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Art and Transformation

Over the summer (which is April and May in my part of the globe) I had the honor of attending two separate but truly extraordinary art courses.

The first one is, of kourse, Sketchbook Skool‘s Beginnings Semester, taught by the amazing veteran sketchbook artists Danny Gregory, Koosje Koene, Prashant Miranda, Jane LaFazio, Roz Stendahl and Tommy Kane. The second one is Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute‘s Arts Approaches to Community-based Peacebuilding class, facilitated by the wonderful artist-peacebuilders Babu Ayindo and Kyoko Okumoto. The sketch above is from my trip from Cagayan de Oro City to Davao City, where MPI is based.

I highly recommend both these courses. SBS may be for “just” sketchbooking, but it will teach you to draw like never before. Beginners and experienced artists alike will definitely benefit from taking their inspiring klasses. In the six weeks I spent there, my drawing and painting skills improved more than years of practice.  MPI’s Arts class will help you find creative juices that you never knew you had. And truly, even though I am a highly introverted visual artist with two left feet, I was dancing and acting (on top of painting, collaging, singing, telling stories…) in no time. But also, MPI will teach you how to apply those creative juices to conflict transformation and peacebuilding.

One thing that struck me was a single message these two courses had in common: the transformative power of art.

Now SBS’s Beginnings is personal transformation to the core. More specifically, it talks about healing power of art. The most to-the-point example of this is fakulty and co-founder Danny Gregory, whose sketchbooking helped him find peace and healing after his wife had an accident that left her paraplegic. Many instructors in the Beginnings semester, and even in the more recent Seeings semester have similar stories.

But it’s also about seeing things through different perspectives. I’m sure many found Tommy Kane‘s draw-it-slow exercises to be enlightening, simply because you get to see things you’d normally overlook. Prashant Miranda‘s klass is a beautiful example of going back to your history and identity in art. (More about history and identity in art later.)

A striking example of how personal transformation is contagious can be found in Koosje Koene‘s klass. Her assignment was actually pretty simple: Do a sketchcrawl. Draw in public. It was intimidating for many, who were still reluctant to be seen making art – what would other people think? But throughout the week, students from all over the world posted their positive and warm experiences of encounters with people whilst sketchbooking. (You can find my crazy weird experience here, but it’s not particularly inspiring!) Some even said they inspired others to pick up the pencil.

Simply put, art changes lives. Brenda Swenson of SBS’s second semester aptly calls her experience with art and healing “finding my voice”. For me, it’s pretty much the same. Drawing is my voice. Writing is my voice. There is no other medium (including my own actual voice) that can contain who I am more than the things I create. I believe this to be true for many people as well, whether they’re into sketchbooking or painting or music or dance or theatre.

But the wonderful thing about art is that by finding your voice, you actually gain the power to give other people their own. And this, I think, is the essence of MPI’s arts approaches class. Now, MPI had the added benefit of being a real-life class! I got to meet Nang Zin, a graceful dancer from Myanmar; Charlie, a theatre director from Sierra Leone; Sudarminto, a pastor from Indonesia who surprisingly had an amazing knack for acting; Kat and Ting, two fellow Filipinas who are deeply involved in teaching the arts to students of Southern Christian College; and many, many more… (I cannot run out of good things to say about the staff and my classmates there, so I’ll just end here before it takes up the whole post!) And of course, the facilitators Babu and Kyoko were simply magic. I don’t know what they did but I felt myself loosen up and found a well of limitless creative energy that I never knew I had in me.

The main idea of the class was that this creative energy can be used to transform conflict and to build peace, whether it is used in conflict analysis, generating creative solutions or retelling history.

I must admit that what drove me to write this post was a remark on the SBS facebook group about how little people of color there are in the group. Now, race is a sensitive issue in many places, to the point that many prefer to ignore it and not talk about it. But I thought it interesting because SBS is definitely inclusive – there’s really no reason to feel left out no matter your age, race, religion or even your background in art. So the demographic pattern is nothing of SBS’s doing. Instead, it tells us a lot of the world around us. More specifically, the particular demographic that has both interest and accessibility to SBS.

Now, I’m fine with people turning a blind eye to color. But with my background as a peace and development worker, I am passionate about discussing social issues through art. After all, art doesn’t have to be limited to a nice and pleasant hobby. It can also be an agent for changing the world. If need be, it can be a little unsettling and uncomfortable too.

Why not discuss race? Why not analyze the systematic marginalization of certain groups? (And I say this as someone who belongs to the group who in my country has marginalized indigenous peoples for decades. Though I have not done anything myself, I feel responsible.) Simply because that’s reality – it happens. And we’d like to make a change. And if we need to take our battle gear of sketchbooks and pencils and paints out into the world, so be it.

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