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A Conversation with Hilary Walis, Executive Director of Artfully AWARE

August 4, 2009

Very excited to have artThe following is an excerpt from the data collection process for a doctoral dissertation on the use of art as a medium for social transformation and reconciliation in the context of international and community development work in Uganda.

Question: What was your inspiration for Artfully AWARE?

Hilary Wallis (HW): My inspiration for creating Artfully AWARE came from working in a number of fields throughout my twenties. My background is journalism, and I received my degree in the USA, but I eventually became a professional artist in Europe. It was a twist that I didn’t expect, and I really did enjoy painting commissions for people in London, Amsterdam and Berlin, but I felt it wasn’t doing any good in the world.

Every time I made a bit of money, I spent it on traveling. And it was not the normal sorts of ‘easy’ trips to developed countries where I stayed in nice hotels. I almost always roughed it and went to places that were more culturally interesting and diverse. This way of traveling brought me to countries such as Romania, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, and others.

While I was there, I couldn’t relax. I felt guilty. I felt guilty because here I was being an artist trying to reach fame and there was no real purpose to it. While I was in Egypt, I met some people who opened my eyes up to the world of development. I returned to my home in Holland where I did a lot of internal thinking within myself about how I could get involved.

It took two more years before I finally made the leap. Looking back, it sounds a bit ridiculous and idealistic, but what really inspired me was attending the Live 8 concert in London where I got into the concert by chance—because a camera crew interviewed me to ask the details of why I was there. I replied, “Because the musicians on stage do what I do for a living.” It was a lie. So, I promised myself on the spot that I was going to change my direction and focus in life…

When I returned home, I contacted every major NGO that I could until I was hired by an international charity to do an advocacy campaign. This was the first job of many where I used art for development and education purposes. Throughout the few years that I was a paid consultant for several non-profits, I was left with an empty feeling time and time again.

I saw that many people working in development were not passionate about their roles in working with and for people. They treated them as though they were jobs. And because of this, I saw a lot of money, time and resources wasted, mismanagement, and unhappy individuals—both working for the charities and the communities they were hired to help.

So, with this experience under my belt, a few friends and I decided no more. If we wanted to use the arts for good, then this would mean that programs and projects would absolutely need to be kept sustainable. Sustainability is a hot word that is used often, but it really is the key. One cannot start something—especially in a sensitive situation with community members who treat the programs with such avid enthusiasm– and then just disappear.

Artfully AWARE came from the belief that an organization can work with communities and show the positives about their culture and their lives. We can discuss negative issues and the trauma they may feel, but we should focus on the celebration of their lives and how they can contribute to every part of society.

In order to do this, we also have to be selective of who works for us. And currently, we have an amazing team of people in the USA and the UK who is slowing building and becoming more solid where our ideas and goals work well together.

Question: Can and how may art-making relay the narrative of a culture and the social problems they face?

HW: When we speak of the arts, we mean drama, dance, music media and the fine arts (such as drawing, painting, craft making). Using the arts is an age-old custom that societies have used for thousands of years, especially in places such as Africa. It is only recently that the modern ways of teaching, such as using language and mathematics, have become more prevalent in schools and community groups. Unfortunately, this often times replaces the arts. I see this happening more and more in America.

It is sad that we now have to explain why and how the arts can describe culture and do good for society. It use to be obvious. I find myself having to explain this to academics, your average man on the street and directors of companies. But if everyone took the time to look around and see that their world is constantly filled with art—whether it is hanging on their office walls, playing from the sound speaker in a clothing shop, written on pages of books in libraries, performed in clubs and advertised on TV, they would never have to ask this question.

People in developed countries are a bit spoiled when it comes to the arts. When I lived in Berlin, I felt that people understood. They had lived under communist repression and knew what it was like not to have art. They lived in concrete blocks that were painted grey because they could not afford colored paint. Now, many of their citizens celebrate and use the arts as much as they can; it’s like an explosion that was built up for decades.

