Thirty years ago, Gordon Jameson and his wife were traveling in northern Thailand.
“We visited a Karen tribal village in a very remote part of the country in the jungle,” Jameson said. “We arrived unannounced with a guide and were treated as honored and very welcome guests. I will remember that experience forever.”
Now, Jameson, a founder and leader of the Chapel Hill-based Franklin Street Arts Collective, has had another remarkable Karen interaction. But he did not have to travel abroad – he just walked through the doors of the FRANK gallery.
He and several other members have spent the last six months mentoring several young members of the local Karen community as they create art.
Their work is on exhibit at the Carrboro Branch Library in the McDougle Schools’ Media Center through June 16. Works include drawings, paintings, clay sculpture and photographs. Proceeds from sale of the adults’ work will go directly back to the program.
The Karen Youth Art Group grew out of a meeting between activists Fran Hamer and Nerys Levy.
Hamer has been involved with the local Karen community for several years, working to get books for immigrants and to found a school where the children could learn their native language.
“Some of the kids were pretty good at drawing,” Hamer said. “That is when I decided they needed to have some venue in order to express themselves besides school.”
Having just met Levy, who organizes the annual Orange County Community Dinner, Hamer got the children involved in the dinner. When Levy learned of the young people’s artistic talents, she suggested they visit FRANK gallery on Franklin Street.
“When the students walked in, they could not believe a place could look like that,” Hamer said. “They were astounded. It was beautiful. They had a ball there, too.”
Lives began to change
So a group was formed for the Karen youth to create art with FRANK artists, and lives began to change. Meetings take place at the gallery or at Transplanting Traditions Farm on Jones Ferry Road where many Karens have gardens. Most of the young people, ages 15 to 23, lived in Thailand refugee camps after escaping political repression in Myanmar (Burma). Hamer transports the young artists to and from the weekly meetings and has joined in the fun of making art with them. A few of her paintings are in the exhibit and have samples of writing in the Karen language attached to them.
“We are on first-name terms and have a family atmosphere,” said Levy, a FRANK member artist. “We try to make everybody feel comfortable through food and art.
“The students are always painting their homeland – a real or imagined tropical place where they feel comfortable. We are also trying to incorporate the new with the old. The students showed at FRANK in March in a show ‘Connecting the Old with the New.’ This show is an extension of that show.”
Talented young artists
Levy, like Jameson, has a decades-long connection to the Karen people, having done her doctoral work at London University in Modern South Asian History.
“In spite of what these kids have gone through, they are so positive and warm” and are very talented artists, she said. “They are so excited about challenging themselves with new possibilities in this country. I am very moved by their reactions. It is a privilege to work with them. We have learned a lot from them.”
Moe Shae Htoo, who has been working with FRANK photographer Barbara Tyroler, has several photographs in the exhibit.
“It is wonderful seeing Moe jumping all over the place, getting up high, going down low and doing creative composition and design,” Tyroler said. “He soaked up everything I told him and more. The kids really loved having him do the documentation rather than me.”
Tyroler, who along with Levy is in charge of FRANK’s community outreach and education, has worked over the years with many community residents.
“I think that what is unique about this situation is that these kids are all trying to find their place in our Chapel Hill/Carrboro culture,” she said.
Chapel Hill High School art teacher Hollie Taylor has been working with Kchdohmoo Juelah and Paw Paw Wei for three years in school, helping them hone their skills in ceramics.
“They understand the properties and possibilities of clay. They love it and get its responsiveness,” Taylor said. “Their hands seem to know it.”
Taylor has learned the ways of the Karens’ homeland, and how the refugee camps looked.
“I’ve seen a recurring image of Kwe Ka Baung, an important mountain in the Karen state of Burma,” she said. “This mountain is a part of their identity.”
Others involved in this project include Sandy Milroy, Mary Stone Lamb, Kip Gerard, Barnett Parker, David Taylor, Shelley Crisp, Townsend Ludington and Ada Farber. Other students with work in the show include Slaw Law, Ywa Blu, Lah Htoo Boh, Paw Boh, Hen Moo and Lweh Moo.
Jameson does not want this project, which was supported by a grant from the Orange County Arts Commission, to end.
“I hope we will continue to find funding for this so we can not only continue, but also expand its scope to include more kids in need of finding a connection to their creative being.”