This month, I have the pleasure of featuring Christina Maile and Colors of Connection in my column, I AM [insert org name here]. I met Christina through a simple email exchange. Being on the Board of I AM gives me the unique position of being able to reach out and get to know people and their work.
I can't remember all of the details. I do remember Christina being incredibly gracious and open, sharing stories of how art transforms lives and communities. I then went on to her project's website, and what impressed me most is that her image isn't front and center. Rather, it is the image of all the wonderful people creating art. That spoke to me.
Too often artists' egos get wrapped up in their work, and in many case rightfully so. This, though, doesn't always sit well with me when working with communities historically marginalized. Rather, as an artists and community builders and healers, we should be creating the platforms in solidarity with communities that let all shine. That is crucial to doing the work. In fact, a recent post by Black Girl Dangerous, "No More 'Allies'" puts it even better than I can.
Still, the artist also deserves a platform to tell their story. So, today, I introduce you to Christina Maile of Colors of Connection. Read up on her perspective of why she does this work. It's incredibly moving. And check out a video about their work.
I started out as an artist, with a desire to be part of something humanitarian yet believing that it would be close to impossible to have both fully integrated into my life. I went to Hunter College in New York where I completed my BFA and throughout my arts education I had mixed feelings about where to devote my time. Sometimes I was regarded as an anomaly – a playful joke I once heard was “Christina are you going to paint in the studio tonight? No? Oh sorry I forget you want to save the children first, my mistake.”
Several years after I graduated I got a phone call from a close friend, Laurie Reyman who invited me to do a mural project in an isolated postwar town in Liberia. Laurie had an international development position with the Carter Center in Harper, which was a small impoverished community struggling to rebuild itself after 14 years of civil war. The physical landscape was disturbing: though the war had ended in 2003, evidence of the destruction the war had caused was still visible in the many unrenovated cement shells of buildings that had been burned and looted and which were now overgrown with vines and moss, or partially rehabilitated and inhabited by squatters. Laurie envisioned a community arts project that as an artist I would be able to implement with her knowledge of the community’s needs and the relationships she had built already in Harper.
I was through the roof excited about this opportunity to offer my skills as an artist in an area where visual transformation was so needed. This project gave me a chance to try something that I had been afraid to think was possible: creating a job for myself to do art in the humanitarian field. After successful fundraising I was on the ground 8 months later. In four months the project had a transformative effect on the post war landscape. We mobilized 56 youth from 8 different schools and created, under the guidance of a community arts council, 4 murals on structures in Harper that expressed the vision of the future for this community.
Since that time the project has grown into an organization founded by myself and Laurie Reyman called Colors of Connection. We’ve completed 3 projects so far in post war Liberia and are gearing up for our next one with Malian refugees in Burkina Faso. Our work engages communities and youth in creative expression in areas where art is typically void, including post war communities and refugee camps.
Laurie and I became dedicated to this work following our first experience in Harper, Liberia. We came to realize that places as isolated and underdeveloped as Harper need creative energy almost as much as anything else and that art does have a real power. If you look at priorities in humanitarian assistance you’ll likely see art at the bottom of the list. However in a situation like Liberia in which the country was heavily dependent on international aid and also lacking in artistic creativity, many people felt helpless, dependent, and stagnant. I had never been to a place as devoid of the arts or as dependent on outside help as Liberia. Liberia has not had the arts taught in the schools for a generation. Kids and adults don’t know that red + yellow makes orange. In Harper even craftsmanship is barely present, so it’s hard to find a person who knows how to make a good chair.
The project enabled the youth creating the murals and the community witnessing it to step out of their difficult daily lives and imagine a better future. In a place almost devoid of the arts, art brought a special therapeutic energy that was helping people move forward, believe in more than their immediate reality, and connect with each other through their common hopes and dreams. The community couldn’t believe that the potential existed in their children and in their town to create something so beautiful. Laurie and I believe that art belongs to everyone everywhere and we hope to continue sharing it with the people and places around the world that need it the most.