Last June, I had an amazing serendipity. At lunch I told a friend, “I really want to help kids write books that give them a voice.” Afterward, I strolled through Frank Gallery in Chapel Hill and overheard gallery manager Torey Mishoe say, “I don’t know how they’re going to make a children’s book.”
“Children’s book?” I asked. She explained that Frank Gallery’s Outreach and Education artists had been working with the Karen Youth Art Group to capture a sense of the Transplanting Traditions Farm where 35 Karen families, an ethnic minority from Burma, farm on land donated by the Land Conservancy. In a year and half, they had drawn, painted and photographed, but had no idea how to put a picture book together.
A week later I met the nine talented young adults who created the work under the tutelage of artists Nerys Levy, Sandy Milroy, Hollie Taylor, Mary Stone Lamb and Dennis Szerszen, and Fran Hamer, a longtime volunteer with the Karen community. Many of these children had grown up in refugee camps in Thailand after their parents fled war in Burma. All of them were still adapting to life in the United States.
Levy, who led the project, explained that in the camps the children didn’t have TVs or computers. “They sat and drew what they saw and developed a capacity for seeing and design which is unrivaled in many students in this country.” In her mind, a book would draw on the children’s inherent skills and create a work they could be proud of.
How could I find a plot line to connect all their work? I looked at hundreds of photographs, lots of art work, and free-floated in the creative juices and conversations that surrounded me.
Finally, there emerged a theme – seasons. Seasons of planting, seasons of life between transitions from Burma to America. And then came the words. “In Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, people always farmed in three seasons – a cool winter, a dry summer and a rainy time that turned the soil a rich purple-black.”
After 20 drafts, the words were more the children’s than mine. A year later, we celebrated the publication of a bilingual English-Karen book with a simple text and the kids’ stunning art and photographs, “Transplanting Traditions: The Story of a Community Farm.”
Levy believed they not only had a portfolio piece to be proud, but had participated in an experience that proved “when a group of creative people cooperate something wonderful happens.”
The children’s reactions were simpler. Appearing on Frank Stasio’s “The State of Things” last month, Lah Htoo, whose watercolors appear in the book’s beginning, said: “This book convinced me, to pursue a career in art.” Ree Ree said their book is “very important for the Karen and local community so that people can learn about the Karen heritage and culture.” And Hla Win said simply, “This is one of the most important things I’ve ever done.”
The book is available for purchase at Flyleaf Books, Transplanting Traditions Farm and through FRANK Gallery (Info@ frankisart.com).
Susie Wilde: ignitingwriting.com