Friday, June 15, 2012

The Joy of Painting: "Let's just add some happy clouds"

Coloring on the porch (thanks Whit!)
Ice Cream Cone and Baby > Madonna and Child
I miss the days of "604 art school...."

It was one of those days, a Wednesday, where I had nothing scheduled. Wednesdays I could fill with various “meetings” with potential counterparts or do laundry/clean or do whatever needs to be done to meet my sanity needs, like spend an entire day reading Game of Thrones. After making some breakfast and reading some Nation magazine articles (thanks Mom and John!) it was time to make some moves.
Because my house was clean, my laundry was done and I have finished all 5,000 pages of available Game of Thrones, I decided to go to the primary school to pursue an integrated art and life skills class I want to teach.
By the time I get to internet to post this, it will mark one year since I have been in Swaziland. It is well-known in Peace Corps that the second year is when things get easier and “work gets done”. Many of us feel we are out of the woods, so to speak, in terms of hut depression and wanting to ET. In just a few weeks, the next wave of volunteers, Group 10, will come and already the Groups 8’s are COSing (closing their service). It’s an interesting time of transition, kind of like going from a freshman to a senior in an abridged span. They say the second year goes much faster because it is more productive. I can see how this would happen. This summer (winter for us) will be busy with Pre-Service Training for the new group and finally getting nascent projects off the ground. While I try not to ever wish away life, I am so glad to be entering a new phase of my time here.
I am also using this down time of winter to study for the GRE. It’s maddening. So I complete my undergrad education and another year of living life to….take the SAT again? Fml. Glad I paid attention in Latin, oh wait, I didn’t.
Rather than listing all the individual things I am working on (re: trying to make come to fruition), I want to tell you about the one thing I am working on that I am by far most excited about: teaching art. I have to be honest, I am seriously intimidated by teaching. I think that is why I have insofar avoided the schools. Many schools also have quite a bit of corporal punishment, which I find to be very uncomfortable to witness, not ever having experienced it before. Besides SPINNING classes, I have never taught anything. But as a “community educator”, my title, I suppose I should give it a shot. Art, you may think is superfluous.
As one of those “save the arts” people who doesn’t think cutting music and art from the public school curriculum is a good way to save money in the US national budget, I am going to tell you why art is important and why my proposed art class will be awesome. When I was in Mozambique, at the backpackers, I met a local who was painting at the hostel. He began telling me about this idea for a combined art and life skills class. I am not sure of the format, but they somehow teach basic art skills like sketching, proportion, painting, etc. and then teach a class on a health-related matter, then they bring them together by doing an art assignment involving the health lesson. They also paint health-themed murals around Tofo. I haven’t been able to get this out of my head since, and figured, why not try to replicate it?
For months now, various people have told me that my interest in art could be used for “art therapy”.  At first I didn’t really think I could do this since I know nothing about therapy, then I realized art is therapy to me, the way some people use exercise, music, meditation and so forth to gain respite from their everyday lives (so much healthier than watching hours of TV or consuming immoderate amounts of wine or chocolate, although they all have their place…). Swazi kids don’t just have everyday problems either, some of them are coping with parents/family members who have died as a result of AIDS. Some of them are HIV-positive themselves (which brings along a host of emotional complications). Some are abused, whether physically, emotionally or sexually. Some don’t have food on the table for dinner, or breakfast. Even during particularly heavy workshops in Peace Corps, like our Grief and Loss session, we were allowed to use art supplies during the whole thing so we could still listen, but be engaged in something else. Plus its fun! Besides being an escape, art can build self-esteem. Nothing is more satisfying than making something from nothing – the way cooking makes people feel, or home improvement, or composing music/writing. Art can also be an outlet for complicated feelings ranging from grief to frustration. Also, there is the whole creativity aspect. Creativity and imagination are not fostered in Swaziland the way they are in America, which I think will pose a challenge in the way kids initially view art assignments but I remember from elementary school that all kids inherently have a huge capacity for creativity and fantasy.
Earlier this week, two of the kids were home sick from school. Without The Price is Right on TV, being home sick can be super boring.  They love the paintings I mess around with on my own wall, so I sat them down with some watercolors my grandpa sent me and taught them how to sketch their own versions of pictures copied from other sources, do a rough draft, and paint them. It was the biggest motivation I have had to teach art, they were completely engrossed by the minutia of their pictures that they spent hours perfecting them. “LOOK NTFOMBITANELE!” I came in from doing laundry, “Yes? Wow, that’s great. Wente kahle!” I was pleased that my niece’s painting was of a giant ice cream cone holding hands with a comparatively smaller baby. A girl after my own heart, I hung it on my wall. She’s proud, the way I am still proud when people hang my paintings on their walls.
So I am no more an artist than I am a chef (that’s for damn sure), but in the spirit of working with what makes us happy, why not do something I feel passionate about and hope to inspire some kids to do the same?
Random fact of the week: My favorite part of showing and explaining Disney movies is from a cultural context. Lion King was easy. Finding Nemo was hard. The Princess and the Frog was a hit, and I enjoyed the fact we called the bad guy – a voodoo character: sangomo. Pocahontas was interesting because while Swazi kids may not know about pilgrims and Indians, they understand the colonization aspect from their own history classes. I found myself invoking Kurt Vonnegut: “And these are the greedy Sea Pirates that killed Pocahontas and her friends’ while founding the United States of America”

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