Tag Archives: Art

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.

Vigilante Kindness: A New Dress

We walk through the dark streets of Gulu, letting the sounds of town fill in the silent spaces of our conversation.  There aren’t many spaces to be filled and the lack of electricity means there are also fewer sounds of the town, only the hum of a handful of generators and throbbing dance music coming from a club a few streets away.

Our stomachs are full of pork and cassava from my mom’s going away dinner at a local pork joint called Alulululu.  My mom called it Alulululululululululululululu and everyone at the table giggled because, as she said several times, all of her syllables are in the wrong places.   There were six of us at dinner and in order to be heard over the din of the rain on the tin roof, we shouted most of the night.

Everyone else peeled off after dinner, riding bikes or bodas back home.  This, this distilled quiet time, walking back to the hotel with Ivan is precious.

We recount the dinner conversations and pretend to speed skate home through the streets of town.  In our minds we’re fantastic speedskaters.  Power is scarce, so light is also scarce and nobody can see well enough to laugh at us.   Ivan rarely gets to be a kid, so fake speedskating through town, laughing until our cheeks hurt and doing other goofy things is a necessary component in each piece of our time together.

He paints, well and constantly, to ensure that he and his sister get to go to school.  He pays the rent for his studio and collects the rent from other artists sharing his space.  Most nights he sleeps in the studio because he can’t afford the boda boda fare from his house to the studio.  He keeps a rolled up mattress under the table and pulls it out each night to sleep amongst his paintings.

As we walk, he tells me the story of painting at the TAKS (Through Art Keep Smiling) Center.  His face is all lit up as he fills in the details of getting to paint in public and getting to talk about what painting means to him.  He painted a LOVE Africa piece and at the end of his time, he was offered a position helping teach Art Therapy.

He’s over the moon and I’m somewhere beyond that because he deserves to be a successful, working artist.  He deserves to make a living.  He deserves to have a bed, not a rolled up mattress under a table.  He deserves an education.  He deserves not to worry about his sister.

“I bought my sister a new dress with some of the money I got from the paintings you sold,” he smiles, his big toothy grin brilliantly visible in the inky night.

“From the fashion store you were telling me about?”

“Yes.  Do you know why I bought her a dress?”

“Um, because you love her?”  It’s obvious in everything Ivan does just how much he loves his sister.

“Because I love her and I want her to know she’s special.  Just because we don’t have parents, I still want her to feel cared for.  I don’t want her to think she has to go looking for that from guys and then get into trouble.”

Just when I think I can’t love this kid another drop more, he goes and buys a new dress for his sister and my heart shifts into overflow mode.

“You’re a great big brother, you know that?”

“Thanks,” he swallows hard.  Compliments are difficult for him to accept and I make a note to speak them more often.

Ivan’s learning to skateboard and as our conversation ebbs and flows we fake skateboard down the last street.  We practice all of our best fake tricks and in our minds we’re fantastic.

Vigilante Kindness: Art Supplies for Ivan

Getting water for the people of Te Okot is heavy on my mind every single second of every day and I’m excited to see how that progresses, but you should also know that the other Vigilante Kindness projects are gaining momentum.  Today here’s a story of how I used Vigilante Kindness Work Study money to support Ivan, my young student artist who paints to pay for his school fees and for the fees of his sister.

“What is it?”  Ivan looks over the long, black bag I’ve just handed him.

“Open it and see.  It’s a gift from my Aunt Nancy, the artist.”

He opens the black bag and pulls out the metal pieces.  Carefully he unfolds the tripod and stands the easel up, adjusting the legs so that it stands tall next to him.

“Thank you so much!  It’s so nice!”

“And these are for you, too.”  I hoist my shoulder bag, heavy with art supplies onto the table in his studio.

Ivan unpacks the brushes and charcoals and pastels and paper and blending tools and a host of other art supplies my aunt has sent me with.  I don’t even know what half of them are or do, but Ivan does.<

His eyes well with tears.  “Thank you for supporting me, Alicia.  I don’t know how to repay you.”

