Sunday, April 29, 2012

Painting Faces

So, I am a bit obsessed with faces. For many reasons.The roundness or ovalness or almondness of one's eyes always excites me. The way one's lips sit naturally, the way the top lip rests ontop of the bottom lip is naturally beautiful no matter what the size/shape of the lip. My sketch books are full of hundreds of faces that i have drawn over the past few years, and I never get bored with playing around with shapes, sizes and dimensions to create new faces.

I am not a realist painter at ALL, and never hope or plan to be. It's just not me. But what I do love to do is to take inspiration from my photographs and create something new that speaks to me. This painting is a mixture of my inspiration from traditional religious Ethiopian artwork and a collection of photos that I took one afternoon while in Mudula, Ethiopia. There are also a few other faces from my other adventures and dreams. I am drawn to Ethiopia's religious art for it's graphic qualities, and the storytelling intrigues me. I would like to experiment with this at some point... Ethiopian angels are really beautful and again, their graphic quality is really appealing to me.

                                                              boy from Kololo

                                                                    girl from Mudula

girl from Mudula

When I was down in Mudula one afternoon, I decided to spend my time sketching some landscapes. But, within a few minutes, I was surrounded by a huge crowd of kids. I ended up spending most of the afternoon with these kids, and they allowed me to take pictures of them. They enjoyed seeing their image (thank god for my iphone),and at times "mugged for the camera". It was a lot of fun, and in the end, super inspiring. I ended up with well over 100 pictures of kids which blows me away. I also got to take a ton of pictures of kids in Kololo (where a school was being built). So, whenever I am needing a bit of inspiration or am feeling heartache and want to jump on a plane back to Ethiopia, I take out my photo albums and remember. And then I paint. And then I'm happy.

Friday, March 30, 2012

A Very Brief Summary of My Trip to Ethiopia Nov. 2011

This is the summary report that I finally completed. Last year I was awarded the Frances Kinnicutt Travel Grant from the Worcester Art Museum, and they funded my entire travel expenses to Ethiopia. Yes, ENTIRE. Pretty unheard of, and I am forever grateful for their support. I could not have swung it on our own for sure. I think most adoptive parents can relate to the emotional rollercoaster of being immersed in your child's birthculture and quite honestly, it has taken me four months to feel grounded again. Hmm, grounded is not the word though- I dont think there is one specific word that would describe it, but if you are an AP, I think you know what I mean.

My trip to Ethiopia in November has taken some time to process. While in Ethiopia, each day was more exciting and overwhelming than the last, and although I had arranged a few meetings with artists, other meetings seemed to have occurred out of sheer chance. It was my goal to be open to the way of life in Ethiopia for two short weeks- to be present to witness the beauty of a rich culture and people full of pride, to visit artists that are flourishing in Ethiopia and are committed to their craft, and to also be present to witness the injustices and hardship in the forms of severe poverty, lack of access to basic human needs, illness and subsistence living. This mixture of beauty, pride, and desperation has given me a broader, more truthful perspective
of Ethiopia- and I look forward to learning more and strengthening my relationships with Ethiopia, her artists and the larger community.

In September 2008, I travelled to Ethiopia for the first time to bring our then 4 ½ month old daughter home. My energy was of course focused on my daughter and her well-being. This short and intense time in Ethiopia birthed a new passion in my art, and since then, much of my art has been “Ethiopian inspired”. Over time however, as I continued to paint Ethiopian landscapes, I
began to feel “stuck” in a mental construct that was difficult for me to break from. I struggled with the idealized view of Ethiopia (I want my daughter to be proud of her Ethiopian heritage!) versus the harsh truths of how our child’s adoption (and others) came to be, and the subsequent losses that she will bear. This feeling is not born out of anger, rather, profound sadness. Sadness that consumed my thinking and painting, which I realized over time, was not healthy or helpful. Going to Ethiopia once again has allowed me to break free from this sadness- it has given me the chance to see beyond the stereotypes of how I perceive my daughter’s birth-country. To see a bit of life in Ethiopia over the two weeks helped me see beyond the veil of sadness and to witness the complexities of life in a very confusing world. I have seen my art change slowly- I am currently working on a few new pieces and feel a regained sense of movement in my work. I feel freer to explore other topics and take my Ethiopian inspired work in new directions.

