It was the second training session with the teachers of “Los Rocosos” from the Panquix area facilitated by ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrió. They gathered in the morning in the meeting room of the Community Association of the 48 Cantons in Totonicapán.
When I arrive, some of the teachers are already waiting at the door. As we set up the materials and the space, others continue to arrive. The perfumes of the morning and the cheery multicolored skirts of the teachers add to the ambiance. They like to make jokes with one another.
This training will deal with Public Art and the Environment. We learn that public art consists of art in any medium, planned and executed for the public domain, that is typically outdoors and accessible to everyone. We see projected images of the work of the artist Tom Otterness and his bronze sculptures that are strategically placed in the New York City subway. Small, sculpted characters sit almost unseen under a door or alongside a stairway. A laugh and a wink for the hurried commuter in the big city.
Such a distant geography and reality: New York City and Totonicapán. But the concept and the enjoyment society takes from such artwork in public spaces, outside of museums and galleries, is shared. With the same smiles and jokes that the teachers so enjoy, we also delight in stumbling on a surprise and a spontaneous invitation to play out on the street.
With respect to environmental art, we are refering to art that deals with ecological issues or with the natural environment. And who better to embark on today’s task than this group of teachers, who are already raising awareness about nature’s fragility among their students. Now we look at projected images of the work of artist Andy Goldsworthy, who, alone in the forests and using natural materials gathered outdoors like branches, leaves, rocks, flowers, feathers, etc., creates his ephemeral constructions.
I observe the faces of the teachers looking attentively at the projector. I comment that we are talking about an internationally renowned artist, who uses all of the materials that are also available here in Totonicapán, at arm’s reach in their communal forests, and at no cost. I tell them that this Scottish artist is very famous and earns “a lot of pisto (cash)” with his works of art.
Looking something between surprised and incredulous, the teachers exchange glances and laughter echoes through the community room once again.
Inspired by these concepts and images, we get to work. We will work on figures with natural mud and dried leaves and branches with no tools but our hands and, of course, our imaginations. We visualize the spaces of the park: there is a fountain, a sculpture of Antanasio Tzul, stairs, and benches, among other attributes. We need to discover and examine the park in order to contextualize the images that will be sculpted.
Euphorically, the teachers get to work without delays or inhibitions, and in less than an hour, we set out with the sculptures to install them in strategic spots around the park. Atanasio Tzul now has a feathered serpent at his feet, there is a clay clock with hands made out of dried branches installed in a space in the monument, there is a lizard on the ground behind the gate, a character with a hat on a commemorative plaque, a small replica of the actual fountain—one by one the teachers installed their work throughout the park.
Passersby look on with curiosity and asked what was going on. Some of them take sculptures home with them, others take photos, posing in front of a cat with eyes made of rocks and ears of dried leaves.
We achieved our mission of intervening in public space with organic materials that wouldn’t contaminate. And we put our first examples of public art on display for the public in Totonicapán’s central park.
This project is being carried out in collaboration with EcoLogic Development Fund.
ArtCorps Artist Napthali Fields shares the challenges of working with women’s groups and introducing theater and creative expression in rural El Salvador. She is collaborating with Servicio Jesuita and Oxfam America to promote women’s leadership in their homes and communities and prevent violence against women.
Ten months ago I stood in front of a semi-circle of women in rural El Salvador, waiting to begin our first meeting. Trying not to be distracted by the free-range chicken who kept honing in on my toes, I smiled cheerfully at the kids who ran as free and as dirty as the chickens and worked on keeping my rising sense of panic off my face. My mission was deceptively simple: teach theater and art techniques to women so they learn to analyze and express the realities of rural poverty in their communities. Standing in front of fifteen women who sat silent and impassive, staring at the ground or nursing their babies, I wondered what in the world I was doing.
We started with an ice-breaker. An easy get-to-know-you game that involved tossing a small ball around a circle and saying your name to the group. I had scheduled five minutes for this introduction. Twenty minutes later the women were still silent and impassive, even as they chased after the balls that found the dusty ground more than they were caught. I don’t remember much more of that meeting. My Spanish was bad and the women, if they spoke, used a slang called caliche that was impossible to understand. That first day we set up rules for our new art group: be courteous, show up on time, participate, don’t criticize other members and others. In the days to come, everyone would break those rules.
Week after week I would walk down the dusty road with a huge plastic bag of colored pencils, paper, cardboard, and balls hanging off my shoulder. If it rained, we canceled the meeting. If it even looked like rain, no one would come. In times of planting or harvest, when every hand was needed to assure a year’s supply of food, we would postpone our group. Babies got sick, tortillas had to be made, and at one point in mid-May we were down to a group of 4-5 women.
“The problem is that you aren’t bringing rice,” Niña Aracely told me as we sat in the shade of the patio.
“True,” Lupe laughed. “Rice and some clothes in that big, ugly bag of yours.”