“It wasn’t me.  I’m just the messenger.”

“I don’t know how to repay your aunt.  Maybe I’ll make her a painting?”

“I think that’s the perfect way to repay her.  Let’s record a video message for her as well.”  I smile at him.  “Hey, Ivan, I was at school on Friday.  Why weren’t you there?  Were you sick?”

“No, I couldn’t pay my school fees, so they sent me home.”

“How much do you owe in school fees?”  It’s a candid question and I feel glad that our relationship has earned me the right to ask and also given him the freedom to answer without shame.

“130,000 shillings.”  $50.

I think of the Vigilante Kindness Work Study shillings in my wallet for kids who want to work to pay their school fees.

“I can help with that.  Which of your paintings are for sale?”

He shows me and I pick out two for a total of 150,000 shillings.  I don’t care to barter here, not with Ivan who paints to pay his school fees and the school fees of his sister, Lillian.

I stick around the art studio watching Ivan and his partner Calvin paint.  I snap photos of their paintings and of the two of them at work.

Ivan shows me the set of paintings the hospital has commissioned him to paint to hang in the patient rooms.  He tells me about how they hope to have an exhibition soon so that they can rent the back room of the art studio and begin using it as a gallery.  Right now the door to the back room is locked.

Later that night, I post the photos on Facebook so that Ivan and Calvin can have some clear shots of their work.  It’s hard to find a camera here, even harder to find a camera that takes clear shots.  I post the photos with a note that the paintings are for sale.  Within minutes of posting, the paintings begin selling to my friends and family at home.  I go to bed dreaming of the locked door at the back of their studio and of the gallery room that waits behind it.

Vigilante Kindness: Ivan’s Paintings

“Alicia, will you buy one of my paintings?” Ivan chuckles shyly. He laughs like the cartoon character Goofy and I giggle each time I hear his laugh. “I need to earn some money to buy school supplies and some more art supplies.”

I love this kid for wanting to earn money instead of asking for a handout.

Ivan is one of my favorite kids from this year. A few years ago Ivan and his younger sister were taken in by an American couple. Ivan didn’t have a father in his life and after a tragic accident his mother was left mentally disabled and unable to care for her children. She now lives in a care facility in another part of Uganda. Ivan calls the American couple his parents. When his parents had to return to the U.S., they left Ivan and his sister with a house to live in. His parents send money for the house, for bills, for food and for schooling. Ivan keeps a detailed account of the expenses and he reports it back to his parents every month. Any extra things Ivan needs, he pays for himself by selling paintings out of the art studio at his house. When Ivan and his sister finish school here, they will join their parents in the U.S., where Ivan hopes to attend a university and major in art.

“I’d love to buy a painting, Ivan. Do you have them here?” It matters little to me if his paintings are any good.

“No, but I’ll get them from town and show them to you. I’ve got four finished paintings, but I want to give one to the Vice President of our school when he visits.”

He brings the paintings to school and we go behind one of the classrooms where he lays them out on the ground. They’re good.  I immediately know exactly which one I’m going to buy for myself. It’s a small painting of the word LOVE with Africa in place of the O.

LOVE by Leku Ivan
LOVE by Leku Ivan

What Ivan doesn’t know is that I’m using Vigilante money to buy the other two remaining paintings.

I pick up the LOVE painting and the two other paintings. “I’ll buy these three, Ivan.”

“Three? Really?” His Goofy chuckle rolls up from his belly.

“Yes, three. How much do I pay?”

“Anything is fine.”

“Ivan, I want to support the work you’re doing as an artist. So think of a price that’s fair for both of us and that’s what I’ll pay.”

Ivan takes a few minutes to think. “Is 200,000 shillings okay?” I do some quick converting in my head. He’s asking for roughly eighty American dollars. I pull shillings out of my wallet for the smaller painting and use Vigilante shillings for the other two paintings. We shake hands and both of us leave feeling like we got the better deal.

