to say good-bye. Every comment was moving and sad, but the most unexpected and unforgettable moment came when Nancy, our host sister, got up to speak. Nancy studies and lives in San Marcos, so we haven’t gotten to know her well. She’s a sweet-hearted and hard-shelled rocker with long dark hair braids who has been known to punch men who whistle at her and who tends to make fun of people when they cry.

She stared past me at the paintings and said thoughtfully, with bright red teary eyes: Wow, Brooke, I’ve been looking at these paintings and I see myself in them. I see all of la JEM in these murals. I don’t know if everyone else sees what you’ve done here, but it’s phenomenal. I know what’s it’s like to live in someone else’s house and be in someone else’s culture because I’ve done it and I know it’s hard. Thank you. I consider you both to be a part of our family, the Velásquez Pérez family, and I don’t know you as well as I want to, but I consider you my siblings. This is just the beginning of a long friendship.

Since la JEM plans to use the extra rooms in Rockafé as office space and the café area to have concerts, I know the works will be seen my many and that they are an important moment in the development of their organizational philosophies. I also know that the JEM members will continue painting these walls and others with their own images and ideals. All year it has been a struggle to understand one another, and this last project gave me the opportunity to communicate myself to them—through art—that I get them, that I love them.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Viveros, Cuá and Linda Vista

Four JEM communities have tree nurseries, which hold an important role in getting teenagers involved in reforestation projects. Time unfortunately only allowed me to work in two of these viveros, in Linda Vista and Cuá. What you see here is creative signage that calls attention to their work. I contracted the carpentry skills of a JEM member to cut the wood, which we then transported to the communities where we had discussions and painted the signs.

In Linda Vista (Pretty View) I arrived in the middle of a community meeting, which was perfect since it made the project really collaborative. Many had suggestions about the use of the signage and gave their input on what it should say. Throughout the day adults came to oversee the work of the teenagers and later helped find posts and raise the sign. We gave the sign double purpose, using it at the entrance to the community and as a way to call attention to the youth’s nearby tree nursery. The wood was cut into the silhouette of Volcano Tacaná, mimicking the same view seen from Linda Vista. In the image you can see the difference between the community’s original sign and the one we made with the materials from ArtCorps. The sign reads, Welcome, Center of Integral Formation, Linda Vista and Forest Nursery, Jóvenes en la Misión, Nature—to be dominated—should be obeyed.

For Cuá I designed a sign made up of two trees that would hang over the narrow entrance to the tree nursery, which you would walk underneath. The youth decided to not place the sign in this location, but in a more visible area near the street. Unfortunately my busy schedule at the end of my residency didn’t allow time for me to return to see it hung up. The kids painted in the large colorful trees, and after brainstorming they voted on what they wanted it to say. It reads, Youth Tree Nursery, Jóvenes en la Misión strengthening our mountains with more trees and Cuá, the place of water, Let’s Conserve It!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

¡Cultiva la Vida! Muraling in San Pablo

Within the painting work I’ve done with the JEM, I’ve been thinking about various muraling processes and have experimented with different techniques. Some projects are more collaborative than others, depending on the focus, be it process or product.

From January to April I worked with a group of teenagers in Cunlaj, where we developed drawings and painting about Hurricane Stan and then created a community mural to remember the experience and bring hope for the future. Each week we discussed various issues regarding Stan, and by the time we were ready to paint in public each participant had created a final painting. I helped design the mural using their drawings, but my role was mainly limited to mixing paint and giving advice. I did little painting, and there was a large sense of ownership in the work. Some days the painters arrived at 5 AM.

In El Vergel in September, I had a one-day workshop with the 5th and 6th grade classes, and at home I used their drawings and my own to design the 60-foot mural. The kids helped me during the nine days of painting, but I was the main artist doing the piece. The school kids and community members were thrilled about the mural as a product, and it was a very successful short collaboration. But it didn’t create the same ownership as in Cunlaj since we didn’t focus on a long-term and in-depth process.

My intention in San Pablo, where the mural you see here was created, was to re-create a similar experience I had in Cunlaj, but with kids. Once a week for three months I worked in the elementary school in San Pablo, giving painting classes to the fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade classes. The product of these classes was to be a mural. Since these were kids I had to design and coordinate the content of the mural, but I planned on using exclusively their drawings and paintings to create it. I had the fourth-grade classes draw and paint animals, the fifth-graders birds, and the sixth-graders designed and painted trees. The kids democratically voted on their favorites and then worked in groups to paint them on large poster board and develop the images even further. From these I designed what you see here, with the exact drawings of the kids painted onto the wall.

