A Welcome Party and a Sneak Peek

The welcome party thrown by Ivan and his colleagues at Art Shop Gulu was really just so sweet. Each time I walk up the stairs into Art Shop Gulu, it gives me chills, thinking of where Ivan came from and how hard he and his fellow artists have worked to create this space.

There was singing.

There was cake.

And of course there was art and paper bead jewelry galore! Here’s a sneak peek at a small selection of the pieces that will be available at our September 8th Paper Bead Jewelry and Painting Sale in Redding, CA. Any remaining pieces will be for sale online after that.

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Leku Ivan’s Dream Come True

Leku Ivan pulled up in a van he painted himself. A lion greeted me on the hood and Bob Marley grinned at me from the door. I ran to him forgetting to push in my chair or even to zip my backpack and we hugged for a long time in the streets of Gulu.

I couldn’t stop hugging him, this young man with a beard and a lone long dreadlock, who used to be a goofy, orphaned teenager in a school uniform with tightly cropped hair.

After the hugging stopped and I blinked back a tear or two, Ivan sat with Laura and I for dinner and told us all about his life. His sister Lillian is a stay at home mom now in Kampala on the other side of the country. Ivan has relocated his shop, Art Factory Gulu, into the main market. He now has a business partner, Mike, and three female colleagues who help run the shop, balance the books, keep inventory, and do all the other little things so that Ivan can spend his time doing what he does best: painting.

His shop has a gallery packed with paintings. At least once a month he teaches art workshops in the shop or travels in his van teaching art classes to groups that hire him.

Best of all, Ivan, who once reluctantly told me he was stopping school after graduating from his fourth year of high school (there are 6 years in Uganda), sat across the table from me and told me that he’s back in school. He’s taking art classes in Kampala to get his degree in art and then he wants to get his certificate to become an art teacher.

This kid.

That evening we strolled to the market to see his shop. We walked upstairs and I had to swallow back a lump in my throat and there was absolutely no use in trying to blink back the tears.

The stairwell was filled with art and as it opened up into the shop, there were paintings hung everywhere. Ivan’s paintings and the paintings of his students and colleagues filled the space with color, beauty, and life.

I was immediately drowned in memories. I remembered Ivan, the timid student asking if I’d like to look at some of his paintings and maybe purchase one to help him with school fees.

I remembered him painting out on the street from a closet sized shop to have enough money for food.

I remembered Ivan being so excited when he sold a painting so that he could buy his sister a brand new dress.

I remembered it all and as I walked up the staircase of his new shop I was undone with love for this kid who worked tirelessly to make his dream of being an artist come true.

Ivan told us some of the stories behind his paintings and I was once again moved at how he expressed his desire to encourage peace and love in his city through art.

Just when I thought I couldn’t love him more, he said he was throwing us a welcoming party in the art shop the following day. There would be cake and singing and celebrating.

I’ve never even seen cake in Uganda so the fact that Ivan spent his money on having a cake made told me that this was going to be something special.

I had no idea just how truly special it would be or that the next act of Vigilante Kindness was waiting there for me next to the cake.

A Project Update

Hi, Vigilantes!

It’s good to be in this space with you again. There are only 5 days until I return to Uganda and I’m SO EXCITED to return to my African home!!! Sorry, did I get a little shouty there? I’m just really thrilled!

Many of you have been following Vigilante Kindness on Facebook, so you know we’ve been doing a fundraiser for my birthday, which was last Friday. Thank you for your generosity and for making my birthday so special. I love that you love my loved ones in Uganda so much.

In case you aren’t following us on Facebook, here’s a video update on our projects that I posted there. I’m so thrilled to get to do this work and to have you right alongside me. If you feel compelled to support any of our projects, you can click here to donate via PayPal.

Thanks so much and I look forward to sharing more stories of Vigilante Kindness with you from Uganda!

Already Someone

Calvin, the artist, and my kid Opiyo Martin sit across from my mother and I. It’s dinner time, we have chicken, they have pork. As we eat, Calvin unpacks his story for my mom. It’s one I’ve heard before and I am quiet because it pains me anew each time he tells it. Calvin is literally a starving artists and with cheeks stuffed with pork he begins. His dreadlocks hang in his eyes as he tells his story benignly, his is a common story here, nothing remarkable in his mind. 

