PURPOSE: Coordinate middle school students to paint a mural reframing the value of their identity and the power of their presence in the world.
MAJOR TAKEAWAY: Importance of understanding the context of art within specific cultures, creating avenues for participants from that context to enter into a project, while maintaining a transformative quality to the experience.
Summer 2009 - Antigua, Guatemala
My previous involvement with BuildaBridge International connected me with a Escuela Integrada, a elementary and middle school in Antigua, Guatemala. The school requested an artist to come and paint a mural with their middle school students in the courtyard of their school. The school’s mission is to provide quality education and resources to impoverished children who otherwise would not have opportunities to improve their standard of living due to a lack of a true public education system.
I began by consulting the teachers at the school asking them what type of obstacles the youth face and how this project could help support them in what the youth needed in order to meet their educational and life goals. As a Christian-based school, the teachers had a concern for the student’s concept of their own value. Common exhibitions of Christianity in nearby communities emphasize material blessing as proof of God’s approval; therefore, the poor are often looked upon or conceive of themselves as being “cursed” or unworthy of God’s love. The staff at Escuela Integrada were were shaping the student’s spiritual education around the concept that the Creator of all values each person as invaluable handiwork.
I found many connections between the youth in Antigua and those back home in Philadelphia where I directed an arts after school program for teens called Orange Korner Arts. Many of our conversations wrestled with themes of identity and a sense of worth both that are self-generated as well as projected onto the youth as they grow up in north Philadelphia. Both communities benefit by reframing their identity through the lens that scripture offers to us: all of humankind was created in the image and likeness of the lovey, multifaceted One who created them.
I did a few introductory workshops with the youth from Escuela Integrada having the youth explore similarities between the attributes they ascribed to the Creator and those of their peers which they admired and appreciated. We discussed how the scripture wrestles with the mystery of how our intentional gaze upon the One who created us becomes an agent to transform us into its likeness. Our individual reflection of these beautiful facets becomes essential as we each have a unique “face” to reflect. Collectively, we can portray a more complete image of the One from whom life originated.
I invited one of the teachers at the school to help me create the design for the mural. She gave me some insight into a challenge that some artists from a more contemporary background experience when they begin to work within the context of a culture that has its artistic roots in a more traditional approach. Contemporary art places a high value on the development of one’s own individual expression or style. In more traditional cultures, self-expression is often not sought after or expected. The highest value is instead placed on creating art and craftwork that thoroughly masters the imitation of styles and designs inherited from one’s community and ancestry. Artists from a modern context may frame this approach as an oppressive one that suppresses creative original thought and ideas.
My experience in relational art making with groups of people had built within me a confidence in the need for a structural grounding to exist for individuals to be able to enter into the creative process. The more traditional approach to creative work provides this structure for artists to build on whether they are perfecting replication of previous work or crafting a “new expression” of their own. My approach for this mural created a solid framework for the students to confidently enter in and participate while stretching them to add elements of their own unique creative style.
I had the students created symbols to represent each of the admirable attributes we found in common between our Creator and our peers. They created stencils for each symbol.
We drew a grid on the wall and the students painted their symbols in repetition to create the background of the mural.
I had the students create a border by writing the chosen attributes depicted in the mural by the symbols in whatever lettering style and color they chose.
We wrote over the background “Nosotros fuimos creados a imagen y semejanza de Dios. Reflejamos a Dios con Nuestras Vidas.” Translation: “We were created in the image and likeness of God. We reflect God with our lives.”
When the mural was finished, I asked some of the students what we should title the mural. One student suggested “Las Obras de Dios” or “The Works of the Lord.” She pointed out that any exhibition of the likeness of our Creator in our lives is a gift of grace to us.
My five weeks working with these students gave me the gift of witnessing more glorious, unique “faces” of our Creator. I was inspired to craft a life around that intentional gaze on the Spirit who began life within me. I want my creative work to express an authentic reflection of my personal transformation into that loving presence.