Collaboration is about learning and I learned, for the 50th time, that communication is the most essential element of working together. I started working in the school in San Pablo at the end of the school year and didn’t anticipate the flurry of exams and odd schedules that complicated my classes and the planning of the mural. A lack of communication on both my part and that of the school director left me starting the mural the last day of classes. The kids were excited and thrilled to be painting once they left their classrooms giddy and filled with energy, ready for the vacation months. I thought it was going to be a perfect time to have each child fill in their drawing, but I quickly learned that when there’s no school there’s no reason to come to town. The next day and for many days after a few stragglers came and went, but by and by the mural was left with large white spaces where the kids hadn’t arrived to paint in their drawings. The few participants that lived in the center begged to finish the works of others, but I was intent on saving them for their original designers. During graduation I hoped kids would come back to town and remember the mural, but few extras came to help out. We did have an exhibition of the paintings on graduation day, and the community was able to see the bright paintings and creative work of the students. In the end about 20 of the 60 kids came to paint the mural, and I was forced to finish it two weeks later with Ian and a handful of children and teenagers.

This was is an example of where the process was thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding, with many weeks of classes and positive interaction, but the product was left behind and lost in the collaboration. I couldn’t help wishing that we hadn’t created the mural, since I wasn’t interested in copying and painting the kids’ drawing myself, and instead would have preferred (if I had known I was going to be working mainly by myself) to have created a better product since in this case the product didn’t add to the process.

But all experiences help cultivate our lives, and I know that the mural was an exciting activity for those that participated. Some kids were thrilled to see their own work translated onto the wall and exclaimed proudly to their parents and friends, That’s my bird! or I painted that tree!

shared thoughts, Hurricane Stan

From January to March of this year teenagers, adults, and kids in my painting workshops were given the opportunity to express their experiences and thoughts with regard to Hurricane Stan, which hit the region during the first few days of October, 2005. In the municipality of Tacaná, 144 communities were affected; 84 people died or disappeared, 1,610 houses were destroyed or rendered unlivable, and 9,000 people were left homeless.

The drawings show us dark skies with heavy rain, dirty rivers filled with fallen trees, landslides, houses buried in earth, people toting their belongings and abandoning their houses, women praying, children crying, and more.

On one page the author writes us a small story, “EL NIÑO QUE VIO QUE NADIE VIO,” or THE BOY THAT SAW WHAT NO ONE SAW. In a family there was a señorita who was sad because the rain continued. It had been three days that she hadn’t seen her boyfriend. And a teenager who wondered how it was going to be after the storm. And a little boy who looked out the window. The mom felt that he was sad and went to console him and the little boy said, “Look, mama, how pretty the rainbow that Hurricane Stan came to bring us.”

In another, titled “Pensamientos,” or Thoughts, the 28-year-old author from Linda Vista writes 16 ideas he wishes to share about the Hurricane and life in general. In one workshop we developed a conversation about service and solidarity by using this page to provoke our discussion.
I slept and dreamed that life was happiness, and I woke up and saw that life was service, I served and saw that life was happiness.
To love is not to look at one another, but to look together in the same direction.
Don’t wait until you can spread your light far away. Be happy and illuminate the corner in which you live.

In spite of the destruction the communities have demonstrated faith and hope, which has helped them continue moving forward to reconstruct what was lost. Their histories are inspiring and show us the necessity to continue fighting for better lives and to learn to be prepared for future storms and natural catastrophes.

The book was left with la JEM to share with visitors and to keep as a record of the stories, horrors, and courage of their people. Twenty blank pages were included in the back of the book in order to allow more participants to share their experiences.

Friday, November 03, 2006

dusty light and light-hearted kites

November 2
Our time in San Pablo is drawing to an end, and I’m noticing more and more what I’ve missed. There are still so many people to visit, so much atol to drink, and so many paths on the other side of the valley I haven’t felt under my feet. I’ve finally begun to put community before work, chatting with young girls hauling weeds for the goats, taking my time in sipping hot coffee over the open fire, and sketching the faces of young kids in my notebook. During our first few months I missed many community events and instead worked at home or in a different community. Now I’ve come to see the value in showing up for these cultural moments. My presence makes me more a part of the community, an invaluable element when working collaboratively but even more important in developing understanding and love.
Everywhere we go I observe. Yesterday—in the house of a neighbor—light peaked in through the cracks in the boarded up window. It poured inside in thin strips like the light in my memory of St. Peter’s, exposing the dusty air quickly moving its way around the stillness of our bodies, continuing on in the never-ending stream of the present moment. I don’t want to go, I tell myself, looking up into the blank face of the grandpa, covered in black flies. There was one on his nose, and he didn’t even blink. In the afternoon I went to sit on the roof of the school to watch the sunset, to burn the image of the mountains onto the fabric of my mind. On one side, towards San Marcos, a low dark horizon of clouds passed over the silhouette of the mountains. On the other, towards Mexico, celaje clouds fluttered like baby blue and pink butterflies, showing off faraway fields filled with elegant yellow weeds.

