Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Be There

 “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Annie Dillard
Clear blue, bursting green, sunset orange; lively animals, dancing niños (children), breathtaking scenery. No, I did not go on a jungle adventure with a group of kids; these are the colors and images that greet me every day when I walk into work. Along the wall of one of the buildings at Pajarito Azul, a mural gazes out at the center, exuding its brilliant colors and details. I find myself marveling at the work some days. While its beauty does not seem to fade no matter how many times I walk by, what really stops me is the realization that this mural, this huge work of art, somehow contracted me as its organizer. Beauty and grace had been spinning an intricate web around me, waiting for me to sense them, to fill the gap in the center of the web where I stood. When I woke up to see the glistening strands, I knew that the very least I could do was be there to connect the surrounding threads.
A notable feature of the scenery in Nicaragua is the frequency of murals- there are murals decorating the walls of schools, churches, grassroots organizations, businesses, houses, bus stops, and more. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these murals are worth a million. They provoke thought. They radiate energy. They represent people and places. They inspire.  They unite a well-dressed man working in an office on Carretera Masaya with a woman teaching in a preschool classroom with a young boy selling water at a stoplight. From my first day in Nicaragua, I caught glimpses of murals and pondered the stories that they told. The first strand of the web was spun.
I began my work at Pajarito and entered into a world of animated people living and working in a drab center characterized by manila-folder colored buildings. Totally boring. The physical space did not reflect nor embody the alegre (joyful) environment. Having seen so many murals around Nicaragua, the thought occurred to me that a mural in Pajarito could both illustrate this ambience and further contribute to it. However, I felt that such a task was out of my realm of abilities. I was merely a volunteer lacking artistic talent, access to supplies, and confidence in the possibility. Or so I thought.
Events continued to unfold as time went on and I was still unaware of the beauty and grace that were waiting for me to be present to them. A fellow volunteer coordinated a mural in the school where she was working; I saw that it was actually possible for a volunteer to organize within his or her worksite. But she was an artist herself and who was I to put a paintbrush in my own hand and assume that the results would not be a colorful disaster? A few months later, a mural-organizing group showed up at work to paint the outer wall of the center. As twenty plus painters entered the first day armed with paint, paintbrushes, and ladders, I simultaneously cheered them on for doing the work that I assumed I couldn’t and felt disappointed that they were the ones who were leaving a work of art in Pajarito. In a week’s time, the wall transformed from plain stacked cinderblocks to an inviting myriad of images. The voice of one of the oversized faces states, “El arte es poder” (art is power). These four simple words made me think: If art is power then maybe I could paint. If one mural on the outside of the center can uplift the spirits of those who pass by then maybe another one on the inside could do the same for the residents. I still had no idea where and how to start but the web was forming.
I was on the way to a friend’s house in February and had some time to kill. I stopped in at a cafetin (a small food bar) along the way and sat down to read. A Nicaraguan approached me, addressing me by name, and said that we had met previously. An experience such a this normally puts me on alert, but I felt a sense of trust even though I had no recollection of meeting him. He re-introduced himself, “Me llamo Gerardo” (My name is Gerardo) and inquired about my work. I began to give him the rehearsed spiel, “Trabajo en Pajarito Azul, un centro….” (I work at Pajarito Azul, a center…) His eyes lit up. “¿Lo conoces?” (Have you been there?) I asked him. He responded eagerly that he had just visited Pajarito for the first time in December and, as a muralist, had been dreaming of doing a mural there. Now my eyes lit up. I told him that I shared the same dream. Awestruck, we exchanged contact information and set a time to talk about what the work would entail.
At the meeting, we went over details of where the mural would go in the center, how long it would take, when we could start, etc.  I then asked the dreaded question of how much supplies would cost, fearing that whatever the cost was, it would be more than I could cover as a volunteer. “1200 córdobas,” he told me. I quickly converted the amount into its equivalent of 50 US dollars. I was flooded with relief. In the time between first meeting Gerardo and discussing details with him, four friends from home visited, bringing with them generous donations: books, craft supplies, activity ideas, and $50. There I was in the middle of this web, connecting the strands and beginning to realize what was happening.
While I was largely oblivious of the harmonization of events leading up to the mural, once we began, I felt keenly aware of the gifts that came along with the process of painting. With Gerardo and I being the principal painters, we spent seven weeks laboring in the intense heat of April and May. Both years in Nicaragua, the height of hot season has directly coincided with personal lows: the days feel long, hot, and daunting. This year, however, in the midst of the heat and hot-season blues, I felt inspired. I was learning how to be an artist. I entered work every day feeling as if I was going to an art therapy course- I had little confidence that I could paint and create worthwhile results but Gerardo patiently showed me techniques and gently challenged me to paint what I thought I could not. I would leave work believing in my ability. I mixed a great new color! I shaded a particular leaf like a professional! The steps were small and, in the end, my contribution too was small, but I built up a confidence in myself as an inventor of ideas and colors and encountered my creative side.
Working side-by-side with Gerardo not only brought about newfound self- awareness and confidence but also sparked an unexpected friendship. He and I would pass the days chit-chatting and making connections between our two stories: he had previously spent two months in the States painting a mural, we had a number of mutual friends, and we shared a common vision of life in Nicaragua. Similarly, about halfway through working on the mural, a volunteer from Canada came to Pajarito for two months and just happened to be an artist. She jumped on the opportunity to help and worked wonders. As she joined the mural efforts and spent her time working with us, yet another friendship was formed. What began as Gerardo and I slowly working and getting to know each other turned into a united equipo (team) having fun together and dedicated to the artwork in front of us.

