I’m surrounded by short little greedy creative people!
One sweet little girl brings a large cardboard box to me and innocently asks “Can I use this for my art?”
As I ponder my answer I happen to look over to the far side of the room to see my once neatly corralled cardboard pieces tossed all hither and thither...the box that did the corralling nowhere in sight. Wait...That was THE BOX!!
Another asks permission to get the abata de lenguas (tongue depressors), just as she is supposed to. “How many do you need?” I inquire.
Cuarenta (40) is her non-chalant answer. I tell her 20 is sufficient to start.
I barely catch one boy as he is starting to fill up a CUP of green paint to paint a match box. Green is his favorite color.
Another quiet but productive artist begins her evening asking me to use the white paper I guard preciously. “Can I use 5 pieces” ....si.
“I’m using another 2”....por supuesto (of course)....Half an hour later- she glides by holding up another 6 pieces.....She is making books for her parents.
Blank books with pretty covers. I wonder if her parents are ferocious journal-ers.
The boys who like “espumation”—a word THEY coined from espuma (foam-shaving cream) for their daily exercises in shaving cream exploration, dependably ask to add to their mountain of shaving cream. I quickly calculate the cost of the 29 pesos (about $1.50) can of shaving cream that I buy by the dozen, against relaxation, exploration, and learning color mixing.....I let them squeeze out a little more.
The kids show up in droves when Slime making is brought back into the rotation. Not just the kids who are at the studio each week, but kids who have fallen out of the habit of coming. Kids come with their cousins and neighbors in tow. And then there is the little girl who will positively DIE if she doesn’t get a chance to make SLIME...even though she just made some the previous day. We go through 1 gallon of white glue and 1+ liter of laundry detergent in 1 day of making slime. (Below is a picture taken the fourth day after Slime was reintroduced to the studio; there were 15 kids waiting for 30+ minutes a line (they bunched up for the photo) to come into the studio. At the time the photo was taken, there were 14 kids inside the studio.
At the end of each session, I give the kids a 5 or 7 minute warning that their time is about to be over. They respond with a collective “Awwwww-WWWW” More time, they want more time. Do I submit? No way! This girl’s gotta have her limits!
Starting the studio was a little bit of a crap shoot. I did my homework investigating school hours and meal time customs
The hours for the studio were set according to the school schedule; some kids go to school in the mornings from 7-12, others go in the afternoon from 1-6.
(A need due to overcrowded schools).
So I opened for 3 hours in the morning, and 3 hours in the evening thinking kids would come according to the school schedule. This was perfect in the summer when I first opened but after school started no one showed up for morning sessions. The kids are probably doing the same thing as they would be doing in the USA; SLEEPING!
I adjusted my hours to be open 4 hours in the evening.
The studio began with a “come make art and stay as long as you are engaged” policy. This is my preference.
There are a few that come in, with an idea or not, make their art and leave....within an hour’s time. They get down to business and go.
But I found that most of the the kids are so hungry for creative outlet, many would stay the entire 4 hours I was open.
I fought and fought and fought to not have distinct session times and specific beginnings and endings.
Some of the kids could turn into production machines; hopping from one media center to another faster than some kids could wash their hands and sign in.
I put limits on the number of activities they could work on. Painting is one activity, sculpture is one activity. You can do 1 or 2 paintings and that is still 1 activity. Get it?
But what about someone who made a sculpture, then wanted to paint it, then glue decorations on it? Well, that’s 1 activity because it is one piece of art. Get it?
It’s not black and white. What in art (and life) ever is?
The allowed time was shortened to 2 hours as the number of children waiting out side the doors increased.
Then in order to preserve my sanity when I work without a volunteer (usually on Friday nights- more about this in another post) and let more kids into the studio in a manageable way, I started to limit the time to 1.5 hours. While the studio was full and the energy relatively calm with productive artists, the lines grow outside. I have counted up to 12 kids waiting outside, for as long as 45 minutes in the heat and humidity. I feel sad when the 2 girls who have waited patiently for 35 minutes finally get frustrated and leave just 4 minutes before I peek my head out to let them in. I need to refine the waiting process; maybe a sign up area on the chalkboard I painted outside to entertain the kids while they waited? A lottery? I am not sure.
