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.

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.