My visits with artists ranged from a traditional religious iconographic artist to contemporary and abstract artists. Each artist was so unique in their work, but every single one had a definite Ethiopian flavor. Gebre Merha, a traditional iconographic artist was particularly interesting to
me since I am very interested in religious art and hidden meanings found within. Merha comes from a long line of iconographic artists in his family, originally from Axum, and his carved hand-painted pieces are truly spectacular. I was able to purchase a small triptych piece which I treasure, and he is unwilling to sell many of his larger pieces. He was very quiet and unassuming, but after meeting a few times, he promised me that the next time I visit, he will share more of the history behind his paintings and their stories. It appears that there are very few artists that continue to paint traditionally, and very little attention is placed in the curriculum at Addis Ababa University’s school of fine arts. I hope this does not become a lost art.

I also had the pleasure of meeting several artists’ groups, including “5ArtStudio”, “FOWA” and “Habesha Studio”. These artists groups (besides FOWA) have their own large home/studio compounds where they live/work. Many of the artists are graduates from fine arts programs (including Addis Ababa University), and they sell their work mostly to foreigners. I enjoyed
speaking with them, learning more about their influences, interests and outlook at the art world. We talked about how they interpret being Ethiopian into their work- each one so diverse from the next. I found it particularly inspirational that these artists continue with their craft despite the harsh realities of living in a very unstable economy. The majority of the artists I met were male; however I met a group of female artists named “FOWA” (Friends of Woman Artists)
at a gallery opening at the National Museum. I enjoyed speaking with them and getting advice from them regarding balancing their lives as mothers and artists. I found these conversations particularly helpful since it appears that most female artists/mothers “speak the same language”. These female artists do not have a centralized location which has made it difficult for them to
organize, however they are hoping to do so in the near future and I hope to support them with this goal.

One of the highlights of my trip was meeting the Most Honorable Afwerk Tekle, Ethiopia’s most revered artist. By chance, my driver for the day (who was co-owner of the guest house where we stayed) said he had a surprise- he was friends with Afwerk Tekle, and was able to secure a meeting for me. I had read about Tekle’s art, his impact on Ethiopia and his commitment to
his people, and needless to say, I was awestruck when I met him. We sat in his private art gallery which held his most prized pieces of artwork. There, he talked about his work and history, his friendships with other artists like Diego Rivera and Picasso, and he kindly showed us his art studio where he was working on several new pieces. I talked to him about my work, showed him a photo album of my work, and he was very positive and encouraging. There is not a single
Ethiopian that I know that doesn’t know him, and most Ethiopians were absolutely astonished that I had the opportunity to meet him in person. He is a legend, incredible artist and kind soul.

I was also able to visit the National Museum, several churches and art galleries around Addis Ababa. Along with meeting artists and visiting galleries, I had the opportunity to travel to the southern region of Ethiopia (about a 6 hour drive in a Land Rover), to take in the landscape and spend some time in a very rural environment. I am on the board of directors of a non-profit organization named Mudula Water, and we spent some time visiting Mudula, meeting the community and visiting a 500 year old fig tree which is at the center of the town and is
revered by the community. I spent some time sketching near a natural waterfall, and quickly became the center of attention for 50+ children and women doing their day labor. We had the opportunity to walk through a typical “Ethiopian neighborhood” in an extremely rural setting, witnessing women beating teff to make injera, men plowing the fields, children carrying water and tending animals. The expanse of the landscape was intensely beautiful and mostly
untouched, and left me breathless from the beauty and elevation!

While in Addis Ababa and in Hossana (also in the southern region), I was also able to visit a few organizations that I support, including AHOPE (African HIV Orphans: Project Embrace), the Tesfa Foundation (tesfa means “hope” in Amharic), Dr. Rick Hodes, and CHSFS-Ethiopia (our adoption agency). A group of women and I did an art project with the children of AHOPE which was very exciting. I was able to bring a luggage full of art supplies to AHOPE which they desperately needed. The children at AHOPE have such limited art supplies, and this continues to be a problem. When I arrived, the children had a bunch of broken crayons, ½ glue stick and white out- for 20+ children. Art supplies were also donated to another school in the southern region. I plan to continue collecting/donating art supplies to AHOPE and other organizations working with children. I found visiting these programs also helped me develop a better perspective on life in Ethiopia and all the chances for hope (“tesfa”) for the future.

