Teaching Art in Bhaktapur

It is said that music is a “universal language.” I believe the same applies for the visual arts. These statements are very much in evidence today. I have come with a group of relatively affluent English speaking Westerners. None of us speak Nepali. None of us knows poverty. None of us are Hindu.They speak little or no English and have never traveled outside their village.We encounter each other with an unmistakable curiosity borne of our differences. But then the music class begins. We start to discover things we have in common. The teacher strums her guitar. The sounds of the guitar start to fill the classroom. We hear it in common. We enjoy it in common. We smile and laugh in common. After twenty plus years teaching art to children in Los Angeles and giving them the space to paint and draw, explore and create, today I am the art teacher to some of the poorest children in Bhaktapur.

CIMG2589-1024x768After an hour session of singing and music making with the HEARTbeats Foundation’s teachers, the children join me in a courtyard that was a motorcycle repair lot only months ago. While waiting for them to finish their music class, I set up an outdoor open-air art studio, paper plate pallets of brightly colored tempera paint and locally handmade lokta paper. Today we are creating self-portraits.My students today all come from families who live in extremely impoverished conditions. Families of 5-7 people living in one room with no running water or power. These families all struggle to provide basic necessities so art supplies are a huge luxury; and the freedom to use them up? Wow!

Nepal-048-1024x768It is difficult to say in words how filled with purpose I feel. I need a moment to really take it all in.. Sitting in front of each child is a large piece of white paper. First, using pencil, an outline is made. The rough outline. I pass around new paint brushes until each child is holding one, excited to begin painting. We begin with mixing colors and painting simple shapes. I hear the nervous giggles and see the glancing around to see what each other is doing, but soon it grows quiet and they all seem to fall effortlessly into a flow. It is like a meditation somehow. They are so into the process they seemed transported. It is a moment to be savored.

As they finish, we display the portraits on a nylon string and again I am shocked to see them looking closely at what they had created. What follows is almost magical. We are all impressed and delighted by the portraits. Just like the music lesson that was just completed, the children are speaking in the universal language of line, shape, color and composition.

We all see it. We all “speak” it. The children communicate with their paint brushes. As with the music, we are all elevated. We comment, we point, we smile, we appreciate. We become a small community of artists and art appreciators. We may be very different, but suddenly we have much in common. We have been connected by music and art. Instruments and colors. Melody and composition. Sound and shape.

These are the sounds and shapes we had hoped for. The sounds of the laughter of these children in need, and the shapes of their smiles.

This post was originally publsihed at http://unattifoundation.org/teaching-art-bhaktapur/ on 12/19/2010. Reprinted here with permission.

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