Two Murals

Today was interesting! We headed out to the Holy Trinity Primary school at about 9:30 in the morning to begin the mural there. Nicollete, Tiffany, and Yara came along to help. We had presented the mural idea to the principal and teachers the day before and they seemed enthusiastic.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The idea had sound elements to it, but with so many variables it was hard to tell if it would work as planned.  The idea was to have the students trace each other on the wall. The figures would overlap. We would have the students pick a color and fill in their silhouette. We would have the students choose a word that represents “Hope for Barbuda in the face of Climate Change” to them and fill it in their silhouette. Where the figures overlap, we would help them blend the colors.  The hope was for vaguely Keith Harring-like vibrant energy. The fear is that the “chalk outline” would refer to crime scenes more than we expected.

We procured school chalk from a few teachers and began organizing the effort. The students were not immediately aware of the word “silhouette” so we explained as “like your shadow” and they were on board. The teachers helped us gather up a team of 6th grade students—initially too many! We had about 9 of them.  We choreographed the idea, having them pose against the wall and then look at the photograph. One of the students did a handstand that we unfortunately were unable to capture. When they set the poses, they traced each other out.


The shapes were great! We expected awkwardness but the energy and vitality the students embedded in the marks were not expected! It immediately looked fun!  We then moved down the grade levels, gathering up some from each. We asked 4 of the 6th grade girls to be our “helper team” and they had no problem running the show.  By the time we got to the 2nd grade students, we had about 25 onlookers watching the process. As the kids got younger and the figures filled up the wall, the helper team took to composing and directing the gestures they displayed. We made it all the way to the kindergarten students.

After they completed the chalk outlines, we asked the helper team if they would give an interview about the project efforts for the day. They were quite proud and eager to talk, saying many things like “Well, we are the future, the old people are going away.” They also responded without hesitation to a question about the power of art.  We left the chalk outlines for a few hours until the school let out, returning with a few students to commit the chalk marks to primer paint.


Some interesting things to note:

When we first were brainstorming the idea, it felt like an individualized project. The student to shadow relationship would be one to one. This was not the case. Each shadow figure was a collaboration of many. The mural became a collaboration as a part of the process and not simply merely as a by-product.

The lines took on a musicality—the scene looks like a dance party. The energy of the children translated to the energy on the marks on the wall immediately.


We also made significant progress on the Barbuda Mural at the Barbuda Research Complex. Two more students joined today. One student joined after a morning conversation with his mother. He was from the alternative high school for troubled or behind youth. I didn’t know one existed on the island. His mother recognized his interest in art. The other was a student I had worked with last time, but she did not join the previous mural work.

They both jumped right in for several hours of productive yet extremely silent work. At one point the girl student put on headphones and just carried on singing to herself.  When she started working, she took one look at the pencils I offered her and shook her head. She opened her bag and selected several pencils that were entirely more appropriate for the task at hand and gave them to us! That made me happy, as I don’t quite recall that awareness of materials when working with her last year.

Again we were working on the grid—getting the letters right is crucial for this design. We were still early on enough to allow for mistakes, so I let them make mistakes and then pointed them out and asked them to fix them. I think that is an important way to learn the grid system. Since the working session was so silent, the learning through doing and observing was forefront. At one point the boy was standing behind me and watching me use the pencil to measure angles and points. I would then repeat it and point out what I was doing for emphasis.

I had to run out for erasers for the male student. He seemed more comfortable with the ability to erase. It was a small lesson for me in the difficulties of material acquisition on the island. We went to three separate locations, only to find tiny pinky sized erasers in a bowl in a small school supply store.

It was a great feeling to leave the students working on the mural. When I returned, the two from yesterday had also joined.  Happy to say that they pretty much fixed the middle B that I was working on before I left.

In the evening time, the field students gave draft presentations of their work. One of the benefits during the chaos of the field school—being around all these smart folks.  It’s also nice that Bamma has joined us for a few evening sessions. The work with him is moving along, and we still hope to get the song recorded and the video shot before next week.



Painting inside landscape

I wanted to try painting with the acrylics on cardboard today. Up at 6am, I prepared the acrylics and the easel for a day out in the field. I met up with the students for breakfast and we first went to Sea View, a place I had not been before.  Sophia introduced Sea View as an archeological site. We climbed to the top of a dune and saw many broken pieces of pottery sitting on the surface of the dune. Sea grape plants, among several other species, covered the dunes.