The two weeks I spent in Ethiopia went by quicker than I expected, and I wasn’t able to see all that I had listed on my “to do” list, but in the end, I feel like I accomplished so much more than I thought I could. I have started to develop relationships with Ethiopian artists, and I have continued to keep in touch with them via email. I hope to be able to travel on a more regular basis in the future and I feel that travelling to Ethiopia is no longer an overwhelming idea- I have begun developing a bridge which I will continue to build for the rest of my life. I am forever grateful for the Francis A. Kinnicutt Travel Grant and Worcester Art Museum for supporting me in my quest for furthering my knowledge of Ethiopian art, culture and life.

List of People and Places and Organizations in Ethiopia:

Gebre Merha


Habesha studio

FOWA (do not have a website currently)

Afwerk Tekle

Mudula Water



Rick Hodes, MD

CHSFS Ethiopia

Friday, March 2, 2012

Trying to get my way out of a paper bag...for real.

So it looks like the last time I blogged was in December- it is now March and I think I finally have found my way out of my personal paper bag. What the hell- how has so much time passed? I feel like I went into a bit of a tailspin after coming home from Ethiopia (no surprise there). I somehow was able to forget that Thanksgiving was the week after I came home, then came Christmas activities for the girls, Christmas, school vacation, rangling an unwieldy 3 year old and her big sister, sickness, life, and general crap... ah, yes. all good excuses. and now it's march. frick. but somehow, i am finally beginning to feel a bit better- i have a huge laundry list of things that i need to catch up on, but at least i finally wrote them down- that's half the battle...

i received an email from a friend who will be travelling again to ethiopia this year and she asked for my opinions on where to go to see/buy ethiopian art- ignoring all other emails, i responded to hers because it instantly sparked me- of course the email was super long and excited me all over again. i thought that after being home and feeling mired down with motherly responsibilities i would lose track of why i went to ethiopia in the first place- HA! it was there all along, and this email got me excited all over again. thanks Meghan!

so with this, i have promised myself that i will blog once a week, and first start out talking about my experiences in ethiopia. there are so many to talk about so i have a lot to say...

thanks for hearing me out. i feel better already ;)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Article in Telegram and Gazette

This was an article in my local newspaper about my work and connection with Ethiopia. I need to document is somewhere or else I know I will lose the link someday...
about my work here:

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Provoking Wood Carving

One of the most moving pieces at Ethiopia's National Museum titled "Genital Mutilation" by Abebe Zelew, 2003 wood engraving mixed media piece. It was like the piece had a voice screaming out at me. The brutality of this piece is palpable and left me shaken for most of the day. If you look closely on the upper left, the image is of the girls' father, peering in from the door in complete horror.
I remember when were going through our adoption process, we had to fill out a checklist regaring medical/physical issues that we would "accept". One of the items listed was "female genital mutilation" or "FGM".
I was quite surprised to see this work at the National Museum for many reasons but I'm really glad it's there.

Monday, December 5, 2011

AHOPE, art and supporting kids' development

This post can also be found at my friend's blog,

Hello “Under the Acacia Tree” followers! My name is Gina, and I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Ethiopia for two weeks with the gang known as the “mudulamamas”-I am a mom of two, our youngest daughter is Ethiopian. I am an artist, and much of my artwork is a reflection of my internal dialogue about Ethiopia, adoption and family. During my trip, I had the opportunity to meet with a wide range of Ethiopian artists- from a traditional religious artist to a world- famous and beloved patriot of Ethiopia, to visiting a gallery showing of an incredible abstract artist who is paralyzed and works on a massage table facing the floor, to male and female contemporary artists that are making a name for themselves both in Ethiopia and around the world. The need to create art is universal and unique in its own way. It was an incredible experience. Along with this, I had the treat of spending time and doing artwork with some kids
at AHOPE. (to learn more about AHOPE and all the incredible work they do, click here:

Several of the “mudulamamas” spent one Saturday morning at AHOPE, working on a craft
project with both the younger and older group of children at AHOPE. I spent some time with the younger kids working on a canvas bag project- the kids were all excited as they travelled in groups, first spraying colors all over the bags, impatiently waiting for the bags to dry, and then running to a shaded corner to draw on the bags. I was asked by one of the social workers to do an additional art project with the younger kids, since the older children soon arrived to work on their canvas bags. I had not planned on doing a separate project, but I figured no problem- “chigger yellem”. I figured kids are pretty fearless when it comes to art and just going with it- it’s the adults that get that “deer in the headlight” look (I’m speaking of myself) when you are faced with a blank piece of paper.

