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The Meaningful Mural Project has been an interesting experience. Both rewarding and challenging. My students created an inspirational piece for the Foyer de l’Esperance Orphanage in Yaounde, with the concept that it could change the boy’s everyday lives. I think they’ve managed to accomplish this. This orphanage is full of boys who have run away from home or have been put there by their families. It is one of the better facilities  and the boys seem happy. Yet we wanted to give them something to motivate them to achieve above what is expected and remind them to believe in their dreams. The very last finishing touch, a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. states, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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Students taught the boys side by side how to paint with a brush, which they had never used before, mix colors and share a space to create something beautiful. They learned how to grid and will hopefully be able to use this new skill in their future.

They worked as a team and developed trust for each other and my students.

Our 1st day at the orphanage we interviewed students in groups. Asking them about their hopes, dreams, likes and dislikes. This would fuel our concept for the mural composition.

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We were given a tour by the head nun and got to see where the boys slept  and a classroom they learned in everyday.

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After this first week we went back to the classroom to brainstorm and create our image. Students combined their ideas and came up with one complimentary concept of all their visions.

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We then added a proportionate grid to our chosen wall and began to transfer our small drawing to scale.

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After we began painting, the boys joined in and my students taught them one on one or more..

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After about 20 hours of painting we had a finished product. Check out our whole painting team!

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My grandfather and grandmother with her sister Masie and sister in-law Eleanor .

When I was growing up I had a really wonderful grandfather.  I spent a lot of my time at my grandparents house and most of my memories from childhood are of him. He made a lot of time for me. I remember playing, learning, and  hearing stories about growing up in Jersey City. Technically Albanian his family lived in Italy for generations before migrating to the states. He always said he was Italian and we never thought to disagree.

He passed away when I was seven, so all I remember is how fantastic he was. Its like my brain squeezed out all other unnecessary memories so I could save those.

Poppi, Mimi, My mom (the little one) and her sister.

As I went through childhood, we followed Italian traditions like La Vigilia or Festa dei sette pesci  The Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas eve. I remember my mother telling me the story of her big trip with poppi back to Italy. I can picture her as a young adult guilting her 6ft 4 father to get into a gondola he was scared of. I remember knowing that I needed to go and see this place, maybe it would help me feel more connected to him.

During my sophomore year of high school I got an opportunity to join a exchange program at my school following a student failing and getting kicked off the trip. I consider this fate taking action. I got to live with a family in Lucca for a week and take day trips with my school. I went to Florence, Rome, and Venice. I saw art and culture mix in a natural way that seemed like it was part of the peoples identity. I think it made me feel very comfortable in my own awkward teenage head. I could identify and appreciate it. I loved paintings and so did they. Soon after that trip I felt a pull to go back, I knew it was a place I needed more time with.

My college offered a study abroad program my third year, and I knew where I wanted to go before I knew there were any options to go there. My Parsons teachers didn’t really approve of these programs, because of the party like reputations they had. I was not interested in hearing negativity and set up plans full steam ahead.

After landing in Florence I got into a taxi by myself and set off to find the office that had a key to my new home. I didn’t know anyone, I was alone and scared shitless. It sounds odd , especially after living in NYC, but you never feel totally alone in the US. Everyone knows your language and its relatively easy to talk to people. When I went to Italy I had never been on a plane alone, and didn’t know any Italian.

After I got my key and arrived at my new studio apartment; I looked out my window, down at the leather market below, and breathed a sigh of relief. I decided to go for a walk, because I was scared to.

I think this was an ‘a ha’ moment. Being able to get over something by getting through it has helped me accomplish a lot. When I got out side I made a left, walked about half a block, and stepped into a bakery. I saw a young girl behind the counter and asked if she spoke english. After asking how to order the correct way in the language, I got huge smile and an enthusiastic short Italian lesson. This was a wonderful introduction to the hospitality that is Italy and how the rest of my time there would be.

