lunes, 12 de noviembre de 2012

From Small Beginnings, Great Things

Manuel Portillo is a man with a vision. Manuel is a kindergarten teacher in the town of Apopa and director of music in the parish of Our Lady of Lourdes in Calle Real. Fifteen years ago he proposed creating a summer festival of the arts for children and adolescence.  (Summer begins in November and extends to May. In El Salvador “summer vacation” is synonymous with Christmas vacation.) Our first effort was limited to dance, music and painting. About one hundred children and youth participated and in the days before Christmas we showed off the talent with an art show, concert and festival of dance. It was a small beginning.

Manuel Portillo in a concert with our youth in 
the stadium f the local public school. 
Friends of Manuel will note the abundance of hair;
it’s an old photo.
When our visitors from St. Dominic came to visit us in July, Manuel was asked to describe the summer festival of the arts for the visitors and the children who had learned to play the recorder presented a small concert. He wasn’t asking for anything, but rather was proudly showing off the talent of our children. When the folks from St. Dominic asked if they could help out the next year’s summer festival, we were all very excited and Manuel made haste to draw up a budget.  One problem that we encountered the first year was the need to supply each child with his or her own musical instrument. It is one thing to participate in a class on guitar, but the real learning takes place in the home with hours of practice.  We also needed to come up with a small remuneration for the art, dance and music instructors. It wasn’t much but it included costs that we could not budget for. Other material costs included paper, paint, material for mask making, etc.

From small beginnings over the years the summer festival grew and grew. The most hopeful sign of success became evident after the fifth year when it no longer was necessary to pay for instructors. The best of the youth who had been with the program since the beginning volunteered to share their experience and talent with the younger children. New ideas were discussed with our friends from St. Dominic during their annual visits and new ventures begun. One very successful experiment was the introduction of batucada. Batucada is a sub style of samba and refers to an African influenced Brazilian percussive style, usually performed by an ensemble, known as a Bateria. Batucada is characterized by its repetitive style and fast pace. The instruments used in batucada are simple to make in the community and include repinique, a high-pitched tom-tom played with a single stick and the hand. Normally the leader of the ensemble uses the repinique to direct and solo. The downbeat is provided by a drum called a surdo, with an average size of 50 cm in diameter. Also included in the ensemble are tambourines, whistles, bells, rasps and drums made from plastic buckets. 
The dance group joined the batucada and gave birth to a kind of stomp dance ensemble.

Gabriel, green shirt with the guitar was a participant in the first summer festival. 
He is now a med student and leader of the children’s chorus in Colinas Del Norte
Now the young people insisted on more opportunities to express themselves aside from the summer festival. Their appearances before the masses during the last days of Advent stimulated more interest and gradually requests started to come to the parish asking for exhibitions of stomp, batucada and dance at different parishes and community events, and even at some wedding parties.  With such evident success and as an alternative to the rising tide of gang violence hitting El Salvador, the parish council at St. Dominic authorized financing the festival of music and a salary for a cultural promoter for the whole year.

Giovanni Lopez (standing) still finds time from his busy schedule 
to offer classes in the parish summer festival, 2011. 
Next month we will post a collection of his paintings on this blog.
This story would not be complete without mentioning a young man who participated in the first summer festival in the area of painting. Since he was a small child, Giovanni Lopez was interested in drawing and painting. He was prolific and showed talent as a naïve artist, meaning a kind of outsider to the art world without a formal (or little) training or degree. Naïve art is now a fully recognized art genre, represented in art galleries worldwide. Generally naïve artists ignore the three principal rules of painting established by the progressive renaissance painters: decrease of the size of objects proportionally with distance; muting of colors with distance; and decrease of the precision of details with distance.

In that first summer, Giovanni painted ten paintings of Carmelite saints. When asked if he intended to display these characteristics, he replied, “Yes, because I have not been able to study art in school.” With a little help from St. Dominic, we enrolled Giovanni in the National School for Art for three years, paid for his transportation and paints, and celebrated with him when he graduated.  Since that humble beginning, Giovanni has gone on to win honors and commissions, including the placement of two large canvases in the National Assembly. Small beginnings, great things.

A community puppet show organized by the Pablo Tesak Cultural Center.
This group of children is shown presenting their theme on hunger.
Five years ago the contribution of the summer festival of creativity came to the attention of a Salvadoran philanthropist, Ildiko Tesak. Mrs. Tesak’s husband, Pablo, was a Jewish survivor of the holocaust who immigrated to El Salvador in the 1950s and, with only $3.50 in his pocket, established a thriving snack food enterprise. When her husband died, Mrs. Tesak wanted to do something to honor his memory. Collaborating with her, the parish and its pastor created the Pablo Tesak Cultural Center.  Look it up on the internet. The school of creativity is based on the summer festival, only its runs throughout the school year and serves six thousand children in the area of visual art, music, and creative writing. The Cultural Center has an artist in residence program with Giovanni Lopez as its first beneficiary.

The Tesak family has invested over two million dollars in the construction of the Center with an annual budget of 300,000 dollars. While it is not a religious organization it works with the parish and Archdiocese to help promote basic human values and human rights. One of the ways it does this is with a program to teach teachers, catequists and community leaders how to instruct moral values with puppets.  Manuel was offered the position of music director but he chose to remain with the parish and has agreed to serve as a consultant to the Cultural Center in developing its music curriculum in 2013.
From small beginnings, to great things. 

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