In developing countries, many times societies are so repressed, they do not dare to dance. I saw this in Zimbabwe. Or, they are so monetarily poor that they can not afford to buy paper and paint. I saw this in parts of Ethiopia.

Simply put, art making can relay the narrative of a culture and the social problems they face by giving the opportunity to express themselves freely. Some prefer to take pictures; others are drawn to playing out their fantasy in a dramatic play. It comes naturally. In my work thus far, I have never found that I really needed to ‘teach’ anyone to create art—it was more of giving him or her an outlet to express what they already knew how to do.

It can address mental health, education and development. These are the three things that can affect change and really make a lasting difference to people’s lives.

Question: So art is a medium of expression. What have you witnessed or what do you feel personally is important during the process of art making that makes it a powerful way to express our feelings?

HW: Very good question. I think that what goes on in the mind of a person making art is the most important process. It’s almost like a light switch that goes on (and sometimes off) when you’re excited about what you’re doing. Nothing is more powerful or influential than what a person thinks of themselves and the work they do.

I can explain that when I paint, I spend roughly ten hours each day on the same canvas. All I’m doing is thinking as I either listen to music or sit in silence. But I’m always thinking. And the more positive and happy I am, the better the brush strokes are. And the better the brush strokes are, the closer I am to expressing exactly what I want to convey.

Question: How can art engage others to the extent that community issues are raised to the level of discourse?

HW: People love to watch and learn from others. In developing countries, people seem to value family and community much more than a lot of us do in continents such as North America and Europe. It is a given fact that because they sometimes have less economic means, they rely more on their neighbors and family members for day to day living.

Therefore, when it comes to the production of art—whether they are painting pictures or singing in a choir group– others watch and learn from them. They are often times in awe of seeing, say, their grandmother paint for the first time about anti retroviral drugs or hearing their school teacher sing about the need for better nutrition. Art is an incredible tool of engagement in a way that a classroom lecture can sometimes never be.

Once issues are put out there for the public, people feel freer to discuss. When discussions are made, that’s when the opportunity for solving issues can happen.

Question: What do you think draws people into an artwork? Can you give an example?

HW: I can give the example of when I did an art therapy program in Togo over two years ago. The classroom was made up of teachers from the local school as well as community members and students.

I asked them, through my French speaking translator, exactly what they needed to help lift their community up. They were not very receptive to this question, so I asked them to make a painting about it. I asked that each individual paint one issue that bothers them about the community and what their ideas are for how to solve it.

About one hour later, each individual stood up in front of the class and spoke about their painting while pointing to ‘what meant what.’ The rest of the class nearly crawled into the painting because they were so intrigued as to what their fellow friend/teacher/daughter/etc. painted and what they had to say.

They listened carefully as they talked about how they need a new school building, how they’re going to build it and why they need it. They spoke of the need for a bridge to cross the river after it floods. They went into a deep discussion about the need for more education on child abductions and how they disappear in Nigeria.

These issues were brought out mostly through colorful paintings. It was something visual for them to point to, to see how their ‘idea’ can exist and to remember in their minds.

The vividness, such as colors, loud sounds, fast movements, etc. draws people into an artwork, but it is the meaning that keeps them interested.

Question: How can one reveal or express their personal and cultural identity through artistic expression?

HW: This should come naturally. In the same way that a person knows they are better at swimming than playing football, or they know they are better suited for playing the drums then ballroom dancing. It’s all about finding the interest in doing something and then finding a way to learn how to do it and make it happen.

Of course, this is easier to do if one is living in an economically successful society, and they have the freedom to pursue whatever they wish. For those, who I might add, make up close to 80 percent of the world, who do not have the same opportunity, it is more difficult. For them, the methods may be a bit simpler, but by no means, less powerful. They can express themselves through storytelling, making crafts using locally based items and making plays with friends and family.

