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Updated: Jul 25, 2021

Given the right conditions anybody can thrive and prosper.

This class showed me an example of commitment, patience, tolerance and achievement of young boys who have had a challenging start in life beyond anything young people in the UK can comprehend.

In November 2017 I got to visit Les Enfants De Dieu, which is a therapeutic home and school for ex-street boys of Rwanda. They focus on developing the boys psychosocial skills in order to reintegrate them safely back into the environment and build a future for themselves.

Many skills are taught and new experiences introduced to the boys in order for them to explore which direction they would like to take in life. In particular I was interested in their strong emphasis on art in which they have a great art room and even more impressive gallery of the boys art created over the years. Here I could see the energy, the pain and the recovery created through making art.

Whilst I went to Rwanda to seek volunteer or paid work as a Psychologist there was a real enthusiasm for me to come and run some art classes with the boys, be it technical skills or art therapy.

So, in this recent visit Charles informed me that the boys always engaged in art classes on a Saturday afternoon so this was my opportunity to work with them. Not knowing what level they were at and what they would understand I prepared a couple of techniques in visual format to present to them in which they could develop their 3-dimensional skills.

One of the first lessons I learnt as a young artist was from my father during a girl guides meeting. He introduced to me the concept that nothing in real life has an outline but is made up of shading.

And so I chose to give the boys a gift of graded sketching pencils to teach the basics of shading and creating light and shade just in black and white.

I had also prepared some work around perspective but when I arrived it was clear on the chalk board that this was something already being taught.

They already had a resident art teacher who was in attendance in which they informed me was well qualified, so I feared I was may be treading on his toes. But I seemed to be very welcome and supported. It was explained to me by various people that with only one teacher anybody can start to lose motivation and benefit from a completely different approach to what may be the same concept. Also the fact I was there and making the effort to support them made them feel special and important and this motivated them to really work hard and learn.

Through the help of one of the assistant there, Jean-Claude, I discussed how the session could work so that he could convey this to them. We also agreed that I could hand around a small portfolio of my own art work to maybe trigger their imagination and ideas further.

We set the 25 boys around one big table. Before we had even started they were already very curious about my handouts and one boy was already copying some of the images before we even started.

I introduced the task to them and explained the use of the graded pencils. They had 4 sets in which to share between them. I had not quite anticipated such interest! But they seemed able to cope and share and staff were at hand to manage any discrepancies.

Once the task was explained we handed out a sheet each of professional sketching paper, rubbers and pencil sharpeners and laminated prompts of the grades of pencils. I left them for a while to see what they created.

Having returned I observed that they were all fixated on trying to create the perfect circle, and in doing so the lines were becoming darker and darker, which meant trying to create light and dark became impossible.

I explained to two boys at the back how to hold their pencil from their wrist and to draw many strokes to create a round circle through shading rather than a fixed line. Very quickly these two boys understood and changed their work quickly.

Having then looked around I saw everybody was doing the same thing and so we stopped them in their tracks to explain the technique again.

The supporting staff were fantastic in understanding what I was showing them and was able to then explain to the boys.

I then left them again for a while and on my return there was a complete transformation. There were many round circles jumping out of the pages and their brains had finally registered the concept. The results were amazing for such young boys.

One in particular created a beautiful circle for such a young boy.

At this point I realised I was able to advance their skills and show them how they could place their circle onto a surface through the use of shadow, rather than have them floating in mid-air.

This they again grasped beautifully, and it made me so proud and impressed at the transformation.

Coming to a close I acknowledged and thanked them for their hard work and achievements. I then went on to show them some of my work to show how the principle they had just learnt could be applied in anything they created beyond just a circle.

I used the example of an old Rwandan man I had met on my last visit and painted, and how the principles of light, dark and shadow can create 3 dimension, looking at the highlights on his nose and cheeks and the shadows in the creases of his cheeks and under his nose.

I noticed one boy had already expanded his image and was creating tunnels and more balls to create an abstract image. This was a perfect example of how learning a concept did not mean losing their imagination and creativity.

We organised a photo with all of their art which they proudly showed and really enabled me to see the progress they had all made. On attempting to leave they wanted to take many photos with me which for some probably inspired them more but this just reminded me how much they appreciated me making this effort for them.

One young boy, Simeon, quietly asked me if he could keep hold of my portfolio as I was very much into art and wanted to have a proper look. Jean-Claude verified that he was very trustworthy and could be trusted to look after it. He would also show him my website to look at more of my work.

When I returned on Monday to meet with the Director, Charles, Simeon thanked me and told me that just looking at my work has triggered many ideas in which he can develop his work. For me, if I inspired just one boy then this was enough for me. Maybe other boys will always remember my visit and take much from it which I will never know about. So for Simeon to tell me this himself touched me.

I find his work fascinating and his concepts very much related to similar psychological principles of my own which was maybe why he related to my work.

In this image he explained that if the tree has no family, no water, not food it cannot grow leaves and is empty and bare. If the tree has these provisions it can grow and flourish. This is a very perceptive young man who will certainly go far in life.

I don’t know where my journey will take me after this visit to Rwanda but I certainly hope to continue to follow and support these boys and their art. For me art is my language to express concepts and emotions I struggle to find words for. For these boys, they would have experienced so much in their lives that will be beyond any language they will have in their vocabulary. Through art maybe they can express, explore and heal some of their past trauma in order to prosper and grow.


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