The kids learned to arrive early to ensure they got in the studio. I arrive at 15 minutes early to open at 4 o’clock to see 8 kids waiting at the door. Some kids think they have figured out that it’s a number limit for occupancy. A few do a head count when we are washing hands and signing the register. They haven’t quite realized that it’s a combination of personality styles AND number of kids. All girls 9-14 years old? I can handle 15 of those. All girls plus that one girl? Push it back to 10. All boys? I can probably do 10 at a time. Girls and boys? Definitely no more than 12.
So here we are at just over a year of operation. I returned to the island after a month long break that included work in the States, and attending a meeting in South Carolina.
I decided not to fight the lack of volunteers on Friday nights and Saturdays and changed the open days to Monday through Thursday. The kids moved seamlessly into the new schedule. I asked the kids to tell the others about the change and the news spreads quickly through the neighborhood.
Everybody’s (adults) response was positive; especially acknowledging that “now you can enjoy the weekends”. I find that funny since most of the volunteers are ex-Pats (ex-Patriots-people who live in another country other than their original) and don’t work. I guess after a lifetime of a weekday grind, people still have a TGIF mindset.
The studio is like a living being; constantly growing and changing. The flow ebbs and tides like the sea that surrounds us.
You know how you believe you can sense trouble by the way someone looks?
But then again, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Trust your gut.
Go with your instincts.
Everybody deserves a second chance.
The first day that “Abel” came to the studio, I looked into his eyes and forecasted trouble.
He came with 2 other boys, “Louis” and “Joe” who had been to the studio several times before, although not regulars or even frequent visitors.
Everyone gets introduced to the rules and the studio. Some of the frequent visitors help the newbies go through the first day routine—learning routines.
This kid ignored me for the most part; not just me, but what I said to him. I had to call him out several times to look at me when I spoke to him so that I could see that he was understanding what I was saying. I chalked it up to being overwhelmed by all the stuff and kids in the studio.
Various days the trio of boys come and various offenses occur, mainly instigated by Abel but probably enticed by the other two. The ignoring continues, I catch him mimicking me, a mountain of materials left on the table announces what A has wasted and not returned to their places. I talk to his mom one day when she returns to get his younger sister--Disrespeta, reglas sencillo -She understood, and said she would punish him. I just pleaded with her to make sure he understood the rules.
After a particularly grievous offense-not just not cleaning up, or using too many resources, but he grabs another child’s art and destroys it—I want to ban him from the studio for a day or two, but since their attendance in voluntary and unpredictable, I decide not to tell him in advance that he can’t come back tomorrow. I want it to hurt and I want him to feel a loss so I decide to not tell him until he comes back.
When he returns (fortunately within a couple of days) I tell him he is not allowed in the studio that day. He pleads and begs, but I see the same emptiness in his eyes. He stays outside with the other kids who are waiting to come into the studio. He steals the chalk, he draws on the the non-chalkboard part of the wall. I tell him to leave the property, but he stays. He provokes the other kids, causes trouble. The other kids beckon me outside to report what A has done. When he finally runs off, I look directly at the other two of the trio and I tell them “choose your friends carefully, people know you by your friends”.
Some of the regular kids in the studio ask why Abel is allowed in the studio. When they ask me this I feel I have let them down. When A was in the studio the energy was up-but not in a good way. The time that the kids had in the studio was disrupted. I want to make the right decision. I tell them I want to give everybody a chance to make the right decisions before I make the necessary decisions.
A week or so later, and I haven’t seen Abel, nor have I seen Louis, but Joe has been back in the studio working quietly and productively as he did before the tidal wave of destruction that was Abel came to the studio. Joe has even stayed late to do some extra work for me and earn his ticket for extra time in the studio.
Choose you friends wisely, because people will know you by your friends.
I want to tell Joe that I think he has made some good decisions lately, even if it is only concerning coming to the studio.
I can continue to hope that the lessons learned at the Casa spill over into bigger picture of life and affect them and empower them in positive ways.
Do you ever choose to judge from the gut the first time you meet someone? What about times when you were very wrong?
What would you do about a trouble maker?
Sometimes it is hard to keep all the families and the relationships straight.
The kids come in groups of 3, 4, 5...This also makes it really hard when ONE kid leaves the studio and I have a family of 4 waiting outside to come in.