Tuesday was the school graduation, and they presented both Ian and me with diplomas of recognition, to thank us. I had so much to say and wasn’t prepared at all. I produced a few words to explain my grief and joy, and then later, with the graduates, allowed tears to slip from my eyes. These weren’t just tears of sadness, but also of happiness, for having made it all the way to graduation, for having survived a difficult year in a place I still barely understand.

Today is Day of the Dead, a time to honor those you’ve loved and lost. The tradition here in Guatemala is to visit the cemetery, bringing candles, food and corn atol to the spirits that arose at midnight the night before. Then, there’s a kite-flying contest on the highest peak in town. I watched the colorful homemade kites slowly glide in the wind, floating souls taken to the free air, and thought of Grandaddy. I don’t want to go home, I tell myself, but I’m ready.

Sustainability and Silk-screening

Part of the sustainable work I was hoping to implement with la JEM included a t-shirt making business. Because of its isolated location, Tacaná has few fashionable clothing options, and I hoped to provide witty and popular environmental silk-screened t-shirts. We began with the JEM logo, and for a short period of time members of la JEM came to help with the tedious job of printing. After printing around 40 we began selling, with much success, but then no one came to print anymore. Because the work I do here is collaborative I decided not to print the remaining t-shirts by myself. July was a difficult personal month, and I wasn’t around much. When I returned, la JEM was about to embark on a program with Empresarios Juveniles, a non-profit aimed at teaching youth the world of business. La JEM was given the opportunity to create four small experimental businesses.

I suggested starting a t-shirt silk-screening company. It seemed like a perfect fit because of the market, because we had extra supplies and because I was there to support the creative process. I was thrilled at this possibility that I could create sustainable work with the business aspect entirely supported by another organization. But the jóvenes passed off on the idea for whatever reason. I continued attending a few Empresarios Juveniles meetings, but my presence wasn’t wanted, so I butted out. Later, I was told that the four companies had merged into three; two planned on creating cafés, while the third was going to produce, package, and market a tea.

Last week I showed up to the presentation of the products, and I found that the two cafés had merged into one and that the third company is a t-shirt silk-screening business. They had three or four basic text designs on dozens of t-shirts. I learned that their plan is not only to sell t-shirts, but all kinds of art, including paintings and handicrafts.

This group has a professional artist working for them—dying to help them—and yet they said nothing and didn’t ask for help. I don’t understand.

The particulars of working collaboratively can be difficult. It’s probable the t-shirt business would never have occurred without my initiative in making JEM t-shirts and in suggesting it for a model company. But without the extra creative angle the product fell flat, and during their product presentation the group sold few t-shirts. Persuading your partner that you can be of assistance is difficult. Collaboration must start from the very beginning and both partners must be on the same page, understanding that they’re going into an experience where their expectations may not be fulfilled. La JEM didn’t understand the mission of ArtCorps and thus was confused during the first few months of my residency. Because their expectations didn’t come to full bloom and they never got comfortable with the new mission, I often times feel like I’m the only one collaborating.

I talked to the head of the t-shirt company to offer my help. I told him I leave in three weeks, but that I would be happy to do a day or two silk-screening and design workshop. He seemed very interested and appreciative, but now my time has come down to a week and a half. He still hasn’t called.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Theater Festival: The Mysterious Tree

October 13th was our theater festival, and it was a huge hit. With a live seven-piece marimba band and two one-hour plays, we were the event of the week. An audience of 150 was polite and quiet as we abandoned the microphones and had them sit through pitch-black transitions. We went all out with sound effects and lighting—having earlier recorded fireworks and later performing part of the night with shadow-theater—to make it a unique experience for all. While the house filled, the marimba band Voces de Selva played for an hour. The first play, El Árbol Misterioso (The Mysterious Tree) was performed by Tercero Básico (equivalent to sophomore year in high school). And the second, Ayer y Mañana (Yesterday and Tomorrow), was performed by Quinto Bachillerato (seniors in high school). We ended the night with a nervous energy converted into screams of joy, more marimba, coffee, and corn on the cob slathered in ketchup, mayonnaise, and hot sauce. Coming home at one in the morning, I was brimming with pride in the students and their accomplishment. I was worried the whole event would fall apart since we pulled the plays together only the week before, but on performance night the students rose to the occasion and I was pleasantly surprised.