There is not one answer that can be given. This is the main ambition of Artfully AWARE—to provide these types of opportunities where people can express their personal and cultural identity through artistic expression. Obviously, we will not reach everyone, but perhaps we will inspire others to go out there and do what they can.

Question: What inspires you to create an artwork and how do you decide which art form you use?

HW: For me personally, I have always painted using oil. It’s just what I feel the most comfortable with and where I feel that I excel the most. It is what I see in front of my eyes while traveling that inspires me to make a painting to capture that moment. Nowadays, I strictly only paint developmental issues. I’m seeing myself grow even narrower and want to paint about gender issues and the empowerment of women. It’s a personal issue that affects me. I’ve read that ending hunger will come when women gain full equality; that the two are intrinsically linked. I’ve always remembered that, and so perhaps my own future with painting will address this more.

Question: Can you describe what it’s like to “capture that moment” in the form of artistic expression?

HW: For me, when I capture the moment, it means that the shapes and figures I began to paint have turned into more human and recognizable forms. Because I mainly paint five layers for each painting, this “moment” usually happens during the third layer. I paint from dark to light, and if I’m happy with the way the third layer is going, then I know it’s going to be a beautiful and telling picture. It’s that moment of realization that makes me feel like I’ve done justice to the subject matter.

Question: Can and how does art-making change the way you see yourself and others? For example, can and how does collective art projects affect the relationships of others?

HW: Collective art projects easily draw people closer together. They may fight, argue and disagree on colors, how to act out a role properly, dance the right steps or strum the guitar to the beat—but have no doubt that creating art is personally fulfilling, and therefore, extremely seductive. This is why many bands stay together for years, galleries put on group art shows, and dancers have dance partners. It’s a way to share one’s passion, gain inspiration and learn something new. Relationships are made this way.

When someone watches someone else create what they love to do, this will automatically change the way they seem them and even the way they see themselves. Either they make comparisons and become envious or they feel better about themselves because they realize their own talents. Or, they are inspired even more.

Question: What is it like to complete an artwork from start to finish? Can you describe what seems to be the most important part of art making?

HW: Personally, it is always a challenge. I start with a blank canvas and an idea. Then, slowly, I gain momentum, and I create layers. I’ll usually paint five layers for each oil painting. I start dark and go lighter with each layer. The figures start to take shape; the landscape becomes more realistic. It’s as if I am watching a scene come to life.

I can tell when I’m happy with my work because I know when I’ve ‘got it.’ And it’s not often. Looking back, there are only a handful of paintings that I feel are perfect and the best I could have done. I’m probably the harshest critic I know when it comes to painting. When I do finish a piece, if I am genuinely satisfied, I am very proud. But honestly, I have not had this feeling for a very long time.

The most important part of art making is not the outcome; it’s the process in creating it. My best work comes from when I’m content and in a great mood. So, this explains that why, for several years, I have not been in the best place mentally.

Now that Artfully AWARE is starting to take off and gain success after success, I feel ready to pick up a paintbrush again and start making the images in my mind become a reality. I think for me to help drive my ultimate passion—providing the opportunity for other people to use the arts—I also need to make my own art. The only difference is that now I am inspired by what we’re doing within Artfully AWARE. This shows me that everything has come full circle.

Question: I am in complete agreement with you, that the process is more important than the product. I can’t separate myself from the actual work. There is a part of me that I leave with the artwork, but it’s not a loss, I’ve been able to go a little deeper with my thoughts about the issue that drives the project. So I feel changed and my greatest fear and disappointment is when others do not feel moved or changed by my art. We haven’t spoken yet about imagination. What role do you think imagination plays in the creative process?

HW: Imagination almost always plays a major role in the creative process. You either need imagination to figure out how to copy and imitate something, such as painting or a type of dance, or you need it to dream up how to create something completely unique such as a new character in a play or a piano solo.

I do believe this: we all have imagination. We each use it in different ways every day. Hopefully, we will all be able to use it for the good of humanity.

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