“That’ll bring ‘em for sure,” Niña Aracely nodded sagely. I sighed. This region had a long reputation of handouts from various aid organizations. That’s why any kind of community organization was almost impossible to form; no one saw the point when the system was corrupt and if they waited long enough God or some NGO would hopefully have mercy on them. Giving gifts was completely against the mission of my organization. We wanted to empower rural women, to give them the tools to think, organize and act for themselves so they could resist dependence on well-meaning but unhelpful foreign aid. Still, how could I teach empowerment if no one came to my meetings?
“Alright.” I said to Niña Aracely. “If they want rice I’ll see what I can do.”
The next week, my plastic bag was heavier as I walked towards our meeting-house. I hadn’t brought rice, deciding on a big snack instead that would add some variety to the never-ending repetition of beans and tortillas that everyone ate. Niña Aracely had rounded up a few more women with the promise of food, and I stood in front of a big circle of women again, praying that this time we would stay on course.
I taped a blank poster to the wall and asked, “Why is it hard to participate in the women’s art group?” First there was an embarrassed silence. Then Lucinda spoke up.
“Everyone gossips about us and says we’re crazy. The men say that we’re wasting time here playing games when we should be working. Other people say you’re teaching us to dance. Everyone makes fun of us for being here.” At her words, everyone began to talk at once, confirming or adding to the stories about the community mocking them for doing something so strange as an art group. Eventually I had to let out an unladylike shriek to be heard above the noise.
“Do you think we’re learning crazy things?” I asked the women. They shook their heads no. “Well, it’s your opinion that matters. You’re the ones who are learning new things; the ones who gossip about it are scared of any kind of change.”
I wish I could say that my words inspired them to continue. Honestly, they didn’t seem very convinced until I brought out the snacks. I wisely decided that from then on I would offer the powerful combination of good food and inspiring speeches at all of our meetings.
Slowly we began to act like a real group. We presented a play called “The Education of Santiago” that questioned the disparity between boys’ and girls’ value in the community. We rehearsed for months to perform at a nursing home a story about a tyrannous queen and a village that slowly organized against her abusive laws. Finally, the year ended. At our last celebration, Niña Aracely came up to me and spoke in her gravelly voice.
“The men were at it again yesterday,” she said. “They were telling us we’re crazy for being in this group and that we’ll never be good for anything now.” I sighed. After all the work we’d done, I thought that public opinion would be a little more favorable. But Niña Aracely was smiling. “I just had to tell ‘em it was a whole load of lies and if they have a problem with you they are just wrong because we learn good things in our group and you are not a crazy woman.” I stared at her in amazement. That she would dare to contradict the powerful men in her community to their faces in defense of our little group was more than I’d ever expected. But Niña Aracely wasn’t done yet, “And I told ‘em that when you come back we’ll be looking for even more women to be in the group and we’re going to get even more done next year.” She looked at me for a moment and I remembered the taciturn woman I had met a few months before.
She pulled me in for a goodbye hug. “But this time, bring that bag of rice to the first meeting.” She smiled, “Those good-for-nothing men will want to come too.”
Youth Leaders in Conservation listen, feel, express their thoughts through images and share the ancestral wisdom of their Mayan community, under the guidance of ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrió. The children from 48 Cantones arrive early at the Riecken Library in Xolsacmalja. Running, sweating, pushing and shoving, they ask for the ball to get a few minutes of play in before the creativity workshop starts, three times per week.
They are punctual and responsible. And rarely ever absent. In those cases when a child doesn’t show up, someone from his or her household diligently brings me a handwritten note from the family explaining the child’s absence: “He had to plant in the cornfield today.”
The purpose of the workshop series is to publish a book that collects the stories from the oral tradition in the community, illustrated by children. The stories told are about the Maya Ki’che’ people, the Ajaw of the mountain and the water, and some old rules to save the forest, such as “Pixab”, “Pixan”, “Toj” and “Repuj”. All of these are concepts that direct us as human beings to relate to nature: the mountains, the forest, the water, and the animals.
To collect these stories, we go to the “Plxab” (Council of Elders). Every Thursday we walk down the narrow dirt paths to the house of somebody’s grandfather. The children sit and listen. Usually, they are speaking Ki’che’. So I sit with my notebook, the page blank, until Evelyn comes and translates the story into Spanish for me.
For the illustrations, we are experimenting with different techniques and visual mediums such as painting, drawing, collage, photography and photo montages. We will also go to the forest to listen to the sound of the pines, smell them, touch them, and of course, draw them.
Mr. Urbano, the teacher at the library, also taught us the kirigami technique, cutting paper to make airy and light forms, something that the children enjoy very much. We plan to paint a mural inspired by these simple forms for Reforestation Day in May.
The idea is that we can experience and appreciate the forest, and that all of its stories – which will be represented in the illustrations, can be heard in due time, enjoying the journey and along the way discovering some new perceptions that come from old stories. Because ancestral wisdom is passed down from generation to generation, and we don’t want it to stop with us.
This project is being carried out in partnership with EcoLogic Development Fund.