El Árbol Misterioso
A rural community is faced with corrupt leaders who allow a mining company to cut down its enchanted forest. But a special, magical, mysterious tree can’t be cut down, and as they pound its trunk with their machetes its shadow grows larger and larger, before it begins to drop seeds. Accompanied by the sounds of a live flute in the background, the forest grows back stronger than ever. The shadows of the cardboard props bounce up and down and the audience giggles in delight. The humans try to destroy the forest again, this time with dynamite, and again one-by-one the arbolitos fall. Mother Nature exploded into bits and pieces. But in the morning the humans find that not only have the trees grown back, but the mysterious tree has overtaken their house when they wake alongside the birds, high above the land. The mining company abandons the project and the people are drawn towards the mysterious tree, trying to understand Mother Nature and its capabilities. They think that if they eat the fruit they too will have magical powers, and one by one they declare their dreams of building a house, creating a tree nursery, becoming a singer, and building a better community. But it turns out that the tree’s fruit didn’t have any magical powers: the play ends with the insightful voice of the tree explaining that the humans—just like the tree, the worms, potatoes, and everything else made by the creator—all have the same inexplicable energy and power infused in their souls. They just didn't realize it.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Yesterday and Tomorrow

A money-hungry salesman sells the land, air, and water to three unassuming devotees of these natural resources. But after becoming possessions, these treasures are mistreated by the humans and the fight begins. Boxing to “The Eye of the Tiger,” the actors show the continuous struggle between humans and the environment. After each fight the natural resources explain how they’ve been abused: by cutting down all the trees, burning diesel fuel, and throwing trash in the river. Then, the humans begin to be beaten, and they complain about the poor air quality, the lack of fertile land for their crops, and the bacteria in the polluted water. All of a sudden, with a fury of lights, smoke, and commanding music, Mother Earth, Grandfather Air, and Grandmother Water arrive. They share their knowledge with the audience, questioning a society where one would have to pay for water or air. They explain the equilibrium of the universe and invite the audience to participate. The narrator reveals that in Mayan culture life is represented in the exhalation of the breath and requests the audience to try it, to breathe deeply, to enjoy its freshness and purity. Then, he asks them whether or not the human beings deserve another chance and the audience enthusiastically responds, Sí!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

sacred mayan temples and enormous active anthills

After working constantly to finish the mural in Vergel, I took off with Ian to pick up our good friend, Greg, and head off to Tikal, one of the most well-known and largest Mayan sights in the jungle of northern Guatemala. The ancient world spoke to me in long smoky whispers too hard to understand beneath the centuries of life that have overtaken these once inhabited spaces. Ambitious vines sneakily and slowly strangled massive trees; dancing roots fanned out across the earth and pulled upwards, twisting and twirling up towards the sky. I looked up to see monkeys and hear parrots, and I trod massive anthills larger than whales. My attention was drawn to the life of the jungle more than to the ruins, which were impressively intimidating. We arrived late afternoon and didn’t see anyone for an hour until a guard accompanied us up Mundo Perdido, where we basked in the sunset, listened to the toucans, and sat stupefied by the grandeur of the pyramids sneaking over the jungle. That night we uncomfortably enjoyed sleeping in hammocks while trying to distinguish each whistle, rustle, and stir. Was that a howler monkey or a jaguar? I asked myself. In the morning we were again blessed with a day without tourists, and one-by-one the pyramids were scaled and the rich environment of the jungle enjoyed.

A two-night stop in Finca Ixobel in Poptún blessed us with romantic treehouses and delectable food—the best I’ve had in Guatemala! Then we set off for Río Dulce to meet up with my sister artists, Aryeh and Kay, and get recharged with their support and love. Check out their websites to learn about the amazing work they’re both up to! Aryeh’s blog ,Kay’s blog . We met an amazing 62-yr-old hippie living in Costa Rica and traveling by herself, and we all took a trip out on the water for the day, paddled through mangroves and got lost, dipped in the hot springs, and came back to eat and swim and delight in each other’s company. Since my surgery this was our first (and last) vacation and it was certainly one of the best, hard earned and relaxing.