As one of eight artists chosen to participate in an art therapy project in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, I taught a curriculum of illustration and graphic design to 60 enthusiastic children who bore witness to a Asia’s longest civil war. This post — in short — was my project.
The Journey Ahead: Sometimes spending up to 8-hours a day on a bus through tank-torn and monsoon-flooded dirt roads we traveled to three remote and often forgotten-about schools. Fighting illness, insects, sleep deprivation and the heat, each of us were dedicated to teaching these students our craft — and they were just as dedicated to learning them.
Supplies and Indoctrination: Each student was given a sketchbook in which their entire course would be documented. I passed on to them what my instructors at Ringling College of Art and Design had instilled in me — that a sketchbook is a visual journal displaying your process and advancement, never tear out a page or erase a sketch.
Illustration: The first of two days was spent developing technical skill in drawing using still life and various media. They learned about proportion, perspective and shading with trompe l’oeil. Using techniques such as contour line drawing they outlined forms in graphite. Their first time using the medium, students sketched, smeared and erased giving dimension to their shapes with vine charcoal. Sketchbooks nearly full and a class full of smiles, the fun day of drawing from life came to a close, but tomorrow would be more challenging.
What is a Logo?: Was the name of the discussion in which we opened class with on day two. Communication was challenging given there is no direct translation in the Tamil language for the term logo, closest available being “adeyallum courie” (literally meaning emblem). With my MacBook Pro I presented popular case studies such as the “arrow” within the FedEx logotype, the evolution and simplification of the WWF panda, and who could neglect to show the controversial Nike Swoosh? However, I needed to reach them on a personal level to truly reveal the power behind a mark. I did this by dissecting several local logos, displaying the icon alone without its typographic counterpart. We reviewed local telecom companies’ Etisalat and Airtel, petroleum companies’ Caltex and Ceypetco and Western but available soft drink giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi. I showed them the symbolism within the Unicef logo that graced their backpacks, the smiley-face of LG and the national pride of Sri Lankan Airlines’ peacock. Their eyes grew large.
Design: Now that they all knew what a logo was and what it should convey they moved on to designing their own. Switching media from sketch-able pencils and charcoal to the less forgiving black marker we began the graphic design portion of the course. I educated them in iconography techniques that would simplify their drawings to their most basic forms. They combined icons of animals, shapes and type (their favorite) to design a mark representational of themselves. Final output of their design — composed in their sketchbooks — would be printed using a linoleum block due to its therapeutic benefits in chiseling away and the gritty nature in which it prints — befitting the history of the region in which these children live. The results were astounding, the children were held in amazement of their final achievement. I encouraged them however to flip through their sketchbooks from day one to final design to contemplate the process as a whole — for in life as in art it’s not about the destination but the journey.
Exhibition: I chose five of my students from each of the three schools to travel 10 hours south to the capitol city of Colombo to be recognized for their work at a gallery exhibition — an amazing opportunity for many who’ve never left the north. Sri Lankan press filled the gallery as US Ambassador Butenis graced us with her presence. Famous Tamil actors and musicians performed popular songs and invited children on stage to dance — gladly accepting of course. As the night came to a close while taking our final group photo I was approached by a young girl who told me she “could never forget me”. And with that my team and I waved goodbye with a solemn stare and a tear on each cheek as “our kids” boarded the bus headed north.
Conclusion: I speak very little Tamil, thankfully art, despite language and cultural barriers is universal. The need to express one’s self resides at the core of all great artists — and children. Picasso said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”. My initial goal was for each child to design a logo representative of themselves — perhaps giving them a sense of personal “identity”. Did they come away with new tools and techniques to further their training? Yes. Did they develop a sense of identity? From where I stood they had developed them already. Children are happy just to create, to lose themselves in a craft with someone who cares enough to share with them their passion (whether they traveled 8,000 miles or not). That is at the very heart of art therapy, isn’t it?
It would be an understatement to say I learned more from them than I could have ever reciprocated. If anyone developed a sense of personal identity it was me.
* To see the children’s progression click here for a sketchbook video and their final designs.
* For deeper insight into this trip view my travel blog here.
* For more information on the cARTwheel Initiative click here.
All good photos by Geoff Green for The cARTwheel Initiative. Bad ones by me.
Seven days. Seven new experiences. Out of my comfort zone and into the unknown, it began as a day of firsts but the experience quickly inspired me to continue my path into the unfamiliar. I kept the experiment organic, sometimes making a conscious effort for change, other times letting life surprise me.
This was my week of firsts…
Sunday, Oct. 9th: Brooklyn: As a strict Manhattanite, I would normally rather bathe in the Hudson than take the J train into the hipster territory of Williamsburg. Not only this, I traversed as far as the Rockaways and migrated back to Greenpoint. I survived! My fear of coming home facially tattooed or deaf from the sound of banjos was finally quelled.
Monday, Oct. 10th: Yoga: There are many misconceptions of Yoga going around the straight, male community. Keep believing them. If you need me I’ll be in a Vinyasa class with 30 amazingly flexible women.
Tuesday, Oct. 11th: Cartilage: Following instinct, we sometimes refrain from doing something we think to be a bad idea. This is one time I should have followed that instinct. Pig ear tacos.
Wednesday, Oct. 12th: Dijon: I’ll keep it simple. L’Orange Bleu in Soho has a mustard so spicy it made me cry. I am a delicate flower.
Thursday, Oct. 13th: Success: Anyone in advertising knows a first pitch is often torn to shreds by clients or coworkers alike. To have a first pitch not only exceed expectations but require little revision is unheard of. Congratulations to my team Mark and Iric, let’s enjoy the high while it lasts.
Friday, Oct. 14th: Teacher: I wrote a curriculum to shape and mold (hopefully not distort) young minds for my trip to Sri Lanka in December. I combined influential classes from my years at Ringling with real-world experience. Included are legal (or physical) procedures for getting money out of deadbeat clients — kidding.
Saturday, Oct. 15th: J. Lindeberg: I randomly walked into the BLK DNM store on Lafayette and there he was, Johan Lindeberg my all-time favorite men’s designer — sitting on the floor lighting candles. This would be more interesting if I actually spoke with him, but alas approaching a random celebrity will have to be a first for another day.
Sunday, Oct. 14th: Redeemed: I was encouraged to go to Redeemer Church in the Upper West Side as a young, single Christian. Great message and even greater talent (in more ways than one). Let’s just say I’ll be back every week.
- What have I learned? To put aside preconceptions and fear.
- Were all of these events life-changing? Yes. Life is a journey.
- Will I do it again this week? Yes. And every week thereafter.
- Will you?
things, tell them what to do
and let them surprise you
with their results.” —Jorge Patton