ArtCorps

To foster innovation and creativity by promoting arts and culture as powerful tools to generate cooperative and sustainable work between development organizations and the communities they serve. ArtCorps forms strategic partnerships with grassroots organizations in Central America in order to improve their capacity to educate, empower and mobilize communities. Over a period of three years, ArtCorps places Artists trained in Art for Social Action in communities served by the organizations.
Sep 26, 2011

The Ecosystem, Up Close and Personal

ArtCorps Artist Allison Havens and 10 Youth Leaders in Conservation pile into a truck to learn firsthand about their ecosystem.

Over the past few months, the sessions with my core group of community service high school students have been devoted to getting to know ourselves better, using art and creative exercises to answer questions like: "Who am I? Where do I come from? What is important to me? Who are we as a group?" We've gotten comfortable listening and sharing in a circle, working as a team and learning to encourage everyone to participate. And now...we are ready to get to work on our first project together−a mural!

But first we need to learn a little bit about the topics and issues that we're going to be addressing in our mural−how the natural environment affects us, our water system and the future of the community. So we are taking a field trip to our water source, the life-blood of our precious ecosystem.

The Mayor's Representative, Don Marcos, graciously drove half of the group and Oscar, the CARE Watershed Coordinator, gave a ride to the rest of us. 10 screaming teenagers in the back of a pickup truck made for a lively start to the trip! Once we arrived at the base of the mountain, we trekked about 30 minutes through the woods to reach the river. Talk about beautiful!

Oscar and Don Santiago, the President of La Masica's Water Council, explained how the water system operates hand-in-hand with all parts of the ecosystem to ensure a stable and clean supply of water. We often talk about "the environment" in abstract terms, but it's hard to have a real understanding of what it means to "care for our planet" or "protect our water supply". That's why I wanted our group to see up close where and how we get the water that comes to our homes. And to learn why sometimes the water doesn't reach our houses or we get sick if we drink the water from the tap. And to identify some of the current threats to our natural resources.

The youth also heard why one member of their community, Don Santiago, decided to volunteer his time to improve and protect this water system for the entire community. When the water doesn't run or there's a problem with the water supply, its easy for people to complain, but often those same people don't work to solve the problem, or participate in the water council meetings. Don Santiago inspired us by his stories and example to be part of the solution.

Overall, the youth loved the experience of the hike, the fresh air, the trees, being in the mountains and being together. Without doubt, these are excellent lessons to take away as well.

Aug 18, 2011

La Red

One of the first activities we did at the Artcorps orientation in Antigua, back in January, was a "desempalabrar" exercise. Using any or all of the letters in our name, we tried to form as many words as we could, and eventually, a sentence with those words. To me, the most significant word that came from Andrea was the word “red” (in Spanish, red = network, chain, connections). The sentence I then formed was “Andaré [y] daré en red” (andaré = I will walk, daré = I will give). This “red”, I’ve recently realized, has come to life.
As I explore deeper with my kids the traditions and memories that have been maintained by the Quiché for centuries here in Toto, the theme of “La red de la vida” (the network of life) surfaces constantly. It has always been said that the forest births clouds and the clouds birth water. There are certain types of trees in the forest that filter and cleanse the water, which is why if you go up far enough into the forest, the water is the purest you will ever find. But without all these trees, i.e. the forest, there are no clouds, and without clouds there is no water. So all the deforestation going on causes more problems than just taking away the breathtaking beauty of the mountains. And within this Mayan cosmovisión the red continues– the relationship between fire, water, soil, and air, for example, as well as the family of the sun, moon, earth, and stars.
I recently started taking K’iche’ classes from a wonderful señor who has offered to help me in my quest to communicate with more people in their first language; I have been learning not only how to form sentences, but how deeply connected the language is to the way of thinking. For example, ¿Cómo estás? en k’iche’ is Utz awach? Utz means bienestar, or wellbeing, and wach means rostro, or face – literally, is your body well. Buenas tardes is x’be q’ij; q’ij = sol o día, sun or day, and xb’e = ya está en camino, has set out on its path– the other greetings are similarly tied with the sun or the moon.