In even more exciting news, after seeing my LOVE painting another friend in Africa is commissioning Ivan to paint a similar one for her. My sister is also going to help Ivan make and sell prints of his paintings. Again, one small act of Vigilante Kindness snowballed into something even greater.

When I bought Ivan’s other two paintings I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do with them. I just knew that I wanted to support Ivan and his budding art career. Later in my hotel room as I spread the paintings out on my bed, an idea came to me: I’d give them away to my fellow Vigilantes of Kindness. The only problem-and it’s an incredibly good problem-is that I only have two paintings and I’ve got way more than two Vigilante donors.

The two paintings up for grabs are the two closest to the love painting.  One is a vertical tree painting.  The other is a landscape with elephants in the foreground. I'll take better photos when I get home.
The two paintings up for grabs are the two closest to the love painting. One is a vertical tree painting. The other is a landscape with elephants in the foreground. I’ll take better photos when I get home.

So here’s how it’s going to work, for every dollar you donated, you’ll get a ticket in the drawing. So if you donated $20, you’ll have 20 tickets in the drawing. If you donated $200, then your name will be on 200 tickets and so forth. I’ll do the drawing on September 30th. That will give me time to take photos for making prints.

This is also good news for those of you who wanted to be Vigilantes of Kindness, but weren’t able to because you offered to donate when I was already making my way back home. You can make a donation and be entered in the drawing as well. (Message me for details on how to donate.) Any new donations will go toward my return trip next year and the Vigilante Acts of Kindness that are yet to come.

I’m absolutely giddy at the mere thought of returning to the land I love and exacting more kindness for the sake of being kind. I look at Ivan’s LOVE painting and wonder just what’s going to happen next in my love story-our love story-for Uganda.

Vigilante Kindness: Doing It Wrong

“Peter Paul Opok Road. That’s where the gallery moved to.”

“I do not know that road.”

“A road you don’t know? I never thought that would happen.” I poke Denis in the back.

“I will find out. We will go.” Denis speaks to some men building bed frames by the just moved sign hanging by the old studio/gallery. He returns a minute later. “Okay, I know.”

We speed to the back side of town, curling in between traffic and pedestrians along the muddy road. I’m going to miss riding on the back of motorcycles. I tip my face to the sky and let the sprinkling rain hit my cheeks.

My favorite artist, Omuny, is in residence and she has new pieces hanging all over the walls. She’s been busy since last summer. Behind the counter is a stack of paintings leaning against the wall.

“Are those for sale?”

“Yes. I just haven’t put them out yet.” Omuny motions me behind the counter and I flip thorough the stack.

imageThe moment I see it, I know it’s the one for my artist sister. Supporting a local artist is the perfect way to spend the rest of her Vigilante donation.

“I’ll take this one, please.” I hand it to Omuny who removes it from the frame and rolls it for me.

I carefully count out bills and I squeeze them tight in my hand. She hands me the painting and I shove the wad of bills in her hand, practically running out the door. I grab Denis’ sleeve and pull him out with me. “Quickly, quickly let’s go!” I can barely control my giggles.

We speed away and from the back of the boda I see Omuny hurrying out the door toward us.

“How much did you pay for that?” Denis calls back to me.


“Did you barter with her?” Denis wrinkles his brow.


“Did you pay the asking price?”

“It’s so much worse than you think.” I turn and wave at Omuny. She waves back and smiles.

“Tell me.” Denis is stern now.

“I paid her double!”

“You’re doing things all wrong.” He shakes his head at me, like he so often does.

“I know.” I can’t suppress my grin.

Back in my hotel room I unroll the painting. I take a snap and giggle at the thought of Omuny counting out the money and finding I’d paid double the asking price. I AM doing things all wrong this trip and my heart feels so completely right.