— By Britt Jensen
I have always thought that art, in all forms, has a unique ability to bridge cultural gaps that are not met through other forms of teaching and communicating. VAST’s watercolour outreach camp has confirmed my thoughts about the power of art and its ability to connect over language and cultural barriers.
The trip to Ura with VAST was my first real interaction with Bhutan, I had been here long enough to realize the friendly nature of the culture and the strong sense of community, but I had only spent a few days in the fast paced world of Thimphu. The rural village of Ura was completely different, many of the children had perhaps never had the opportunity to hold a paintbrush, but they painted beautifully and with a fresh and inspiring passion.
There is absolutely no way to sum up the personalities of the three Thai watercolour masters that lead the VAST outreach art camp. Our very first conversation during the long drive to Bumthang was about different cultures and animal noises. Dr. Suchart made all the Thai animals sound absolutely crazy and put all my American animal noises to shame. They were all so full of life and energy, taking pictures of everything we passed, singing Thai songs, and dancing every time we got out of the van. Dr. Sompote’s wife, Tip, who is not a watercolour artist herself, told me that she never knows what they are taking photos of until they paint from them.
After several stops for tea and a night in Trongsa we arrived in the afternoon on June 30th. Dr. Suchart kicked off the afternoon with a basic sketching lesson. He was so animated with the children, and it was not at all an act, just a true portrayal of his eccentric personality. He asked Asha Kama how to get the children’s attention and Asha told the children “Talo” which got a huge laugh when Dr. Suchart repeated the phrase. I later learned why this was such a joke each time Dr. Suchart used it, the phrase translates to something along the lines of “he wants you to look,” but Dr. Suchart took it more as a phrase meaning “look here.” No one bothered to correct him and the confusion just added to the comedy and friendly nature of the camp. Every time Dr. Suchart drew something or saw some nice student work he would exclaim “woooah” and through this animated voice and exaggerated gesticulations he could instantly created smiles across the room.
One of my favorite parts of the camp was hearing the children whisper to each other about their work, even if I could not understand them, there was something magical about the excitement that simple art lessons and a few paint sets could instill in a group of children of all ages.
The paints did not come out on the first day, but were introduced, in all their colourful wonder, by Dr. Sompote during a lesson that covered all shapes of watercolour and stressed the light motion in the nature of the medium. He painted gorgeous horses and flowers with what looked like simple flicks of the paintbrushes. For me, watercolour is a frustrating medium, it requires levels of confidence, talent, and observation that other types of paint do not request, but the children did not seem to face any of these frustrations. Their subjects were pure and felt genuinely inspired by their environment, their peers, and the watercolour masters.
As I walked around camp the students from Ura were scattered in their tents and on the hills around the school at all hours of the day discussing and painting their surroundings and their imagination. It was beautiful to sit on the hill behind the school getting water from the stream and painting with a group of children that I could not verbally communicate with, but with whom I felt a great sense of connection through art and creativity.
Since returning to Thimphu I have experienced a bit more of the VAST culture made up by a community of artists drinking tea, discussing their art, drawing each other, and contemplating creativity. I now realize that the watercolour camp was just an extension of the community that has been fostered in VAST for over a decade. Asha Kama has created a welcoming environment and outlet for artists not only in Thimphu, but across Bhutan. He has created this environment in a very natural manner, through creative inspiration, the cultivation of talent, and the nurturing of artists from stick figures to masterpieces.
Being an artist is all about the mindset and I think the majority of this artistic mindset is created by the community in which an artist’s creativity and talent are fostered. Ura, because of it’s rural population, beautiful scenery, and eager children, offered a perfect community in which Asha Kama, the Thai masters, and all the volunteers of VAST were able to go beyond teaching techniques and colour choice; they were able to inspire a creative atmosphere within the school and within each individual child that participated.