Tuesday, September 7, 2010

George Seurat travels to Thailand

Most of the children gathered around the small wood tables will likely-as-not never see a real George Seurat painting. Many probably won't end up getting on a real plane and flying thirteen hours to Paris, France. But that did not stop any of them from arriving excited Wednesday afternoon to glue “French visas” into their “passports” and head off to “Paris” to learn how to paint pointillism.

Wanting to get involved in community service and art while I was in Chiang Mai I found myself meeting behind one of the larger wats in the city with an organization that focuses on art relief, a week after my arrival in the city. Originally my intention was to simply help out a couple hours a week in one of their many partner organizations. They had other ideas. Five minutes into our discussion I was presented with the idea of creating a weekly art program for local neighborhood kids, many of whom are very poor. The only stipulation was that it met once a week and taught kids some form of art, where I went from there was completely up to me. How could I say no?

So after a month of planning (and about another of me traveling and unable to plan) everything was organized and ready for the kids to start. I had a name: Young Lions, Global Artists (the Thai lion is a very popular symbol here), and I had the Thai translation: Singh noi, Sin la pin low. I had a logo: a traditional Thai lion whose tail turned into a paintbrush. And most importantly I had a concept: A tour of artistic traditions from around the world – thus teaching the kids both art and a little bit about the world.

In the week leading up to our first day, a poster was printed to hang on the gate and a stack of green passports were stapled together to be passed out to the children before they “departed” to far off countries within the courtyard of Cultural Canvas Chiang Mai. We made forays out into the neighborhood deep into the sois (small streets) where Pbat (one of the people who works at Cultural Canvas and also does all the translating) marching confidently into alleyways to talk to any family we saw with kids.

And then it was Wednesday – the sky threatening and the air cool. We had our tables set out, the paints ready in the offing at 3:45 (the program was to run from 4-5). We had made enough passports for twenty kids, but we expected closer to eight on this first day. While we milled around pondering who if anyone would come, three small kids in school uniforms came hesitantly into the courtyard. We descended upon them with excitement – handing out passports explaining that they should fill them out (the first page has questions: What is your name? Age? Country of birth? Favorite color? Favorite animal?) When they had filled out their new passports and drawn pictures of themselves we set them to sketching while we waited hopeful for a few additional kids before we began the lesson.

Determined to wrangle up some more children, Pbat marched off into the sois and returned ten minutes later trailing three more excited students who had an hour only before they had to go sell flowers on the streets. In the time she was gone, yet more children arrived – some by themselves, some in groups of two or three and two dropped off by a dad on a motorbike. By 4:20 we had amassed a collection of 14 kids all around or below the age of eight! It was time to board the plane.

Unfurling a map we first pointed out Thailand and then “finger flew” to Japan. We explained (with Pbat translating) the origins of Japanese fans and then I showed them an example I had constructed the day before – a long beige paper covered with watercolor fish, folded and taped into a large fan that I could hang from my wrist or a belt. The lesson was short, and all translated, as they know next to no English, but mostly we were just eager to jump right in.

Paper was unfurled, watercolors brought out. For the next forty minutes the children covered their fans with trees, houses, people, declarations of “I love you,” and large abstract splotches of paint. Then it was time to fold them, tape the bottoms with brown “wood” tape and attach a rainbow string loop. Before they departed back into the Sois we handed out snacks and stamped their “Japanese Visas” within their passports.

I think the first class was a success. Indeed it seemed to make such an impression on one little boy nicknamed Pokemon that he came showed up the following day just to talk to the Cultural Canvas volunteers!

This past week’s trip to France resulted in a beautiful collection of pointillist Eiffel towers created undercover from the rain that swept through the courtyard in the late afternoon. To remind the kids to only paint with dots, the volunteers set up a mantra of “Judt! Judt! Judt!” (dot dot dot – in Thai). Almost all the kids returned and we even had a new girl. A major highlight of the day was the little girl who returned to class with a letter for Pbat. It read: "Teacher I love the art classes, but why are they only one day a week!" If only we could have classes every day, but right now I’m just thrilled at how much the kids are enjoying the once a week lessons. This week we are off to Nigeria!

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