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The power of the paintbrush

// Caitlin Jackson
// Caitlin Jackson

For 25-year-old MacEwan University student Veronica Petrola, participating in the month-long volunteer construction program Project HOPE in Estelí, Nicaragua with 11 other Edmonton students, was about more than just mixing dirt and concrete to build up a secondary school.

“When we all worked on the wall, brush-stroking away, we created a very unique feeling of togetherness,” Petrola says. “I found it instantly rewarding to take a step back and look at our progress [with] our ideas taking shape and the colours coming together.”

The Project HOPE team raised more than $25 000 and travelled to Estelí in May. They also worked with the Fundación de Apoyo al Arte Creador Infantil (FUNARTE), a Nicaraguan-based non-profit organization, to paint a mural with students from the Reina Suecia Institute.

FUNARTE has a 25-year history working in poor neighbourhoods and schools of Estelí to engage children and youth afflicted by poverty and violence in art therapy and human-rights education, which in Nicaragua, according to Amnesty International, concerns violence against women, freedom of expression and sexual and reproductive rights.

Ranked by the International Monetary Fund as the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua continues to struggle to provide adequate and quality education to all youth. Reina de Suecia offers classes and social counselling for 1500 students who live in neighbourhoods with high rates of poverty, domestic instability and violence. In recent years, professors and students have become discouraged by the school’s poor infrastructure and the lack of space to accommodate the growing number of students.

Roberto Parras Estrada, a professor at Reina de Suecia, says the mural serves as a symbol for the physical improvements seen and felt at the school. Prior to renovations, he says the falling-down ceilings and crumbling walls made for “a dangerous and demotivating learning environment.”

The result of FUNARTE’s work in Estelí is evident from every street corner in the city. There are more than 150 murals on schools, hospitals, health clinics and government buildings. Estelí is now known as the City of Murals. Youth are the architects and artists behind these colourful paintings that depict images of education, gender equality, environmental conservation and the right to healthcare.

For the past three years, Osiris Castilblanco Briones has been facilitating art therapy and counselling with students at Reina de Suecia.

She knows firsthand the positive results of engaging youth in public-art projects. Briones grew up in Oscar Gamez, one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Estelí, and began attending FUNARTE’s educational painting workshops when she was seven years old. Today she is a program coordinator with the organization and helped guide the Edmonton and Nicaraguan students through the steps of painting a community mural—a process that involves group dialogue, design and implementation.

“After brainstorming and sketching, we were able to overcome the challenging tasks of melding all of our different ideas and making creative decisions as a group,” Petrola says. “It was so interesting to see everyone’s different creative thinking and processes.”

For one week, Petrola and the others designed and painted a three-by-five-metre mural at the school that symbolizes the global partnership between Canadian and Nicaraguan youth. The hope is it will promote education and cultural understanding.

“I would say working on the mural was one of the highlights of the [project],” says Elissa Perl, a team member of Project HOPE. “Seeing how our ideas were translated into a beautiful piece of community art in just over a week was a really incredible experience.”

“It is clear that the supportive hands of friends [can] improve the conditions for education,” Briones says. “For us, the impact of the project transcends to the relationships between students and teachers, and creates a positive learning environment.”


With files from Caitlin Jackson.


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