A Farm Village Adds a New Crop:  The Arts

A Farm Village Adds a New Crop: The Arts

Arts December 22, 2012 / By Lawrence E. McCullough
A Farm Village Adds a New Crop:  The Arts

In rural Nicaragua, the Arts satisfy a community’s hunger for expression.

“An artist needn’t be a clergyman or a churchwarden, but he certainly must have a warm heart for his fellow men.”  — Vincent Van Gogh


“In the artist's pursuit, there is no ultimate end … pursuing and perfecting, as well as performing, foster a kind of morality.”  Jacques d'Amboise


EL PORVENIR, NICARAGUA – The 250 residents of this remote mountain village in northwest Nicaragua built their first water pump system in 2009. Then came a school, followed by an unpaved road carved out of a dry riverbed to get their coffee crop to market and allow visits from outside medical teams.

Charting the next civic improvement was simple:  import a family of Pennsylvania musicians and painters to nurture the seeds of community Art.

El Porvenir —“the future” in Spanish — is home to about 50 families who share a co-operatively owned organic coffee plantation. Situated at the base of the towering Volcán Telica two hours from the city of León, the village has four solar panels for electricity, no telephone and one vehicle … a jointly-owned 1950s Ford tractor.

But the village has a history. The residents are all ex-Sandinista, Contra and Somoza partisans, formerly bitter opponents in the ferocious civil war that killed an estimated 60,000 Nicaraguans in the 1980s. Tentative as it may be, the struggle of El Porvenir to take root in the rugged mountain wilderness is symbolic testimony to the country’s ongoing attempt to reconcile past discord and create a better future.

Help for the healing comes from many distant places.

Three thousand miles to the north in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a native Nicaraguan who fled the country as a teenager during the time of the Contra War fulfilled a life-long dream of returning to make a difference in the lives of her compatriots.

Sara Cuadra Berg had previously visited El Porvenir and seen the inhabitants’ desire to learn more about the arts. In collaboration with the Granada Arts Education Project, Berg recruited Pittsburgh artists Sue Powers and Jeff Berman to provide music and visual art instruction for El Porvenir’s children.

Sue holds an MFA in painting from Pratt Institute and is employed as an adjunct Art professor at Community College of Allegheny County. She is also a five-string banjo player, skilled in Appalachian and Irish music and songwriting. Husband Jeff is a much-recorded drummer, vibraphonist, lap dulcimer player and world percussion expert with a passion for teaching music to underserved audiences. 

The mission became a family affair with Sue and Jeff’s teen sons, drummer Sam and vocalist Eli, adding their talents along with Sandra Berg’s husband Chris (who taught guitar) and the Bergs’ vocalist daughters Elena and Bela

The North American visitors had originally thought they’d be teaching just the children of El Porvenir. Instead, the classes attracted the entire community, most notably house-bound mothers and infants.

“To actually have the women come out with their babies to take part, that was a huge step,” says Sara. “Even the older people got excited and joined in.”

The plan was to present a formal Arts curriculum with observational drawing and painting, composition theory, music fundamentals and so on. But when the group got to El Porvenir, they were captured by the spirit of the people and the land.

“We realized we needed to listen to our students as much as they wanted to listen to us,” says Jeff. “We couldn’t teach anything unless we opened ourselves to their way of looking at the world.”

That approach fit perfectly with the artist-driven education model developed by Granada Arts co-founder, photographer Mauren Antkowski. “What Sue and Jeff did was to show people how to tap into their individual creativity by working together in a collaborative setting.”

And they did it by embracing instead of skirting the inevitable Language Barrier.

“Not being fluent in Spanish forced us to be bold and come up with new ways to communicate,” says Jeff. “Our actions and images and demonstrations conveyed much more than our words. We couldn’t over-control anything.”

Even in a standard classroom context, a teacher can spend too much time emphasizing details, leaving little room for student imagination. Not so with the villagers of El Porvenir.

“They offered their own ideas without me having to tell them,” says Sue. “We didn’t have to break down any creative blocks, because they didn’t have pre-conceived notions or fears about making music or art.”

The first exercise was simple:  students were shown how to draw overlapping tracings of their hands and feet. As the minutes passed, quietly and imperceptibly as the gathering of evening mist on the mountain slopes, imitation became Art as the students connected with what they saw and felt in the contours.

“Drawing is incredibly tactile,” says Sue. “So much of your art comes out of what you literally feel as you draw. They were helping and motivating each other to do new things with this new thing they had never done before. It was like an ‘art jam’, and once I presented an idea and a technique, they mastered it and came up with their own ideas. In fact, before we left, they were designing their own courses for each other.”

A 10-year old boy named Marvin leafed through a book of birds Sue opened and started copying the images free-hand with extraordinary skill — the first time he had ever put pen to paper. Then he began drawing his surroundings in perfect perspective… a shed, a patio, a tree, a stove, a dog … and layers of his everyday world peeled back to reveal startling images of discovery and perception.

“It was like a blind person suddenly gaining sight and meeting a world they’d only known through other senses,” says Sue. “I wasn’t teaching as much as showing how to pull away curtains nobody realized were even there.”

The local musical tradition — so often the center of a community’s identity — had been severely disrupted by Nicaragua’s lengthy civil war.

El Porvenir’s instrument inventory consisted of a metal bucket drum covered with deer hide, an electric keyboard plugged into a solar panel on a house roof and a string-less guitar the Bergs had brought on a previous trip. Though the region is acclaimed for its profusion of marimba styles, the village possessed no marimba of its own.

The visitors brought new guitars, a banjo, an Appalachian dulcimer, an African djembe and other percussion instruments including a handmade marimba fashioned by craftsmen in Masaya, two hours to the south. As with the art classes, when students held an instrument in their hands, the desire to explore and express their inner soundscapes surged past any barriers of experience or aesthetics.

“In all the years I’ve taught music, I’ve never encountered a situation where I could watch people’s musical personality emerge in front of my eyes,” says Jeff. “No one there had ever seen a banjo. It might as well have come from Mars. To our students, this blend of music was like being transported to another planet of sounds.”

In our so-called First World, artists frequently operate within a social aesthetic that represents their Art as a commodity. Or a ‘service’ distributed like medicine to palliate or console.

What happens when Art takes on the nature and importance of a vital life function, like eating, or breathing?

In the midst of a quiet, primeval jungle, Sue Powers and Jeff Berman found the answer to why they do Art. At all. Anywhere.

They discovered that the most potent artistic rejuvenation rises out of the creativity you elicit in others, the journey you take together for the sake of seeing what you didn’t even know was there to be seen.

That at the deeper levels of making Art with fellow humans, there are no boundaries, there are always unexpected turns, and you’re never ‘done’ … as long as you keep looking for the Artist in others.

“We were the real students at El Porvenir,” says Sue. “We learned how to learn again.”


Article Featured Image courtesy of Granada Arts Education Project 


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