Moving on with colour
Children of the tsunami horror learn to heal their heartaches through art
“Art does not solve problems but makes us aware of their existence. It opens our eyes to see and our brain to imagine.” – Magdalena Abakanowicz.
That is exactly what this particular group from New York are doing. Using art as a medium to assist that all important ‘moving on’ process, they are helping numerous tsunami affected children in Sri Lanka. And from the results, it is more than clear that the process is doing wonders.
Pamela Lawton, a Professor of Art at Eugene Lang College, a division of The New School for Liberal Arts in New York, was approached by a group of her students in 2005, with an interesting proposition. “As a part of their class, they wanted to connect with tsunami affected children in Sri Lanka and do whatever they could for them. So I agreed, and we arranged a month-long excursion in Sri Lanka, funded by the school, from mid May to mid June,” she said.
Their contact person in Sri Lanka, was Dr. Palitha Kohonne, Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) in Sri Lanka, and through his support as well as the support of the New York Vihara Foundation, the project began.
They chose Godagame in Unawatuna. The assignment was to facilitate skill-building and self-expression for children who were either orphaned or made homeless by the tsunami. “Once we worked with the kids in 2005, and seeing the many positive results, we came back the next year as well,” Pamela said. The kids, between four to 17, are extremely talented, she says, and it was an absolute pleasure working with them and watching them deal with, and move on from their trauma.
The classes took place in a temple, where the kids came to learn how to express themselves through art. “My students felt that art therapy would be a good way to approach the kids. But as I am essentially an artist, we improvised and made the kids express themselves, not so much by remembering trauma, but focusing more on moving on and dealing with their loss,” said Pamela.
“For instance, we took the kids to the beach and taught them to paint the water. Then gradually, we made them paint people and add them to the initial picture. They drew people sobbing, floating or asking for help, and generally any memories of the tsunami. So the whole process was a combination of perception and memory, with some of them drawing a blue sea, but others colouring the sea a dark purple or a brown, which was the colour of the sea on that day.” They used art paper especially flown in from the US, as well as very good quality acrylic paint, for the best results.
This year too, Pamela and four of her students were back. Before they left New York, the students had a crash course on Sri Lankan art, history, culture, traditions and tried out Sri Lankan food, familiarising themselves with the country. Once in Sri Lanka, they went on a week-long tour of the Cultural Triangle under the guidance of Professor Albert Dharmasiri of the Faculty of Aesthetic Studies of the University of Kelaniya, getting a feel of the country’s artistic background. Then began the proper activities from June 2-22 in Godagama.
Diana Criswell who came to Sri Lanka, along with Pamela and her students has been a part of the project for the last two years. A student of Pamela’s having now graduated, she is channelling her expertise towards the project. “My focus is art education and I am interested in getting involved in something proactive as well. I thoroughly enjoy this experience of working with the kids,” she said. Asked whether communication is an issue, Diana answers in the affirmative, but adds that art is a medium that can be used without much words, and if there is any problem, acting it out normally works! “I have picked up quite a few art-related Sinhalese words this time round,” she added.
According to Diana, they plan to bring graduates focused on art education and social work to bring out the best results for the kids. “I have gained tremendously as a teacher, from this experience. Teaching these kids is a challenge, and extremely inspirational and rewarding,” she said.
Pamela is also the director of “Making Art Everywhere”, a non-profit organisation in New York, with her students being members of the committee. “This is separate to the project, but we do many activities through this organisation such as art exhibitions, using the art of the kids, as well as local Sri Lankan artists. Through the organisation, we fund the programme at Godagama as well as another one in Payagala, where we get the assistance of local artists to teach kids,” she added.