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.