Saturday, September 20, 2014

Conquering that first scary mark!

Every artist is familiar with the paralysis brought on by the challenge of a blank canvas; the smooth, white, pristine expanse daring you to put down your first mark.  Today, our group of Bhutanese Elders may have experienced this for the first time. They faced it, fought with it and conquered it.

Week after week, I am struck and inspired by the smiles and spiritual calm of our group members who have endured and thrived through so much hardship in their lives. While sharing their stories through drawn symbols and words, they have given us hints as to what underlies their ability to live in gratitude and grace. This strength and character, however, did not make them immune to the fear of the seemingly small challenge before them. When we announced that this was the day they would start their mural, actually putting colored marks onto the large canvas (mind you traced ones over our penciled sketch), they unanimously declined.  There was a long pause and then a rash of heated Nepalese flying back and forth with the translators;  “It’s one thing to draw and paint on paper! Our hands are too shaky! We do not know how to draw or paint.” They insisted that we, the experienced artists, should take over.  From the start, many of them made it clear to us previously that they had never held a pencil, marker or paintbrush in their lives let alone been put to the task of creating a mural, so their wavering confidence was no great surprise and one might even say was warranted. But what we were caught off guard by was the degree of their resolve to pass the task of executing their vision off to us.   Of course, we refused.  Gently. And with a good amount of back and forth, we assured them (or at least tried to) that they could, in fact, do this. We convinced them (again, tried) that it was of the utmost importance that their marks, their personal expressions show up on this canvas that would represent them.

Initially, they wanted this piece for their community house, but they have since advocated for having it travel to represent who they are and all that they have been through.  They wanted it to be right and beautiful.  They wanted it to be perfect!  On the plus side, their trepidation revealed a very deep investment in the project. But as teachers and facilitators, we knew that the mural had to be genuinely theirs.  Our task was to guide them through fear to trust themselves. Like anyone facing that white expanse, they were going to have to take the risks that art-making demands.

So as the fear in the room started to dissolve into resignation, we rolled the canvas out and they got to work.  At first, the pace was slow and careful, the lines shaky and thin.  But the more they did, the more they felt confident making color choices, making lines, making mistakes, making art! At a point, there was a detail that a few of them wanted to change-the huts for milled rice were separated from the workers threshing in the field. They erased and penciled in their own accurate versions of this part of their lives. Of course, the forms and details in this section are perhaps the strongest of the mural; stylistically unique and beautifully authentic! They clearly were invested and felt great about it.  The energy in the room got more and more active with ideas, original use of color and the interior focus that artmaking provides.
In the closing circle, we strongly reinforced their progression, complimenting them on their bravery and on their huge accomplishments of the day. Art is a different kind of scary, at times even painful. It can be enlivening, centering and inspiring.  The room was full with the triumphant experience of meeting, facing and appreciating these truths.

- Julie Rosen, Teaching Artist with the Bhutanese Elders group and BuildaBridge's PRMHC Community Relations Assistant

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

PRMHC Year 3 Report

BuildaBridge completed Year 3 activities of the Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative on June 30th, 2014.  Funding continued from the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual DisAbility Services, the Sheila Fortune Foundation and Union Benevolent Association.  Seventy-six refugees from three different populations were served during the past year.

Read the full Year 3 Report.

BuildaBridge would like to honor and thank the following artists who have contributed to the success of the Refugee Project for at least two or more years:

  • Celeste Wade
  • Natalie Hoffmann
  • Julia Crawford
  • Christine Byma
  • Jessica LaBarca
  • Robert Kelleher
  • Stevie French
  • Danielle Owen
  • Liz Green

For full biography and current position information, see the Personnel page.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What would your mask communicate?

As part of Nationalities Services Center's (NSC) Refugee Employment and Advancement Program (REAP), BuildaBridge teaching artists Francesca and Stevie provide weekly therapeutic art groups that seek to teach English, occupational and life skills to participants through drama, movement and the visual arts.  For the past two weeks, participants, who are adult refugees from numerous countries in the English as a Second Language (ESL) class, created masks out of paper mache and decorative ornamental items.  During the most recent class, participants were asked to express a movement of their mask (shown in the photo above) and describe their mask in written English.  In their written descriptions, with prompts from the teaching artists, their masks communicated participants' cultures, personal identities and journeys; they communicated their hopes, feelings and dreams.  This exercise was also practice for reading and writing in English.

Drama exercises are incorporated throughout the group to allow for individual creative expression and the development of teamwork.  Pass the clap is used as the group's opening and closing ritual -- turn to the person on your right, both of you clap at the same time.  Then that person passes the clap to the next person and so on until it goes all the way around the circle.  More recently, participants engaged in an exercise where one person acted as the 'boss' and another, the 'interviewee'.  Once the interview was finished, the group provided feedback to the actors, and discussed what they learned about good interviewing techniques which they will then utilize in a real interview.

This ESL class, part of the REAP program, seeks to assist refugees in advancing their occupational skills in the hopes of finding employment.  BuildaBridge is a part of this process, facilitating art-making experiences that allow participants to explore their identities, hopes and dreams; and teach key life and occupational skills as refugees transition to life in the United States.

For images from the most recent class and participants' artwork, see the photo album.

For more information on REAP, visit NSC's website.