Ten Days in Two Words: Summing Up our DR Mural Trip

Remember that mural-making trip to the Dominican Republic I was talking about in the spring? My daughter Natalie and I returned from our Caribbean art adventure over a month ago now. It's been hard to condense the pile of stories into an email or blog post, but here goes. I've boiled down our stay in the small, dusty, and remote community of Batey Isabela into two words.

Word One: Intense.

arriving on motos in Batey Isabela
arriving on motos in Batey Isabela

We stepped off the 3.5 hour guagua ride from Santo Domingo and were immediately whisked up by two motorcycle taxis sent to carry us the last mile, from the junction to the batey. There, waiting by the roadside, was a group of people waving a handmade "Welcome/Bienvenidos Pam & Natalia" sign.

That was the start of the warm reception by our host family and neighbors. In our new home-away-from-home we enjoyed good food, a comfortable bed, and ready helpers whenever we needed them—and often when we didn't!

Figuring It All Out

Now let me ask you this: Have you ever spent time in a culture different from your own? Where everyone around you speaks a language that you barely understand, and you have to figure out the norms for basic activities like bathing, eating, and sleeping? If so, then you'll understand why I chose the word intense instead of relaxing or fun.

our feet under the mosquito net
our feet under the mosquito net

It's also awkward living under a stranger's roof in close quarters when you're a fiercely independent 50 year-old. It's the less sought-after way to "feel like a kid again!" An exercise in humility; a rejiggering of boundaries.

During my temporary life in the DR, I swung daily between being treated like an honored and important international artist, and feeling like a helpless child. Neither one seemed accurate, but alas, that's the ride I was on, and it lasted about a week.

Word Two: Successful.

Success is a bland, generic word, I know. I chose it because on this trip, we accomplished exactly what we set out to do, in the time we had allotted, and everyone was pleased with the results. (Well, except one old man, but that's a story for another post!) You can't ask for more than that, now, can you?

Diana (in back) with some soon-to-be-muralists.

Diana (in back) with some soon-to-be-muralists.

In the course of ten days we did two things: 1) We completed a mosaic mural in our community, with a gaggle of young helpers. 2) We delivered tidbits of art instruction to nine other communities in the region.

This might sound like a busy schedule, but no, it was perfect. I very much appreciated having a daily routine to balance out the inactivity of our down time, and we did have plenty of down time. Every day was hot, humid, leisurely-paced, and productive.

Here's how it all went down.

Doodle Magic

Enter: Diana Dau David, a Peace Corps Volunteer based in Batey Isabela. Natalie met her while living there last summer, and together they dreamed up this whole escapade. I'm eternally grateful for Diana's can-do spirit, communication skills, and organizational prowess.

Not only did Diana help with every stage of the mural process, but she also arranged for the three of us to travel to a different Peace Corps Volunteer's site each morning. At every location I taught an art lesson—doodling, of course, in my faltering Spanish—to whatever group assembled there. One class had just three pre-teen girls, while another drew nearly 60 people, ages 2 to about 30.

smiling doodlers showing their work
smiling doodlers showing their work

Demonstrating some basic design-drawing and line-making ideas, then sitting down with Dominicans all over the region to doodle alongside them turned out to be every bit as rewarding as making a mural! We discovered that the joy and tranquility of free-style doodling definitely transcends borders, languages, and generations. It also modeled a type of creative personal expression that is not emphasized in their education system. I think we got a few people hooked. :)

Mural Miracle

And yes, we did indeed make a mural. Just like at home, we searched the area for an appropriate and highly visible wall. We asked permission from the homeowner (who is now the envy of her neighbors, by the way). We solicited design ideas from masses of kids and teens, and tinkered a bit with the one we liked best.

mural designers

mural designers

Then we drew the design onto the wall with bits of charcoal someone found on the ground, left over from a cooking fire.

We scavenged nearly all of the pieces for our mosaic off the ground as well. Sadly, there was more trash strewn around than we could make use of, but we were able to employ several colors of broken beer bottle glass, beer caps, many many plastic bottle caps in a variety of colors. And yes, we even found some cast-off bits of tile and pottery laying around.

We bought tile adhesive (mortar) from a hardware store in the nearby town, and house paint in a few basic colors. We used the paint to dye the mortar and later to paint a background.

Due to time and material constraints, we simplified the mosaic process into one step: We spread colored mortar into the outlined shapes on the wall, then pushed the tile/glass/plastic bits into it. No grouting was required.

Mistelin, at left, was our head designer while Violeni, in the black dress, ran the show.

Mistelin, at left, was our head designer while Violeni, in the black dress, ran the show.

It was fantastic to watch a few of the teens, once they understood the mosaic technique, practically shove me aside and take over. That's my goal with every community mural project, but it rarely happens so completely. These young people were bold about adapting the process in ways that made sense with their climate and materials, and our mural was more successful because of it.

As soon as the mosaicked flowers and butterfly were finished, we painted a simple sky blue background to cover up the graffiti, and voila! A completed mural in about a week's time.

group photo in front of the new mosaic mural

Fan of Family Time

Natalie was instrumental in wrangling, befriending, and calming the vast numbers of children who congregated wherever we went. When personal space was hard to come by, I appreciated her help keeping the little ones from getting underfoot. She was also handy with design advice, monitoring materials, and generally moving the mural forward. Plus she interpreted for me when my brain was too tired to think in Spanish. Both she and Diana are beloved by that community, and it was a gift to be there together.

After our projects in the Southwest were completed, mi novio Mark flew over to join us for some Dominican-style R&R. If you saw Facebook or Instagram photos of us lounging in mountain retreats or on beautiful beaches, that was Part 2 of the trip. (And we needed those rest stops to recover from the new stress: driving in the DR!)

The final word: REPEAT.

Both the mural project and the traveling doodle classes were hugely satisfying and very well-received. So much so, that we're already aiming to do more trips like this in the future.

I loved connecting with Peace Corps Volunteers! Because they are fully integrated into their communities, and fluent translators of the local language and culture, they provided a perfect conduit for our work. And as a returned PCV myself (Kenya '87-'89), it was a joy to meet so many thoughtful, energetic, and dedicated young people serving in that role today.

Can you help? Do you know any PCVs currently serving, or getting ready to head overseas? I'd love to connect with them, or with any folks you know who are living/working abroad and might be interested in collaborating with us on future art projects.

If You Build It, They Will Come If I Sell It, We Will Go!

With this goal in mind I've rebranded my online Etsy shop. What was formerly HandyGal Studios is now the All Hands Art Shop. All proceeds, year-round, will support future art-making trips. I'm serving up doodled pages-to-color, supplies for your own art-making pleasures, and whimsical home decor to keep you inspired. Check out my remodeled shop here. And remember: all purchases help spread art love around the globe!

Enjoy more photos of the mural and its many helpers on All Hands Art's Facebook page here.

Thank you again for your interest in and support of this memorable art-making excursion. Muchisimas gracias por todos!