Workshops and the Biggest Tree

Published

This morning I set out to work on the mural by myself first thing. The sun hits the wall of the mural in the morning and it is extremely bright. For a few mornings now I walk outside and can’t even look at it. So I head back inside for some sunglasses, wondering how the wall will weather in this sun over time.

The mural wall is cinder block. This morning I was focusing on filling in some of the crevices and pores where the white is shining through. It looks bad when you can see speckles of white coming through the blue of the water or the blue of the sky. I’ve been chosing any old paint color to fill in these sections, aware that I can utilize them to add a dry brush effect of blending some colors. The dots are endless though and seem to reappear afterwards.

I was also waiting to meet with Romeo, who is the guy who knows how to mortar here. I have collected old glass to add to a post by the museum with the kids. I am sure I could figure it out, but I thought I would get a quick tutorial on the proper proportions to make sure things go smoothly. I don’t want time to run out for this project though, even though it should go fairly quick once we start.

I headed up to the high school a little before noon with some canvas and oil paint. We had a fun session on a picnic table underneath a tree in a meadow. Two of the guys from yesterday, Malcolm and Kendrie (sp?) came out. I gave a few pointers before starting and talked about mixing paint and brush application. I also told them how to decide upon their composition by using their fingers as “viewfinders.” We talked about not using white or black when painting landscapes, as they can dilute the vibrancy of the colors. We talked about working as if you were squinting, so you can get the large shapes and tones down. They went right into it.

It was a lot of fun. Between the laughing and jokes, they really approached it earnestly. Some struggled more than others. There were 6 boys. The smallest boy, Shammah (sp?) had the largest canvas. He put down a very nice Picasso like rendering of tree branch, boldly cutting across this big canvas. He then got a bit lost trying to figure out the rest of the painting. At the end, one of the boys said his was the best. While they were painting, they kept telling him it was weird.

Kendrick took to painting on the easel. He approached the tree that we were getting the shade from, composing a closely cropped painting of the trunk. Malcolm decided to paint the school buildings and put together a composition that had bits of a Cezanne feeling, a compressed geometry of sorts. Kevin drew a scene with some symbol trees, and I kept busting his chops about that. “Man, that looks like you drew a tree and then just stamped them down, I don’t see trees like that!” The other two drew very nice considered compositions. One was centered weighted with a tree. And the other was stratified… sky, tree, grass, foreground. The color choice was vibrant.

The session lasted a bit too long for a few reasons. With the exception of Shammah, they added enough paint to the boards. The oil paint was still wet, so it began to get messy. The boys were painting in their uniforms, which made for a hilarious moment when one of them was asking for burgundy paint to paint over a blue stain on his pants. Also, towards the end, a few boys started literally swinging from the tree branch. You can only expect to handle the focus for so long. The rough housing lead to two of them marking up each others paintings… which actually made them very cool in my opinion. I tried to get them to slow down and recognize that the “ruined” expression could be worked back into the painting. But they both ended up wiping their paintings completely. The others set their work to dry and we all left the school.

Along the way I got a nice post-workshop video where they recounted some things about their experience. I will upload it when I get back. The boys helped me carry some of the supplies into town. They allowed me to hang with them and answered my questions and pointed out things of interest to them. I asked them about the biggest tree in Barbuda and they took me to it. One of the boys said in astonishment “wow, I’ve lived here my whole life and I never saw that tree before.”
They told me about the previous largest tree that was by the baker. They cut that tree down because it was endangering the power lines. They said you could see it from many parts of the island and use it as a landmark.

I took some photos of the largest tree and we left, talking about how old it is and if the root system is really as large as the road. They asked me if that was the biggest tree I’ve ever seen and I stumbled on how to answer that. I muttered something about how it was the biggest root structure I had seen.

It was really nice of them to give me a little tour of the area and help me carry some supplies. 
We passed an abandoned tour boat, with some wildlife painted on the sides. They cleared the bush to show me the Frigate bird airbrushed on the side. I asked what happened and they said “It just broke down and the tourism declined.”

We walked through the abandoned and drained “Duck Pond.”  It used to house ducks and was apparently an attraction for the tourists, but the pond attracted too many frogs, so they drained it. It still fills up with rainstorms though.

I returned to the field station for a quick bite to eat and then got back to work on the mural. Kevin was the first to stop by. He jumped in a bit timidly, painting the red on some of the Frigate birds. Ghaleel (sp?) came by and was scoffing at the previous day’s work. He boldly added the sun shine in orange, adding a big new direction for the mural. I lost those two after about 30 minutes because of two reasons: 6 ten-year olds (and younger) came to work on the mural, and basketball was happening next door. 

I managed the kids well by limiting their brushes and color choices. Over time, they managed to get a few more brushes. They got a big kick out of the stop motion camera taking pictures and would break frequently to pose in front of it. They tried to split up and explore the aqua-ponics side of the yard, but I kept them roped in. As the sun was setting I collected their brushes and brought them to clean up. By this point I was shepherding them by saying “everybody line up, get in line, you against the wall, everybody quiet!” It was a fun experience for them. One boy said “Painting is so awesome!” with bulging eyes. Another said “I told my mom I am coming to paint the mural and she said she was proud of me.” They want to come back tomorrow, but this could be a problem, as they aren’t really bringing the painting closer to being finished.

After I escorted them out, I spent a few hours working on the mural by myself. I walked to the wharf to watch the sun set over the lagoon, which was spectacular. Some of the high schoolers shouted out “Boom – Bad!” and waved. I talked with the hamburger shack guy Byron about a possible Frigate Bird tour. On the way back to the mural I watched a few minutes of the Basketball game. A lot of respect for the guys playing hard ball with no shoes. 

This is definitely a learning experience for me. At the end of the day it feels good. I feel like there are small victories that make it worth it. I feel like I am not working hard enough, but am working all day—its a strange feeling.

By Noel Hefele

Noel Hefele is an artist living in the Bronx