I learned an interesting trick that tells you if a particular shard of something is pottery or simply a rock: you lick it! Your tongue registers the smallest of sensations—the pores of the pottery draw in the moisture, causing a small suction sensation on the tip of your tongue. I am going to lick rocks and pottery alike in the future I imagine.

We walked over the edge of the dune system and saw an awesome sight. Many of the roots structures on the ocean facing side of the dune were exposed, draping in a sinewy fashion down the side of the 30 foot dune. Unfortunately that is a sign of ill-health. I don’t recall why the plants initially would die off, but the drought condition here seems pretty serious. The plants die, exposing the roots and the dune erodes from the constant ocean wind. This becomes a positive feedback loop. Since Barbuda is such a flat island, the dune systems are especially important to maintain.

From there we went to Two Foot Bay. I had been to this place before and remembered the spot I wanted to paint, so it took no time to decide where to set the easel up. We entered a cave right on the coast, up a fairly steep incline. This cave has a petroglyph that is unfortunately eroding fairly quickly. The cave is the perfect shelter from the ocean, it allows daylight in through several skylights.  Of course it is better suited for smaller people – you can bump your head pretty hard on rock! I did, even though I remembered the pain from the last time I was in that cave. I can feel the bump from today on the top left side of my head, almost exactly above my left ear… a current sensation of the cave, where the cave gave voice to its hardness and that expression had an impact.

I set up the easel in the shade at the mouth of the cave, looking out at the ocean. I found my footing and got to work. The first thing I noticed is the absolute intensity of the bright blue sky. The rocks framed the sky, drawing it into further relief.  I was working from an unprimed cardboard piece, so the color was almost an exact match for the rocks from the start. I had accidentally filled my water bottle with lemonade from one of the two coolers, so I had to dilute the paint with lemonade.  Later I had wondered why ants were on the painting, but obviously the painting was sugar-coated! I sat there for several hours, working my way through the painting with only brief breaks. The sky could never be bright enough. No that’s too white, it is more colorful. No that is too dark. How many colors are in the sky? Why haven’t they invented a paint color that is an exact match yet? Probably because the sky is a different color from day-to-day. I should do a study. Take a photo of the sky every day from the same spot. Compare the blues. Average them out… but then it can never be the illuminated sky. It’s so bright.

Here I am, physically encased in the earth, looking out at the world as a part of the world. Of course I would choose this view—the practicality of spending several hours in the shade matched perfectly with a painterly expression along the phenomenological lines of being inside the landscape already. The cave opening mimics an eye shape in a sense, a slit.  The painting becomes a reversal of Plato’s cave—instead of looking in at representations of the external world, I look out, with the cave and as a part of it.

And I felt a part of the cave, it’s artistic history, working my own ephemeral way. I painted on cardboard, conscious of the disposable nature of the work while thinking of the longevity of the old petroglyphs behind me. I joined with an unknown person across time and in place—sensing, responding, and expressing.  I thought of other people who have used this cave. Did they have the junk with them that I did? I brought a lot in, but I brought a lot out. Did they spend a long time here? How different did their bodies feel while in this cave? I imagined the general sensations would be similar, yet I couldn’t help but wonder if the rocks were as hard for them.

Several lizards came to briefly investigate and carry on their way. The particularly gecko looking lizards move like snakes with legs. They are remarkably agile. I also saw a hermit crab scuttle across my view. I got up to look closer and the hermit crab returned to the cave opening it came from. It was about the size of a small grapefruit. I was impressed to see it up high in the cave, as I thought they were more likely to be at the sea. I later learned you can pin a hermit crab down by putting your finger on its shell and it will make a noise. They also are notorious for stealing shells from archeology sites. Cheeky Buggers.

Mural preparations at the school begin tomorrow.

