By Steve Lewis

With the current political violence in Nicaragua educationalists are worried how children will be affected. Schools are closed or openly intermittently. Children witness demonstrations or see their families arguing over politics. Teachers are looking for ways to help children to express their emotions – whether these be of fear, insecurity, or actually of happiness and tranquility.

Here in Project Gettysburg-Leon one of our roles is to help visitors to Leon do stints of volunteering, to support local organizations. A recent visitor, Sarah, had a great time with Xuchialt Community Arts College and afterwards wrote this report….

‘I arrived at Xuchialt Arts School to offer some art workshops in self-exploration and emotional arts, although I knew that I was likely to learn more from them than I could give. The Nicaraguan volunteers at Xuchialt were very welcoming. The building in Sutiaba has two big rooms, and a roof space, and is filled with students work on the walls. This makes the college feel dynamic and an encouraging artistic space to be in. It takes me a while just to soak it in. 

It is well known that children’s emotional health is strengthened if they are able to give expression to their feelings and emotions. This builds resilience and is especially important in times of stress. The workshop I brought to share is called 'Mood Mapping' and uses collage to help explore emotions and feelings in a non-invasive way. The participants use color, images and textures that remind them of certain emotions, helping to better understand their feelings. This is a change to the normal dynamic of a lesson. Instead of being instructed in the “right way”; the student is free to create in any way that feels right to them. I ask the volunteer teachers to listen to each other as they describe their reasons for choosing the materials and techniques to represent an emotion. The response to this lesson was really positive and I hope it will be a platform to do more emotionally driven creative sessions in the future. 

Attendance at Xuchialt is lower than normal this month because of the big marches and threat of violence. This is similar to schools and events all over Nicaragua. So one afternoon the teachers and I go to the plaza to publicize the classes. My first activity is drawing around our hands with crayons and turning them into monsters, inspired by the children's book “Where the Wild Things Are”; a favorite from my own childhood. This activity is in the open air. The weather is warm and children come to join in the activities, whilst volunteers hand out leaflets to parents, encouraging them to take part in future lessons. The children experiment and make up their own designs.  Their parents thank us, whilst clutching multiple pages of artwork. There is a strong appetite for these workshops as the state schools do not provide any arts education.

Another day I shadow lessons at the college, and notice the emphasis on learning technique and improving the children's aptitude. They study proportion and perspective, drawing and painting exact copies of examples, to ensure they can replicate form. There are various classes that are grouped by age and competency. I left with a feeling of how impressive their achievement is, especially with very limited funds. The students and teachers are respectful and sparing with their materials, making them last as long as possible. 

As a visiting artist I was given the chance to learn from one of the teachers, William Caceres. He taught me the naive style of painting that is traditional in Nicaragua (‘primitivismo’) an imagination-driven art form, with a very particular style and technique. I look forward to incorporating this style of painting into my own future work. 

I really enjoyed my time with Xuchialt and Leon is a beautiful old town. I feel so inspired and hopeful for the arts center. Project Gettysburg-Leon has been doing an important job to support this arts college for the last ten years. However, it saddens me that most children here in Nicaragua go without any arts instruction in public schools. Learning how to be creative can improve a person’s resilience in times of uncertainty such as now. It strengthens their wellbeing and sense of self, and supports their ability to think creatively in other areas of their work and study. 

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