Calvin’s father passed away when he was very young and at the age of six, his mother sold him to be a child beggar on the streets. He begged for money, or did little jobs like take out the trash for shops. Before taking the trash out, he’d pick through it for scraps of food to eat, anything that would nourish his small frame. Then he’d give the money to his owner and do it all again the next day.

When Calvin was seven his aunt found him and took him off the streets and he got to go to Primary 1 (first grade) for a year until she died. It was the only year he got to go to school. Sometime in his teens, he met John and Cindy, an American couple who took him for a few years until they returned to the U.S.

With a mouthful of pork, Calvin tells about how he calls them his parents and how they still write to him and he wishes that he could write them back, but at the age of 25, he hasn’t yet learned to read or write.

This is a good project for Calvin and my mom, a retired reading teacher. My mom will pick up where I left off with Calvin last year. His goal by the time we leave is to be able to read simple words and to write an email back to his parents.

I believe children are smart in lots of ways and I thank God that when he was a teenager, Calvin taught himself to draw and paint. I watch him when he paints, so serious, so focused on color and form and light. He’s remarkably focused, can see the paintings so clearly before he puts brush to canvas.

It’s not surprising to me that his paintings are rich in themes of family, love for one another and struggling to survive. There’s a popular piece of advice amongst writers to “write what you know”. Calvin paints what he knows; longing for family, a desire to be loved and his struggle to survive.

Calvin’s wife, Faith, is five years his junior. In Uganda getting married is impossibly expensive so it’s common for men and women to become husbands and wives and then have an official ceremony years, or even decades later. This is the waiting place Calvin and Faith are in, settled in their love and devotion to each other, waiting for the money to prove it. Calvin’s face lights up when he talks about Faith, how she loves him even though they have very little money. Calvin says he hopes God will one day bless them with children, but for now he has Faith and has taken Ivan, the other painter, as his brother. I smile when he says this because in the absence of a biological family, Calvin has created one.

Calvin tells me that the reason he paints is to someday become someone. In the time I’m here, I’ll use all my breath to tell him he already is.

Vigilante Acts of Art: Abandoned Art Project

A few months before I returned to Uganda, Barb, the proprietor of Happy Go Smile, my favorite boutique in Cayucos, started participating in an Abandoned Art Project.  The deal with abandoned art escapades is that you make a piece of art and abandon it somewhere for someone else to find and keep.  I offered to take one of Barb’s pieces with me and abandon it in Gulu.

She gave me this heart piece to abandon.  Since today is my 18th wedding anniversary, I decided today was the perfect day to abandon this heart piece and send some love to The Hubs on the other side of the world.

And I had the perfect co-conspirators to help me do it–Seddrick and Ivan, my two student artists.

After church we set off to Pece Stadium, a soccer stadium built as a War Memorial to honor the role Acolis had played in WW2.

The back wall of the stadium has a mural by Calvin to commemorate the end of the more recent war against Joseph Kony and the L.R.A.

This stadium, meant to be a symbol of peace, seemed like a perfect place to leave a little piece of love from California.  Plus it’s right across from my hotel, so my plan was to inconspicuously watch to see who took the painting.

Ivan and Seddrick casually placed the painting on the stadium wall and then we watched and waited.  Ivan and Seddrick eventually returned to their studio to work on their own paintings and I sat out on the patio casually waiting with my camera nearby.

Hundreds of people passed the painting without giving it a second glance.  Even the cows didn’t seem to notice.

When Alvin, the son of one of the hotel employees showed up, I admit I lost focus.  I love this kid.  His giggle lights up my day.  Alvin and I had some rousing games of Peek-a-Boo.

Then I taught him This Little Piggy on his toes, which he the proceeded to play on the toes of every adult not wearing closed toed shoes.

I looked up from our game of This Little Piggy and the painting was gone.

So to the person who found the abandoned art, I wish you lots of love today.  To the Barb at Happy Go Smile and to Ivan and Seddrick, thanks for creating beautiful things.  And to my husband, who has loved me with reckless abandon for all of these years, thanks for loving me and sending me out into the world with a heart that is full.