Mud painting I got beats

I passed out at about 10 o’clock. The kids did a number on me today. A few too many young ones were around for the mural painting in the afternoon / evening. And they were excited. So while I was managing them, another group of teenagers were painting on the mural. They went over somethings that I think were finished, but that is fine. The push / pull of having different folks work on it is interesting… to a point. I think it was mistake to let them use big brushes. Regardless, the mural became a big spectacle this evening and I had to clear people out, not once, but twice. When the kids were done I rounded them up and got them to wash up and leave. I took a picture of the group and congratulated them for all their hard work. I told them it was time for the big kids to work on the mural now.

That went well for a while. After the basketball practice let up, we had a few more teenagers come to paint. By the time they started to lose focus by painting their hands more than the wall, I called it a night. In all it was a good session. Kevin took a leading roll on deciding what the mural should look like. They tried to avoid the mangroves a bit, but really brought them closer. Gahleel (sp?) came by afterwards to inspect and apologize for not making it. He had some critiques, saying that they “over did it in areas.” I let him tell me how I could fix it. We sat and chatted for a while.
I wanted to keep the swarm of younger kids from painting too much on the mural. At first, I showed them the red-clay dirt. I asked them what they know about it, what you can do with it. They were aware that you can fashion it into objects by putting water in it and molding it with your hands. They were excited when I told them you can also paint with it.

They had run off to the Sea Side area to collect mangrove sticks (I’m thinking to paint them and stick them in front of the mural…). They also came back with part of the dog skeleton. They were very excited about it and asked if the archeologists will like it.

After I demonstrated the paint, they asked if they could paint the dog skeleton. I said sure! Why not!? 8 of them swarmed around the skull and painted it brown and put it in the sun to dry. I had them paint on the ground in front of the research station with the mud. That provided about 30 minutes or so of entertainment for them and a few interesting markings on the ground. I told them which ones I liked and tried to get them to collobarate. They came together to draw the Marcello tower, which was cool. A good portion of them wrote my name on the ground, which was funny.
I was worried that Dwight might see it the next morning and think I let them paint on the concrete with brown paint, but it rained and washed off a little later in the evening.

After cooling them off from the mud painting, I was able to slowly work them into working on the mural. Keeping them from jumping in identified the ones really interested: they would stand and watch the teenagers quietly.

The next session will have to be drawing in a few creatures. A conch shell, and the marine animals that live in the mangrove roots on the side columns.

In the morning I had painted at the same picnic table spot under the tree at the high school. I intended to move a painting along as a demonstration that they could then come and look at. I had a steady trickle of students coming by on break to watch and ask questions. I talked with Jahraka (sp?) and found out he likes to make music. He grabs beats from the internet and records over them with audacity. I told him I have some beats that I can send his way and he seemed excited about that. He said it is hard, he learns all by himself and they don’t teach music here. I told him to stop by sometime before I leave and we can listen to some beats and try things out. He likes the dancehall style.

At the end of the school day, four students came to work on their own canvases. Mitzi (sp?), Wakida, Shaquille and Kahanic. 3 girls and 1 boy. The energy was more subdued for this session. I gave them several tips and an overview of what we would be doing. They were hesitant at first but then moved quickly into it.

Mitzi was the only one who painted in vertical format. She put her compostion together in a way that reminded me a bit of Frida Kahlo and perhaps a little bit of Matisse. Maybe she will like Roussoue? She created her own version of the landscape based off of what she was looking at. When she was about done, she said “I feel like a pro!” She put the red fruit in the tree at the end, which I asked “Where are those coming from?”

Wakida took immediately to the expressions possible from the brushwork in oil paint. She might be interested in some Renoir? Although I don’t really like his work, the brushwork can be exquisite sometimes. Wakida quickly painted a second canvas before we finished up. Wakida used loads of paint, which at times muddied up.

Kahanic used the easel and painted a “pink tree” full of blossoms across the meadow. She had a unique way of putting the composition together that seemed to echo her positivity while painting. At the end she dropped purple dots into the painting for apparently just a decorative reason.

Shaquille was quiet yet consistently making jokes. He possibly was the only one out of the three who did not over do it with the oil paints. He made some nice clouds by pulling the paint off the canvas, but his trees were a bit too symbol-like.

In all, I should have had them wrap up about 30 minutes earlier than I did. The oil paint can build up and become too wet for the work to be productive. I would say we worked for about 2 hours. Everybody took their work home with them and hopefully kept the paint smudges to a minimum.
I spoke with Mitzi later on at the mural and she said her Dad was really proud of her when she showed him the painting.

