By Janet Goetze
For the Hollywood Star News
A children’s art camp started 17 years ago at Grace Memorial Episcopal Church, 1535 N.E. 17th Ave., has inspired a similar camp in Kenya and provided leadership experiences for two former campers from Northeast Portland.
The two, Miranda Schwabauer and Mayowa Laniran, both 20, went from campers to camp counselors, assisting younger children. They took their experiences in August to a three-day camp in Chwele, a village in northwest Kenya, and came home with new perspectives.
“It expanded my awareness of another culture,” said Schwabauer, a Willamette University student studying in Taiwan this year. “It has refueled my interest in going into international work.” “There’s no way to understand the life of another community unless you’ve been there,” said Laniran, a Nigerian-American studying at the University of Washington for a career in international business.
They joined five artists and the Rev. Esme J.R. Culver at the Chwele Amani (Peace) Community Center, developed through the work of Grace and Paul Kuto, Portland residents who grew up in Chwele.
The artists included Donna Cloud, Phyllis Koessler, Megan Russell Reid, Julie Romberg and Sue McFadden. The Oregon visitors worked with about 100 children and a team of Kenyan artists who plan to continue the art camp next year at the community center. The Kenya camp, said Culver, is part of a long-held dream to build relationships around the world based on love and mutual respect.
That goal is fostered each year in the Northeast Portland art camp, now part of the non-profit Grace Institute. The young campers focus on the culture, stories and history of a specific country to give inspiration to their artwork. This year, for instance, the theme was “Yangtze! Land of Dragons,” with students studying stories of the people along China’s major river.
In 2011, the theme was tales of the Serengeti, an area that makes up Tanzania’s well-known national park and an adjoining national reserve in Kenya. Local cultural experts who helped develop the camp curriculum, Culver said, were the Kutos. They outlined their work in Chwele and became intrigued with the art camp, she said.
When the Grace camp ended in 2011, she wanted to share the local students’ artwork with Chwele children, but she wasn’t sure it would arrive by mail. As it happens, her late husband, Ells Culver, traveled overseas as a founder of Mercy Corps, the international development and aid organization. Standing in her office with the artworks, Esme Culver said, “I heard his voice in my head say, ‘Just take them.’”
With the Kutos’ assistance, she took the art and met with community leaders at the Chwele community center, which is fostering small businesses and developing a medical clinic. The leaders assured her they wanted an art camp.
“Then I came home to figure out how that was going to happen,” Culver said.
She and the artists developed five art studies: visual arts, printmaking, watercolor, sculpture and T-shirt design. They paid their own way to Kenya, although fund-raising helped defray some expenses. It also paid for taking 400 pounds of art materials to Chwele.
The Kenyan students learned about Lewis and Clark’s Journey of the Corps of Discovery. Journeys was the underlying theme, Culver noted, which include being curious and exploring.
The Chwele children learned about grizzly bear, buffalo, and Seaman (Meriwether Lewis’s dog). According to the children’s artwork, Lewis and Clark saw an occasional zebra, too.
Her memorable experiences, Schwabauer said, included “the kids, definitely, and the countryside and the people going about their daily life. The hospitality and the warmth we received were phenomenal.”
Laniran realized how simply the people in Chwele live, noting a school and clean water are very important to them. It changed his mind about wanting more things than he really needs.
“I didn’t do any back-to-school shopping this year,” Laniran said.
The next overseas camp may be in Peru, which Grace artists studied in 2012. Oregon alpaca breeders, who have a relationship with an orphanage in the South American country, provided information for last year’s camp and arranged for children to send letters and artwork from the orphanage to Portland.
The children in Portland and other lands who exchange art, Culver said, “are going to hold these relationships in their hearts. Perhaps they will be more interested in making art together than in making war.