CLA grad Jeff Bauer is helping to change lives through art.
By Mary Shafer
I have imagined this journey for months, and now I am a physical body hurtling through the sky over the arid plains of Chad. Back in Minneapolis, the other me is picking up Thai take-out for dinner, stopping by the bank, and driving home at this very moment. He is thinking about what he will watch on television tonight. He is trying to settle his mind down after a busy day at work so he can close his eyes and sleep. But I am not he. I am here and my eyes are wide open. —From the journal of Jeff Bauer, En route to the Republic of Chad, 2006
It's a cold morning in November and the radiators haven't kicked in yet in Jeff Bauer's Loring Park office. No matter. Heat fairly jumps from the huge, vibrant, richly textured purple, green, and yellow paintings here and on the walls that lead to the artist's studio down the hall. The studio itself bursts with more works by Pam Sukhum, Bauer's partner here at Infinite Vision Foundation, where Bauer is founder and president.
Sukhum's art is glorious, but she is not the only one whose works are on display. Nestled among her bold paintings are smaller colored-pencil sketches, whose artists have names like Ali and Deffa and Omar. These artists are children, and they have drawn warplanes raining missiles and soldiers aiming guns at people the children have known as friends or neighbors—or parents.
The drawings take your breath away. And that, says Bauer, is the point.
Jeff Bauer, Gaga refugee camp, 2006:
Ali asks me a lot of questions: about America, about my job, about my brother, about girls, about art. It is through these questions that we become friends. Yet, in all of our conversations, he never asks me about my parents. Here in Gaga camp, I know what this usually means. There is an entire history hidden in the silence of Gaga's questions that need not be asked because the answers are already understood. But I have to ask—maybe selfishly I need
to know. I regret the words before I even
“Ali, are your parents here with you?"
His eyes drop to the floor and the smile
disappears from his face.
This is all he will ever say about it,
and all I will ever ask.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sudan and the Central African Republic have fled into eastern Chad since 2003. The refugee camps where they now live might be the last places you would expect art to thrive. But Bauer and Sukhum believe that art can not only thrive in these camps, but actually transform and help heal decimated lives. Indeed, they have witnessed that very thing.
At first glance, Bauer and Sukhum look like unlikely business partners. Bauer, with his 1997 B.A. in political science from the University and a master's degree in public policy from the Humphrey Institute, has the project ability. He has raised funds, designed projects, and done grassroots work for causes as diverse as urban agriculture and political campaigns. And he started the Infinite Vision Foundation in the first place to house a project that would build a school in Viet Nam.
Sukhum, a Carleton College graduate who detoured from her biology degree to pursue her passion for art, has long believed that art can be transformative. After the two met at an Infinite Vision fundraiser, they put their heads—and their strengths—together.
“It started as an idea," says Bauer, “that we could go somewhere where kids are affected by war—not to make a political statement or to take a stand, but to bring back to people the reality of what's going on."
They called it the Beautiful Project and launched it in early 2006 under the Infinite Vision umbrella. By fall of that year, with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—the UN's refugee agency—they were on their way to the Gaga refugee camp in Chad to teach art to kids who had never even owned colored pencils.
Jeff Bauer, Gaga refugee camp, 2006:
Pam steps to the front of the class while the students wait silently. “Today's activity has two parts," she explains. “For the first part, I want you to draw something that makes you scared or sad—maybe something you have seen or experienced—anything. If this part is hard for you, don't worry. The second part will be better. You can start now."
[The teacher] Mustapha translates Pam's words, and asks the students if they understand, to which they give their customary response:
“Yes, teacher, we understand."
But no one moves. No one speaks or moves to pick up a pencil.
… A hand goes up at the back of the class. Asaid, one of the older boys, hesitantly stands up to ask his question.
“They want to know is it okay if we draw about Sudan."
“Of course it is. You can draw anything you want."
“Thank you, teacher."
The classroom instantly bursts to life as the students clamor for pencils and shout back and forth to each other. Pam looks over with a disbelieving smile and throws her hands in the air. An outside observer encountering the scene might think we had just announced a sledding trip in the middle of Africa from
all of the energy bouncing between the walls. But, in fact, what they would be encountering is the euphoria of release, the relief of all at once sharing, and therefore unburdening oneself from, something that been trapped inside.
The pictures they draw are devastating, searing recreations of their exodus from Sudan—janjaweed militias slaughtering villages full of men, women, and children, setting huts ablaze with entire families inside, their horses galloping through deep puddles of thick red blood. Up above, Antonov warplanes rain down bombs on the fleeing villagers, leaving charred black craters filled with corpses and limbs. Their renditions are painstakingly executed, illustrating the exact locations of wounds, and even the intricate details of the Kalishnikov machine guns carried by the janjaweed soldiers...
“How was the first part?" Pam is back at the front of the class, “Was it difficult?"
“Yes, teacher. It was difficult."
Devastation is not the only thing they will draw throughout the next few days. Sukhum will encourage them to take the pictures they have drawn and transform them into something that makes them happy. Eventually, flowers and vines full of leaves and fruit sprout from the burning villages. Animals appear. Children hold hands. At the end of the six days, there is a graduation ceremony—and each student receives a box of colored pencils.
Impressed by their work, the UNHCR invited Bauer and Sukhum to expand the project to additional camps, and in March, the children's work was exhibited at Art Expo New York. Last fall, Bauer and Sukhum went to Camp Gondjie in southern Chad to work the same kind of miracles.
“These kids have been through every imaginable horror," says Bauer. “Their art is transformational for all of us. Just saying ‘this should stop' is only half the battle. When I'm with the children, I'm not thinking about what I'm for or against, but just being part of a beautiful thing. To me, this has more potential to affect people's lives than if I gave a bunch of speeches about right and wrong. This is less like a crusade and more like fully living my life."
- by Mary Shafer