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 guide and were treated as honored and very welcome guests. I will remember that experience forever.”
Now, Jameson, a founding member artists of the Franklin Street Arts Collection and its president and board chair, 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 working closely with several young members of the local Karen community, mentoring them as they create art.
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The fruits of these times are on exhibit at the Carrboro Branch Library in the McDougle Schools Media Center through June 16. A reception to meet the artists, the Karen students, their mentors, and other volunteers, is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday, May 17, at the library, 900 Old Fayetteville Road. 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, a name the participating students conceived, grew out of a meeting between activists Fran Hamer and Nerys Levy.
Hamer has been involved with the local Karen population for several years, working to get books for the refugee 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 youth’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.”
An idea was born to form a group for the Karen youth to create art with FRANK artists, and lives began to change. Weekly meetings began taking place either at the gallery or at Transplanting Traditions Farm on Jones Ferry Road where many Karens have gardens. Most of the youth, ages 15-23, in the group lived in Thailand refugee camps after escaping political repression in Myanmar (Burma). Hamer transports the youth 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.
Making art is an integral facet of the weekly meetings but food (rice and curry prepared by Levy) and friendship share the stage.
“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.”
Levy, like Jameson, has a decades-long connection to the Karen people having done her PhD at London University in Modern South Asian History.
“In spite of what these kids have gone through, they are so positive and warm,” she said. And, she stresses, very talented artists. Some of the striking paintings in the show are their first or second. “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,” said Tyroler. “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.”
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. 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.”
Deborah R. Meyer writes about the visual arts each month. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org