Art, Culture, Healing: Africa Forges Ties with Northwest Artist
After 25 years teaching art at public schools in the state of Washington, Russell Ford is preparing to launch the next chapter of his career on the other side of the world. Last year, Ford received an invitation to go to a small town in Zambia, Africa and become the first artist-in-residence art teacher at Wayiwayi Art Studio and Gallery.
Wayiwayi (pronounced weywey) is a well-established art studio and school in the Livingston community, near Victoria Falls. If you’re not sure where that is – it’s in southern Africa – just across the river from Zimbabwe. Lawrence and Agnes Yombwe, well known artists and activists in Zambia, are the studio’s artists and teachers.
Ford heard about the Wayiwayi school through an organization called Global Sojourns Giving Circle (GSGC) – a small charity dedicated to educating children in southern Africa. In particular, GSGC helps to support positive endeavors to repair and build self-esteem of African girls and young women who have experienced abuse. One of these endeavors is the work ongoing at the Wayiwayi school.
Wayiwayi works closely with girls in the community to improve their lives and foster personal growth through creative development. In Zambia – as with other African countries – it is common for women to take a back seat in decision-making for the family and the community at large. Despite the fact that women carry the burden of the family workload they are undervalued and inequality is prevalent (as demonstrated through abuse, abandonment, and poverty).
The WayiWayi school promotes the idea that women can be the catalyst for positive change in the community. To facilitate this process, the school helps girls and young women find the much needed strength, courage, and self confidence to develop their creative talents, unique abilities, and leadership skills.
On the weekends, local girls who cannot afford to pay attend a program at Wayiwayi funded by GSGC. They are bussed back and forth from their homes, and study arts and crafts while Agnes Yombwe also provides mentoring in life skills.
Both successful artists and compassionate individuals, the Yombwes model healthy relationships within the community. The couple helps the girls to build self-esteem by mentoring leadership and creative problem solving. Through this process, Wayiwayi hopes to demonstrate that the arts can be a legitimate career path.
The Yombwes believe that cultural exchange is an important element to accelerating positive change. With this in mind, they used their own limited financial resources to construct a building to house an artists-in-residence facility. They hope to bring artists from all over the world to teach and share their unique talents.
Wayiwayi school invited Ford to visit and be their first artist-in-residence art teacher. He will be teaching classes and bringing his unique approach to creative expression through ceramics and sculpture. Since the facility is only partially completed (so far it has the basics like walls and a roof), he expects to also help with building improvements for future visiting art teachers.
When asked about his approach to teaching art, Ford responded: “I believe that art is a universal and cross cultural experience. Part of what’s compelling is to go to a completely different culture and see if I can connect up with kids in a new way. I feel that I was successful connecting with kids here in America and now I want to see if it translates well in Africa.”
In 2014, Ford received the Washington State Art Educator of the Year award. Throughout his career in Hockinson school district (teaching first at the middle school and then high school outside of Vancouver, Washington), Ford developed a unique approach that combined technology with art to make it three dimensional – through woodworking, ceramics, and sculpture.
Ford said he helped to reframe art for students in a way that made it relevant for the world around them. Each year he took the children on outings to art museums, gallery openings, and helped some students find a venue for their work (such as local cafes).
He adopted the principle: “If doing they’re learning.” Students were expected to be up moving around the room, and finding what they needed to create and complete their own personal work of art. Ford was also known as a teacher who successfully incorporated special needs students into his classroom to create positive experiences for all.
Ford started a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money for the trip along with the sale of artwork created specifically for this endeavor. Ford’s ceramics and sculptures can be viewed the month of March at the Aurora Gallery at 1004 Main Street, Vancouver, Wa. Some of Lawrence Yombwe’s paintings will also be for sale to help purchase supplies for completing the artist-in-residence building.
The Aurora Gallery will have a grand opening for the show on March 4 from 5-9 p.m. Please come and learn more about this unique project and find out how you can support efforts to establish the WayiWayi Art Studio and Gallery as a full-fledged artists-in-residence program.
If you are not able to come to the gallery, please check out the Facebook page to see some of this beautiful artwork at: Art Africa Now. If you “like” the page, you’ll receive updates in your Facebook feed. You might also consider visiting Ford’s GoFundMe site to make a small donation.
Proceeds from the sale of these art works and donations collected from the GoFundMe campaign will finance Ford’s trip to Africa along with equipment that he will purchase to take to the school (such as a Raku kiln). If any funds are left, he will help to purchase other supplies needed to improve the artist-in-residence facility.
By Kathryn Thomsen and Russell Ford
Author: Kathryn Thomsen
Founder of Hundredgivers, a nonprofit supporting and accelerating sustainability initiatives benefiting local and global communities. In addition to social entrepreneur, Kathryn is a consultant, researcher, writer, communicator and urban farmer. She collaborates with individuals, organizations, and businesses to evaluate and develop climate change, clean energy, and sustainability strategies and programs.