Lupe, Angeles, and Samari. The youngest is so tiny I’m doubtful she is the minimum age of 4 to come to the studio. I don’t deny them entry into the studio. To do that would deny them respite from ... their life? The older ones (as young as 8 or 9) are always in charge of the younger ones. Each day I need to ask the older to help with the younger-go to the bathroom, or take her home. Each day they point at the other, or give an exasperated sigh and nod to the other, according to who is in charge THAT day. I call them my first family. They are the first to come into the studio before we are open. They pick up boxes and ask to help me get ready. They feel special because they have an “in” to the materials at the studio. They come every day we are open until they move away.
Most of the kids live within 4 or 5 blocks from the studio. Out our front door I can throw a rock at the homes of 6 families who come to the center. I don’t though, that would be mean.
Citlali, Naila, Angie, Susanna, Emily, Javier, and Zoe. Cousins, sisters, nieces.... and one is an aunt to the others. This family alone pretty much fills the studio, leaving room for only a handful more. They are all under 11. They live at the edge of the jungle. They come as a group and they know who can walk home alone, and who needs to go together. I have accompanied Susanna home when she was alone and it was dark. I accompany her home out of her desire for company, not a parental requirement, she seems to have free reign. I don’t have an extra helmet for her to wear, so she can’t ride the moto. So we go—her walking fast, me driving slow.
Daniel, Dafne, Enrique, Cristian and Diego. I don’t know if they are all one family, but they arrive together so I assume they are. I often have to encourage the older to let the younger TRY the best they can. The older often wants to do the tasks for the younger. They quickly learn they can leave the responsibility at the door of the studio. Enrique calls my name like a husband calling to a wife. He pleads with me, the accent heavy on the second syllable, the last drawn out to a slow fade. “Ah-NI-taaah” as if to say -- Ah-NI-taaah, It’s only a couple of beers with my buddies!
Izamari, Lenna, and Alizee; cousins and sisters. The oldest is quietly productive. The middle one so easily distracted. Even when I’m talking to her one to one, her attention wanders and she is somewhere else. She is tagged in my phone to remind me to make sure she cleans up when she’s done working. The youngest is full of chiles and spice. When given limits she threatens to leave and go home. Some days I hope she does.
Ana, Camila, Amariany, Renata, and Estile. The newest family comes from the farthest away. The eldest is 11 and is in charge of leading the others on the 1/2 a mile walk to the studio; across a busy road with no cross walk or crossing lights. Sometimes the 10 year old is the leader. They are a quiet group, they follow the rules, they clean up, and they call my name with all the familiarity of the kids I’ve known for months. They leave when it is dusk. The long walk is sporadically lit, the main road as busy with zipping motos, giant delivery trucks, bike carts, cars and various stray street dogs. All I can do is bid them con cuidado- go carefully and A Diós - to God.
The other day I held up a container of 4 Sharpies in front of the kids at the studio. I said in my best Spanish “A few days ago I put out a brand new pack of Sharpies. Together with the old ones we had over 14 in this container. Where did they all go?” Most of the kids glanced up while I was talking and continued to work. Two of them quietly and almost regretfully named Selena. They said she had a bag of them at home. I asked 8 year old Selena if she knew where they were and she denied it. Another child piped in and named Selena. Selena! I pleaded with her —The plumones live here in the studio, this is their home! Selena flashed me her adorable cheeky grin and laughed at the thought Sharpies living somewhere. Without reprimand, I tell her to bring them back, and her older sister offers to go with to make sure she brings them all.
When they return I am shocked at the the gallon size zipper bag full of gel pens and Sharpies that were clearly from the studio. Selena had even written her name on each Sharpie cap....with a Sharpie.
How did I not see the materials leaving the studio?
Selena is 8 years old and apparently very sly.
I tell her “All the materials are here for you, but they live here in the studio. If I let everybody take materials home, what will be left here for you to use to make art?”
I wonder if I need to check their bags, their shorts, their pockets when they leave.
I wonder if I need to take a more punitive approach.
For now, this works.
Most of these kids have almost nothing. I want to teach ownership and responsibility in a compassionate way.
I don’t want to shame them or punish them for wanting, but I do want it to be clear that it is wrong to take things that aren’t theirs; to be clear about stealing.
How do I deal with a sticky fingered child who comes from nothing and only wants a little something?
Cuando deseas algo, todo el universo conspira para que realices tus sueños. When you want something, the whole universe conspires to make your wish come true
Cuando deseas also, todo el universo conspira para que realices tus sueños. (a Mexican saying)
When you want something, the whole universe conspires to make your wish come true.