Through out the seven month period I traveled all over Europe. I learned how to bargain confidently, see a major city in 2 days, sleep in a hostel with 10 strangers,  I learned how to get lost and not freak out, I learned how to enjoy a quiet walk, and among many other things I learned how to oil paint for myself not for a project critique. I spent a lot of my free time in the  many Florentine galleries sketching, and started feeling a big connection with the way renaissance and pre-renaissance painters used colors and movement. I was studying illustration at Parsons before I left, and when I came back to the states just wanted to paint. I think a few of my teachers thought I went a bit batty.

Following  my study abroad experience I went back a couple times with friends and still couldn’t shake the connection. Each time coming home with feeling that I couldn’t get back soon enough. A few years later, after I decided teaching would be a great way for me to give back to the world, I found out about teaching abroad.

I thought it would be a great route for me to possibly live in Europe and have the opportunity to go to my favorite place more frequently. But after going to the job fairs I soon learned that this was everyone elses idea too and Europe would not be so easy to get to. I took the job in Cameroon on great faith that I needed to experience living abroad. Maybe that was what I was really craving, a new culture.  After being here a year I think that might be the case in a lot of the ways because I’m very happy and having a great time. During my time in Yaounde I’ve gotten to think about who and what I find important, and have made big choices, felt the consequences, failed and succeeded. I’ve learned more about myself and what I am able to deal with. But I still feel that original pull towards Europe, how annoying.

In the last two months I’ve been back to Italy twice. The first time a vacation to Florence the second Turin, both ended up having a purpose. I got to visit two international schools and meet the people who run them. The concept of actually reaching my goal is a bit overwhelming and maybe to good to be true. Apparently it is very difficult to get an American an Italian visa so they will be looking more to see IF they can find an equivalent or better candidate from the EU. I won’t know for a few months from now if this is a real possibility, but I am content with any outcome. I feel like what ever happens I am closing a huge chapter and opening a new one. I have tried my best and taken risks. I have never been this close to realizing this ‘dream’. Its all very wishy washy in my mind and I think of my grandpa. Its like he’s taking me on this adventure indirectly. He implanted this seed in my brain as a kid that has helped me find opportunities now.

Ah Bella Italia..

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Last year my high school students created two large scale murals on the school walls. One in the hallway between the music and art room and one outside on the walkway to the canteen. When I first started painting murals I sort of had to teach myself the correct way. I was not taught the right way to measure or grid. Didn’t even know how to grid until the job at the NJ Devils stadium. So its pretty amazing to me that I can teach it properly now. Watching them take initiative and act as a successful group inspired me to create a new Service Learning group The Meaningful Mural Project. Service Learning happens every other Friday at ASOY (the American School of Yaounde, where I teach). Our school reserves half the day for students to come together into groups to find ways to help or impact the community. Last year I was in charge of 8th grade, and their Sanitation Project. We focused on boiling water. A lot of villagers won’t boil their water because they consider it a waste of fire wood. Unfortunately well water can carry cholera and other diseases.

An example of a cook stove we made out of mud

We learned how to make ‘improved cook stoves’ out of mud and went into a village to educate the villagers about how to build them. During this experience we also learned how cooking by an open fire can cause cancer and blindess, there for making the the continuation of the project important to try and perfect the process as well as educate more of the community

This project is still continuing with other teachers, while I have chosen to teach my students something more personal to me that maybe other art teachers in the future may not be able to. The Meaningful Mural project is stemmed from the mural arts program in Philadelphia, USA. There are over 3,000 murals in Philly. Each placed in neighborhood’s that will benefit from their presence. You can learn more about this at www.Muralarts.org.

A mural can affect a community positively, while teaching the local children a craft that will afford them a skill for their future.  So this week my 10 students, that have chosen this project, will be visiting the Cameroon Catholic orphanage Foyer de l’Esperance, where they will have a chance to see the environment they’ll be working in. They will meet the kids they’ll be working with, and interview them to provide information for research.

A wall in the orphanage my students may be painting.