My approach still seems to be to get them enthusiastic and feeling capable. I try to sneak in lessons underneath that but I am not being too strict with the WHAT to teach. I am being adaptive. If they are pushing a particular way that seems intruiging and could lead to greater things, I try to offer relevant advice. If they are headed down a path that is closed off due to a technical constraint or blocking in their thinking, I try to pull them back.

Enthusiasm vs Technical ability. Is there a way to teach them more formally in such a short time? The school has a level of formality to it that I am not used to.

Workshops and the Biggest Tree

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.

I’m Safe

As I sit down to write, yet another mini-squall is hitting the roof of the research center. The roof is thin, and it sounds like there is metal on the top. The rain always sounds gentle hitting the roof, a bit like a soft static in both ears. 

Tonight is my first night on my own at the station. Sophia left this morning for Antigua, Puerto Rico and eventually New York, all by Monday. Max the 1-year-old doberman rotweiler is now staying with Romeo, so it is truly quiet here.

Max has a thing for kids, as in, he wants to eat them. For this reason we decided it was best to not have him around.

Being sunday and a transitional day, I wanted to get some oil painting done in the morning. I’ve been attracted to the government building shortly up the road. The building is very stately, but falling apart. It had some trouble with a bad string of hurricanes in the 90’s and was never repaired. The council used to use the building but they moved over to another a stones throw away.

I set up under the shade of a tree and painted for about 4-5 hours.

The first man who I talked with while sitting there was a welder and a handy man. He was on break from his security job at the council building. He asked me if I was “enjoying the day?”_ this enjoyment question I get a lot when painting. I think it is funny in a way. I do enjoy part of the time, but honestly it is hard work at times as well. If I was working on a spreadsheet I would be less likely to hear that question. In fact, when I code in wordpress I occasionally hit “the zone” where I really am enjoying myself. But I don’t attract spectators or get asked if I am enjoying my time.

I suppose this is because of some perceived axiomatic understanding of what painting is. I find myself trying to dispel that notion fairly often. I don’t want it to appear mystical; painting is a practice and most everyone has a practice. In conversations I ask people about their practice. This is how I came to know the fellow is a welder.

He has also experienced the burning from looking at the arc light. He said it is “very painful.”

Our safety mindset in the US sits around our lives, dicing up and individualizing our actions like a card catalogue.

The burning eyes provoked a fear of my own, as well as the motorbikes with no helmets. I cringed and then wondered how safety laws and regulations impact my sense of fear. When I asked about the helmets, some students said “you just have to be a good driver.”

In response to “How are you?”, people respond “I’m Safe.”

I really do enjoy the conversations while sitting outside painting. People seem a bit inclined to open up and offer things about themselves.

Overall, about 6-8 people stopped by. The first guy and then two high school students were the most talkative. One older guy came by and was a bit oddly philosophical. “Are you painting the building or do you think you are painting the building?” He told me that every slave came through that building in colonial times and it should be repaired because it is history.

What a strange period in history. Has colonialism stopped or just morphed? Is Barbudan kids listening to Rick Ross some strange evolution of colonialism?

We live inside our own bubbles so much that it is hard to understand the perspective of others.


Council elections are coming up in March. I learned today that there is a “head guy in charge” who gets elected every five years in Barbuda. Council has a two-year term. Change is difficult here politically. As I understand it, 90 percent of Barbudans are employed by the government. There is little incentive to vote out the incumbents, because that would threaten their livelihoods. Apparently it is good pay for the amount of work required.

In the evening I had another 5 hour session with some students on the mural. They worked for about 4 hours and it was great. They really took to painting and were diligently painting in what I told them to. As the session progressed, they eased into painting on their own. They added and subtracted some things from the mural design and really did a good job. They were very comfortable with the process and even discussed elements of the mural with each other. Malcolm and Kendrick (sp?) were the students.

After we finished, they took photos and posted it on Facebook. They were saying “that’s sick!” I told them we will continue to work on it and figure out how to make it even more “sick” over the next few days. We will put some “swag” into the mural—to which they laughed.

They added the ferry that brings people and cargo, as well as a person fishing from the mangrove roots. The also added a few too many flying-v birds. I may secretly paint over those.