And while glimpsing into la red that has existed for centuries here in Toto, I have been forming my own red without really realizing it. While my plans were being conceived in the beginning of the year, I remember thinking, am I really going to be able to do all of this by myself? And the answer was no. I came here as an artist, and artists work not only to create and compose, but also to arrange and see and form patterns – look at things in freshly colored lenses from various distances. I never suspected it that I would be collaborating with such people ranging from a muralist to a Mayan spiritual guide to agronomists and journalists to a hip hop artist. All of our work here is deeply connected, and their experience and creativity has been holding me up more than I sometimes realize.

Framing the picture of myself and my work in this way – as just one drop of water or one star within la red makes me think about both the fragility and the strength of all of this is, and how a work of art is being woven this year -  or maybe it has already been woven and we are just adding some new threads to it. Whatever the case, my mid-year resolution is to continue andando y dando en red.

Jun 1, 2011

Drawing Our Dreams Together

ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields and the women farmers she works with find the courage and confidence to begin working together in new ways.

In a recent meeting with my theater group of women I pulled out some sheets of paper and crayons and asked them to draw a map of the year’s journey, the future they imagined for our group over the next few months. No one opted for the crayons, but most got busy with colored pencils, drawing with a concentration I hope will someday transfer to theater exercises. I walked around the group, complementing their color choices, admiring their work, and trying (as always) to keep random chickens for pecking at my toes. After a while I noticed two women in the group weren’t drawing. Their paper lay in their laps, and they were looking at the ground. The closest, Mamita, is the grandmother of most of the women in the group. She is tall and dignified, ancient and always kind to me.

“Mamita,” I asked, “Why aren’t you drawing?  Do you want me to get you some different colors?” Lupe, her granddaughter, looked up briefly from her picture to say,

“Mamita can’t write.” Mamita nodded her head vigorously in assent.

“But drawing is different than writing,” I said.  “You just have to put the colors together.” Then Mamita clarified for me. She had never held a crayon, a pencil, or a pen. She didn’t know how to put it in her hand. I brought over one of the jumbo crayons I had bought on a whim and fashioned her fingers around it. “Now all you do is decide how you want the colors to go together” I told her. At first, she barely nicked the paper with the crayon, self-conscious and grimacing. Then, after glancing around to see that no one was watching or laughing, she tried again, managing a very nice red circle. I left her drawing circles triumphantly and went to encourage Ildit, the other quiet woman who had never held a crayon before.

After about twenty minutes, we showed our pictures and shared what they meant. Margarita had drawn a plane with herself as the pilot, saying she wanted to be in charge of her own life and make her own decisions. Almost everyone had drawn fields of ripe corn and beans, hoping for a good harvest. Some drew us together, holding hands and working to better the community.

But I was proudest of Mamita. Though her paper was covered with black, red and yellow circles, she showed it off to all of us. “Did you see what I did?” she asked us. Though the other drawings were technically better, she encapsulated the spirit of this year more than anyone. At face value, art seems a poor tool to bring to communities like San Francisco. Every woman is burdened with more work than she can handle, kids with parasites, little food, and now, a real shortage of beans because the rains last year were too strong. Wouldn’t I be more useful if I was advocating a food or health program? The answer, I think, is more complicated than what I want to say. I want to say that no, handouts and benefits are not helpful in the long term and the beauty of art, of creativity, is that it teaches us to think critically about our lives and gives us the tools to organize and change that which causes our suffering. I believe that’s true, but I’m learning that it’s a lovely thing to believe and a difficult belief to live.

Art and social change take time. I came here to teach theater, then realized that for many of these women, it will take a year of work to give them the confidence and courage to stand in front of ten people and say a few lines. Organizing is hard. If the water comes down the main pipe, as it does every eight days or so, all meetings are cancelled. Babies get sick. Housework has to be done, tortillas have to be made three times a day. If it rains everyone stays home. There are a million things that seem more urgent than getting together to play games and talk about creative thinking. Yet, we still meet. Our numbers have dwindled after the first burst of interest, but those who remain are growing in confidence and camaraderie. We might not be mounting any full-length productions soon, we might not solve the problems of malnutrition, parasites and economic scarcity, but we’re slowly beginning to draw our dreams together. And this time, everyone can hold a crayon.

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