Students will use this information to choose appropriate imagery that the children will identify with in a positive way. At the end of this project the orphanage will be left with a piece of art that will hopefully help those students feel important on a daily basis as well as many generations to come.

Last week I gave a slide show and used podcasts about the ‘mural mile’ self tour in Philly to teach the students about how subjects are chosen and why they affect those specific types of  neighborhoods. We talked about the economics of the people, what their families might be like, and why they would be affected by this picture. We discussed the way the image was laid out in ‘composition’, why that was important, and how the colors made them feel. If you want to go through the power point and see what the students learned about click on this link:

Service learning Murals PowerPoint presentation.

I’m really excited, and want my students to feel the impact they will have on these kids lives. Its hard to project this ‘affect’ to students by just telling them. This week should be interesting, I will get to SEE my students be leaders  (hopefully) and  interact with kids using knowledge they’ve gained in the classroom through bilingual interviews (the orphanage is francophone). Wish us luck!

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Some of my very good friends from this year will not be returning for the next academic year and surprisingly it has made leaving Cameroon bittersweet. I honestly can’t say enough how much these people have impacted my outlook on living here and its hard to imagine it with out them.  Although I’m excited for a change of pace outside Yaounde it will be hard to say good bye.

Having exciting plans has made this ending to my year easier. Those of you who don’t know me may think its odd- but I’m actually stopping in France for 3 weeks in a build up to see the Boss. Before I knew a date that I would be able to go home on my friends  and I booked Springsteen tickets. Tomorrow I am off on an adventure through Provence then meeting friends in the Riviera to end up in Paris where another friend will be waiting to join us for my 1st E Street European tour to see My Man July 4th before ending in Amsterdam. I am beyond excited, I am so happy to have friends as spontaneous as I am to book a trip around a concert. I plan on updating this at some point to let you all know how I’m getting along and how I am surviving before touching down in the comfort of the States.

A tout a lour Cameroon, Bonjour Paris! See you soon JERSEY!

Bruce Springsteen: Oil on Canvas 2008 courtesy of http://www.myericajones.com

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Kribi Woman

26×26″ oil on canvas

After I had my appendix out we all went to Kribi for Thanksgiving. I spent a lot of time sitting and people watching since I couldn’t go swimming. I’ve talked about women’s attitudes in Cameroon before, and this lady wasn’t very different except for feeling of contentment and confidence. Her outfit was epic. Hearts everywhere in a wrapped pagne down to her ankles with earrings to match. She was alone but showed no signs of awkwardness. I wanted to concentrate on her emotion, conveying her positive view into the light.

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The Ladies
Oil on Canvas
About 3X4 ft

I saw these ladies waiting for a taxi on a main road in the center of town. At the time I had only been here for two weeks and I found this ‘sass’ intimidating along with the overwhelming culture of the city.

Now having lived here I’ve been able to observe and notice. I still interpret this as ‘sass’, but pride as well. Seeing this as a strength I feel more respectful and understanding of it.

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Thanksgiving in Cameroon didn’t really feel like a special American holiday to me. I was in the hospital when the school had the big turkey dinner, the weather is 75 and above pretty much everyday, the leaves didn’t change, and there were no turkey posters or fall decorations hanging in any store windows or my apartment for that matter. It felt like a long weekend. I had planned to go to Bamenda to visit a friend, but my injury kept me from taking the long 6+ hour drive. Instead my friend Kaitlin and I tacked ourselves onto a trip to Kribi with some of my other friends. You’ve heard of Kribi already. Night swimming, fresh fish, living on the beach etc.. So we were all pretty happy having our own type of Thanksgiving dinner in paradise.

Thanksgiving at the Fish market in Kribi

On a side note, since I was unable to swim due to stitches or drink the lovely coconut shell alcoholic beverages due to anti-biotics, there was a lot of time for reading, sketching and painting. Along with my everyday sketchbook, I got to open my new watercolor sketch book. I thought I would share the water colors:

men taking a fishing boat out to sea


View from the Tara Plage


Tree at the water falls

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