I asked the kids to work in small groups of four (there were six groups), and the first part of the project was for each group to spend about 3 minutes discussing and deciding upon a theme for their piece of artwork. Large pieces of poster board were handed out to each group, and each group shared what theme they were going to draw out as group- dinosaurs, a religious cross, a horse and landscape, a picture of their family home, etc. The kids all worked cooperatively during the drawing time, each group quickly delegating the drawing to the “best drawer” in the group and discussing what to draw where. It was going along swimmingly. And then it was time to bring out the art materials- to color the images, to embellish their artwork- I had brought some art supplies to AHOPE, but wasn’t really sure what they needed or had on hand- I figured they must have a pretty well stocked supply of art supplies. I brought several tubes of paint (they did not have any paint brushes and I had a huge pile of brushes back at the guest house where we were staying). I had pastels back at the guest house (they had no pastels). I had watercolors and watercolor paper back at the guest house (they had no watercolors or paper). I think you get the picture. I remembered I brought a large package of colored tissue paper that I often use in my mixed media pieces- AHA!!! All we needed was glue sticks! No problem, right? Wrong. All that was available was ½ of ONE glue stick- to be shared with around 25 kids, and clear office glue that I wasn’t sure the kids should use. I showed the kids how to do collage work with the tissue paper, and all the kids shared the glue without any complaints. Thankfully, sharpie markers (from the canvas bag project) and crayons were found and the kids kept busy working on their masterpieces. As time quickly approached to stop the project, I explained to the kids that their work is not yet complete, that I hope they continue to work on their pieces, and to remember to sign their artwork before it is hung for display in their rooms. Several children came up to me and thanked me for working with them- it was such a fun experience, and they appeared to have a lot of fun, despite the lack of basic art supplies. Once again, it opened my eyes to what I still take for granted- the assumption that “what you need” is going to be there just because it’s what you expect. That is not reality for AHOPE or many other programs in Ethiopia.

I have struggled with the feeling that bringing art supplies to Ethiopia is low on the totem pole, ridiculous, foolish even. Art does not fill your belly or keep you from getting sick. But, I DO know that art soothes the soul, makes you feel good from the inside out, what helps you make sense of the world. I remember as a child spending hours drawing and imagining pictures in my head- I see it in these kids as well- it’s universal- the need to create and make sense of things. Why else would there be professional artists in Ethiopia, trying to make a living in a country where most of the artwork is purchased by foreigners and a very few wealthy Ethiopians? I think they are gambling on the idea that someone will look at their work and connect with it. Maybe one or many of the kids at AHOPE will someday want to become artists. Maybe, maybe not, but they deserve the chance to find out for themselves.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What does it mean to meet artists?

I know how lucky i am to have had the opportunity to go to ethiopia for two weeks, sit silently with my thoughts, open my eyes to a different reality and open myself up to artists that have ethiopia running through their veins. i still dont think i have had enough time to process my entire experience, but i have come to one very simple conclusion- each artist that i met is unique in their interpretation of how they "fit" in the world. every artist is ethiopian, but each experience is totally different from one another. that should be quite obvious to me, but at times i'm a bit dense. visiting a traditional artist, contemporary male artists, female artists, world-renowned artist and "professional drunk" artist ;)- i was amazed to see the diversity in talent- all the paintings capture "ethiopia" but in such different ways. they are all valid points of view. they are all spectacular. they are all fearless. one thing that i have learned is that i need to figure out what my voice is in all of this. what do i have to say? what am i?
part of what has helped me is that when i met these artists, i spoke the same language with them- instantly. it's kind of weird- a different kind of shop talk that sets off fireworks in my head. when i was a therapist, i "shop-talked" with fellow therapists, but never had such an intense reaction. for the longest time, i felt strange calling myself an artist- yes, i have sold many pieces and made a little $, but does that make an artist? nah. i think i have finally figured out that i am an artist, because of the "shop talk" and the craziness that only another artist understands. it doesnt need to be explained- we all speak it.