While passing the time with Gerardo and Alexia, I watched as the mural came together through the work of many hands. Residents would pass by talking about the pigeon’s wings or the elephant’s trunk and would ask to help paint. They would add a petal to a flower or a few strokes to the green background, but after they saw their contribution in the grand work of art, the mural suddenly became theirs as well. They were a part of the bigger picture. Fellow volunteers and Nicaraguan friends stopped by for a morning or afternoon to help. Co-workers spent their lunch break with a paintbrush in hand. The mural was coming to life because of everyone’s willingness and enthusiasm.
On June 2, two days after applying the final touches to the painting, Pajarito held a ceremony to inaugurate the mural. The event brought everything together into one special day. As Gerardo, Alexia, and I cut the ribbon in front of the mural, I took in my surroundings and saw all of the residents whom I love so dearly, my new friends beside me, and this incredible work of art behind me. In that moment I stepped out of the web and finally saw from the outside that it was beauty and grace that had been working around me, waiting for me to be present. It had all been there all along: Pajarito, the events leading up to the mural, the friendships, the inspiration, the work itself. There was something greater at work, call it God, fate, or beauty and grace, and it found me and waited for me while I put the pieces together. 
I often stop myself now and have moments of profound gratitude, sensing that the mural was not the only ‘fated’ encounter of my life in Nicaragua. While it is one of the more culminating experiences of my time here, it is merely one among hundreds, maybe thousands. What makes the mural particularly special for me is that is has come to represent all of the sacred moments and occasions throughout my time in Nica. When I look at the mural, I do not just see the twinkle in the eye of a guardabarranco (Nicaragua’s national bird) but I also see the hands that painted it. I remember the first time I saw a guardabarranco. I hear the music of the Nicaraguan singing group named Guardabarranco. I stand staring beyond the images on the wall and, because painting the mural was the poignant experience that it was, I see that all of these moments, big and small, have been interwoven. It reminds me daily that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. “Be there, Andrea,” it whispers to me. “Be there.” 

Getting started!

Community mate, Adrienne, adding artistic touch.

It´s coming together!

Gerardo, Alexia, and I on mural inauguration day.