This is a story about how everything went right. And this is part of the story I feel I have to tell in the right order .
I promise I have a lot of stories where everything has gone wrong.
I have never done this before, yet often I feel like I’ve done this many times.
As a decorative painter of 25+ years, we often joked (but not really) that when a client would ask us “have you ever done this before?” We enthusiastically say yes and forge ahead, fake it til we make it, until we get it just perfect.
I had my paper work complete and I had a plan, sort of.
In 2017, the big move to Mexico was a 5 year plan. We had lots of time. Time to make a plan for the newborn charity, raise money, create a budget, plan our location, plan how we were going to operate, and plan how it was going to go so smoothly. I’m a planner. I love to plan and have time to make it happen on my terms.
We made a short trip to Cozumel sometime that summer and I started to really pay attention to real estate and neighborhoods. I checked out rent prices for locations. I visualized our space and “tried on” lots of ideas. I was in no hurry, we had lots of time.
In November of that year, back in Colorado, David got a call. “We want to meet you, come visit the blacksmith shop”, they said. “We live in Colorado, and have a place in Cozumel too”, they explained. In the middle of his meeting with them, David calls me and tells me I should come right away. J and T have a house in Cozumel and they just brought another property. They asked David if he want to move his shop to Cozumel, but this is not in HIS plan; a 2000 degree forge mixed with the heat and humidity of Cozumel? No Thank You. From their description of their place my mind forms an image of war torn property all ramshackeled and beat up. Forgive my hesitation, forgive my lack of excitement. We agree to rendezvous in early January in Cozumel.
Under the shade of the concrete canopy at the Mercado Municipal in Cozumel, we share a meal of Halabós na Hipon and Nasi Goreng (Garlic Butter Shrimp and Fried Rice) at our favorite Filipino cookery on the island. T and J are excited as they talk about their all ideas for their space; a gallery, a coffee shop, maybe a cooking school? They want to do something for the community but they don’t know what. I start to get quietly excited because I had a “what”, but I had no “where”. It is David who jumps on the opportunity—Let’s go look, today. We scrape the last grains of rice from our plates and lick our buttery, shrimp-y fingers clean, and head to the property. (Actually I washed my hands with soap and water, but that’s not quite as fun of an image to share).
The space was 3 attached rooms on 3 properties on a corner of the south-most residential neighborhood of town. Blue collar, working class neighborhood. Peptol Bismol pink rooms. Dark. Dank. Old. Ironically, this place was 2 blocks from a location my Mexican landlord (of our apartment) offered me the use of but I rejected gently— solely by not taking action. (I wasn’t ungrateful, I was just not certain that a carport that I could only use during the week would serve the purposes of Art Power). It was not in the central area I had planned. It was not on a major street that I was sure we needed to be on. But I paid attention to the fact that this was the second time I was led to this neighborhood. Sometimes you stop planning and you go with the flow.
Hours later we had an agreement: We could use the space for Art Power! for 2 years with a trade for some work that David would do for the property.
T and J would do the major renovations and clock will start ticking for us in June.
The excitement came as they asked us what we wanted in the space.... a sink, a counter, a bigger door? Lights, windows?
Another bathroom? Was this really happening? Can I really choose? This was an unforeseen opportunity to create the best possible space for Art Power.
This was the universe conspiring for me.
The panic came as I realized we had 5 months to figure everything out.
We were given a beautiful blessing for 2 years, and I wasn’t going to let the space sit empty while I planned.
Five months to increase Art Power’s bank account past 3 digits.
Five months to neatly pack away our life in Colorado.
Five months to do everything I thought I had 5 years to do.
What happened to my plan?
Was it excitement I was feeling or panic?
It was hard to tell the difference.
Forever ago I spent a year as an art therapist at Jose de Diego Elementary School in Chicago, in a Spanish speaking neighborhood with Spanish speaking kids. This was a neighborhood that was colorful and lively, with people from all over Central America and Mexico; their language bonded them. Most of the kids spoke English, but it was their second language; Accents were strong, Spanish was frequently sprinkled into the mix, and some kids, recent immigrants, spoke no English at all. I spoke no Spanish, and I learned only 2 words that year: cacahuates (peanuts) and tijeras (scissors). I was grateful the process of art didn’t need a lot of words, and I wasn’t convinced I needed to learn Spanish.
