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.
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 in Cozumel, Mexico 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