Documenting as an Artist

As I prepare for my long journey I am confronted with the question what to take so I can work as an artist in a country that provides only the bare minimum for it’s residents. I am looking at my studio and at all my beloved brushes, boards, paints, paint sticks, oils, papers, and sketch books and realize that, before I know what to pack, I have to be clear on what my artistic vision should be.

Last weekend I attended an event at DSU that inspired me to join the “A Drawing A Day” movement. For this I will need no more than black sharpies, colored pencils, watercolor, pencils, and a smart phone with Instagram access. And after ruffling through my stacks of supplies I was happy to find more than enough of the required things.


Limits are good for creativity. And I don’t have to make any decisions on what to use. And I already have some sketches from last year that will give me a good start today.

So, what exactly is my artistic vision?

I want to capture the colors and energy of Malawi and surrounding countries I plan to visit during the next two years. I will practice my skills in sketching, documenting, narrating and abstracting in ink, pencil, and watercolor. And I will ask Malawians to share some of their lure and stories with me so I can try and translate them into color. ( check out the following link for first sketches: )

Malawi Sketch Book 1

“You are so brave”

These are the words that I have heard most often over the last eight months. And eight months ago I shrug my shoulders and thought “you don’t have to be brave to do this. Once you have visited a place, you are familiar with it. You know that the people there will not bite you, or steal or rob or what not. People in Malawi are friendly, like to chat and be helpful. You can go shopping in stores where you can get everything from groceries, pillows, hardware, bread, cake, fabric, meat, to soap, cook ware, bottled water, mosquito nets, and asthma inhalers. You can get money from a bank ATM, and if you are lucky, you can even sit in a café and drink coffee.

I have learned to ride in a mini bus and how to spot and wave down a taxi. I sat in a beauty salon and visited a library. People walk and ride their bikes everywhere, and I like walking and riding my bike.

The first few weeks or even months after my return from Africa I was not afraid at all, only excited. New adventures and new ideas always have a similar effect on me as has warm sunshine on my skin or a long hike on my body and spirit.

Where there is no fear there is no courage. In fact, the greater your fear the more courage you have to come up with to succeed. And I didn’t have to come up with anything.

But, everything must come to an end. One morning I woke up and was not excited anymore. I thought about all the things a responsible adult has to take care off before disappearing into the jungle for two years.

There was the matter of the house. Sell? Rent? My first instinct was: sell what you can, give away the rest. It seemed reasonable considering villagers in Malawi fit everything they have in a room and a handbag. But as you might already have predicted nothing is that easy. I am a mother. I have to consider my college age daughter. “Where would she live with all her animals? And if I keep the house who would pay for it, take care of it while I am gone? What about insurance, a will, power of attorney. What about my job, 401k? What should happen to me if I get too sick to travel, what if, god forbid, I die? Do I want my body to be shipped to the US, to Germany, to be buried in Africa? What about cremation…”

I know, my thoughts are seriously running away now….but this is how my mind started to wake up now in the morning.

To alleviate some of this pressure I wrote my first letter of resignation and saved it to the desktop. “Impossible to do it all. There is no way. I must have been completely nuts thinking that I could pull it off. I am certainly not 20 anymore.”

And then more tasks arrived from the Peace Corps office. “What to do? Well, it couldn’t hurt to take care of them. I still can resign later.” And so I went and got all my 58 vaccinations (more exaggerations), had dental X-rays, blood tests and doctor’s appointments. And I felt happy again. Things kept moving forward.

My daughter wants to move out now. “Maybe I should sell after all? Is there still enough time?” And then came the flood in the basement, and a dripping pipe in the wall, and the discovery of mold…

I am looking at the letter of resignation again and wonder what to do with it.  And then comes the election. Can I even dare to leave the country anymore? What if I cannot return? My family will then live on three continents until we die….

Well, you get the point. Fear. Doubt. Hesitation. More fear.

And there are only 3 months before departure, and my school already has interviewed for a replacement art teacher, and all my tasks are complete, and I have found a solution for the house and insurance and my daughter. I am still fearful of unpredictable and dangerous political developments and the possibility of contracting a debilitating disease in Africa, the demands of living in a very poor country with no communication skills and the prospect of teaching a potential classroom full of 150 students who don’t speak my language. I also fear that maybe, I am not making the right decision.

And I still have the option to send my letter of resignation. Or I can be brave and courageous.

And maybe, just maybe there is the chance that I will feel the sun on my skin, consciously assuming the risk that comes with fully and unapologetically living my life.

Malawi Sketch Book 1  (my journey in sketching)


Africa’s Riches or Why do I want to live in Malawi?

As you probably know by now I loved being in Malawi last summer. During my last week in Mtogolo Village I plotted about 134 ways to just stay. Maybe this is an exaggeration, but I honestly thought about it a lot.

I have been wondering about my feelings ever since. What touched me so deeply? It couldn’t have been the poverty I could see every day, nor the lack of sanitation, electricity, running water, kitchens, washing machines, not the classrooms with 100 students and no supplies, not the lack of transportation etc. You get the point.

And I know I didn’t just want to stay because I thought I could help the people so much. I mean, how much can I really help? I wouldn’t even know where to start. And who am I to presume that Malawi particularly needs me or my expertise to be better off?

No, it was the other way around. Life in Malawi provided me with something I desperately needed. It was good for me. My travel companion mentioned more than one time that she had never seen me happier. I suddenly received something I didn’t even know I was missing. So, what was it?

After I returned home I was violently thrown back into my old, stressful, unhealthy life. I started reading books about Americans who lived in Africa for a while and came across “Nine Hills to Nambonkaha” by Sarah Erdman, a former Peace Corps volunteer. One single paragraph in the middle of her book explained everything:

“…. And in the end, that’s ok with me. I’m realizing that I am a development worker who’s not completely sold on development. Maybe I am just disillusioned with where all the newfangledness of Western life has gotten us. Maybe I see here what we lack: simplicity, community, a non-commercialized, revered culture. I can’t dismiss tradition. I can’t dismiss respect for elders. I can’t dismiss sorcery. I can’t accept the shriek of the corn mill replacing the tok tok of the pestle, because pounding is social, communal, reciprocal, and the mill just means waiting in line.

Community in Africa still works. The village is arguably the most stable and cohesive unit in West African society. Modern Africans might scoff at their village cousins, who produce a bumper crop of yams one year and give half of them away to relatives and friends instead of reaping the profits. But that’s the beauty of Africa, that’s the glue in the face of catastrophes like AIDS and ethnic unrest. In the village, no one falls through the cracks. Knowing how much I esteem their diligence, their adaptability, their strength, I will allow myself to be a bit presumptuous. I don’t want to watch rituals crumble. I don’t want to see children’s games replaced by insipid images on a TV screen. I want no hand in Westernizing this village.”

She goes on to describe a sudden emergency in the village where lots of funds were needed quickly to maintain the clinic. A sum so large that no villager could even imagine it…and that was where her expertise in fundraising and her connection to richer parts of the world proofed to be lifesaving.

And this is the essence for me. I think I have much to learn from village life in Malawi. I want to discover and be part of their source of happiness and hope that some of it will rub off on me. But I also want to, in return, share my Western knowledge, skills, and my connections in hopes that I can make a tiny and careful contribution to what might help in alleviating some of the hardships Malawians are faced with today.

Malawi Sketch Book 1  (my journey in sketching)