My mentor and advisor, also an art therapist, was fluent in Spanish as her second language. She had been at the school for a long time, she knew the culture well, and was respected by staff, teachers, and students. She taught me to slow down and do my work without words; how to look and observe. The kids will tell you all kinds of things with their bodies she said. They will tell you all you need to know through their posture, their breathing, their glance and gaze. She made the quiet time meaningful.
I remember the hours spent with all the dark haired, brown skinned kids in that tiny art therapy room. Sometimes they worked in silence, absorbed in their projects. Sometimes there was laughter and chatter.
I remember teachers being doubtful of the time I spent with the kids, with found objects, glue, crayons, and tijeras.
How could art possibly “fix” the problems the teachers encountered in classes—behavior problems, attention deficits, poor grades and social anxieties.
I remember one tiny young boy who didn’t speak English at all, he was in kinder or primaria at most. Each week he worked in silence and communicated what he wanted with actions and meaningful looks. One day he guided me out into the hall where I kept random supplies they could select from in lockers. He picked a towering roll of paper and some markers and crayons. He chose to work in the hall, the only space that would accommodate that enormous roll of white that swallowed him when he sat in the middle of it and began to draw. I quietly sat and watched with anticipation as he scratched out a building, then a car with more people drawn in it than I knew would be legal. The empty space he filled with a single line that zigged, and zagged and rolled this way and swerved that way. The formerly blank white surface was now a maze of pathways and tangles in all the colors of the rainbow. He declared it complete by rolling up the drawing and stuffing it into one of the empty lockers. He grabbed me by hand and indicated it was time to head back to class. That was the last time I saw him.
His absence was later explained a couple of weeks later by my mentor; the entire family had abruptly moved back to Mexico. The image finally made sense and story became clear as I realized so much was expressed in that silent hour. Chaos, distance, time, apprehension and anxiety. I often thought of that young boy and his journey back to Mexico.
If I drew a picture of my journey to Mexico, I might draw it just like he did— Big. Colorful. A little chaotic, and a little confusing... I would top it all off with all the colors of an arcoíris With roads and paths that are at times totally uncertain, but amidst it all there are parts that emerge from the confusion with clarity and directness, and there the path is completely defined.
Where did all of this begin? Beginnings can be hard to discern; where does a beach begin, where does the ocean begin? It feels like an ocean. It feels THAT BIG. I just dove right in.
One clear beginning was in February 2017. After a meeting with the orphanage where we had been volunteering for the past 5 years for gave us some news that created uncertainty about our future there, I woke up one day and declared to David that we should take what we were doing at the orphanage out into the community where we were staying. We had noticed actually that the kids at the orphanage were well taken care of—sponsor families from the US financially support the kids, lots of donations, structure and care... It was the kids in the neighborhoods who were without resources, without shoes, without screens on their ever-open windows.
How does one start a non-profit? Could I do it myself, or did I need to hire a lawyer? Back in the USA my lawyer friend and mentor through this process assured me I could do it myself. But it could take 9, 12, or even 18 months she warned me. “Don’t get frustrated. Be patient” (these words will come back again and again-spoken to me, spoken by me.)
Frustration, exasperation, tense moments as I clicked away on my keyboard, navigating websites, filling out forms....by March I had a Colorado corporation formed, a tax number, and access to a lot more websites and passwords than I ever wanted.
Multiple checklists later, paper work and a big check sent off, fingers crossed, and I resolved to wait for however long it would take. And I could breathe.
We went back to Cozumel at the end of April to celebrate our anniversary.
We returned 10 days later to find a letter from the IRS. I opened the intimidatingly thin envelope expecting a request or a demand, but instead found an approval.
March 18, April 20, May 6.
Numbers and letters, letters and numbers.
It had only been 3 weeks since I mailed my application.
We celebrated our 8th anniversary, and recieved a letter with a 501c3.
When did it all begin? Probably a long time ago.
Did I ever expect this path? Not in a million years.
Who are all these kids? And how in the world did I end up in Mexico?
I am an artist and art therapist with a passion to change the the lives of kids through the power of creating art.
If you are love art and kids join me on this exciting journey. I’m sharing it all here; every hope, every uncertain moment, every sweaty step, and each small victory. —anita yeh norrie