The First Mural, Beautiful Kidz, Katatura, Namibia

I’m a firm believer in what goes around comes around.  People ask why I have my art out on the Internet for free.   Well, for the moment, I enjoy helping people and hearing from them.  This free service has provided some neat opportunities for me.  I’ve had my cartoons on a television commercial, used with PowerPoint presentations in multiple languages, on book covers, published in a series of educational DVD’s and then there was the email from Margaret.

I don’t often get email from Africa.  Margaret worked in Namibia and searched online for some artwork to use at a daycare center for Aids orphans in the Windhoek area.  She stopped when she found my site.  All she needed was my permission because she found all the art she needed.  Of course, I instantly said yes.  Absolutely use my art at the center!

Then, I thought about it for five minutes and sent another email message.

I told Margaret that I not only wanted them to use my art but I wanted them to use me.  I volunteered to go to Namibia and help with the painting if they were interested.  When she recovered from the initial shock, she invited me to Africa.  I wrote to my friends that it was a once in a life time experience that couldn’t be missed.  One of them wrote back and said that it was just another in a series of Phillip Martin experiences that never seem to happen to anyone else.  He wasn’t surprised at all about Africa.

I was.

It never occurred to me to paint murals for kids.  I don’t think that idea ever would have come to me.  But, like I said, I had these women who pushed me in the right direction.  When Margaret suggested murals to me, it sounded like such a perfect fit.  Namibia was the first mural.  But, I knew it wouldn’t be the last.  I’d be back to the wall again and again.  It was only the beginning.I lived in Zambia for two very long years.  It was not a good fit for me.  Other people loved living there, but I counted the months of my two year contract after just six weeks.  One of my regrets was never figuring out a way to get involved in the community.  In an area of the world devastated by Aids, there should have been plenty of opportunities for community service.  I just never found them.  Painting the mural in Namibia helped to heal that wound of regret.

I’ve always considered myself an art teacher who happened to have a website.  Yes, my art is all over the web and my students wondered if I was famous.  But, I knew the truth.  Not rich, not famous, and let me repeat not rich.  However, in Namibia, I was the “renowned Belgian children’s illustrator”.  It really said that in a write up about me.

Everything is big in Africa.  I love the size of an African sky.  If you haven’t seen one, you just can’t imagine what I’m talking about.  Anyway, before arriving in Namibia, they told me the mural would be huge.  No problem for me.  But, huge in Africa was about 80 yards.  I could be wrong because I’m no real good judge of distance, but it was an African-style huge mural.  Fortunately, I had over fifty volunteers of all ages to help with the process.

The more I’ve thought about murals, the more I realize how lucky I was to arrive in Namibia.  If the idea of painting murals originally came to me, and it didn’t, I would have painted them entirely by myself.  Although I am certainly capable of doing just that, it wasn’t an option when I had fifty or so volunteers waiting to help with the project.  And, I quickly realized that a community building experience was much more satisfying for so many more people than just a gift from one artist.  Instead of simply receiving a mural, everyone involved in the activity had ownership of that mural.  Perhaps it was an accident in planning?  Perhaps I was just lucky to have about two dozen Dutch volunteers, local school children, Beautiful Kidz employees, adult volunteers, and Margaret when I was there? In any case, the only way to paint 80 yards in the given time was with volunteer help.  And, I never want to do it any other way.

Any kind of project should get better with practice and this was my first mural of this kind.  So, there was a bit of a learning curve.  It wasn’t a big curve.  There were no disasters.  I knew what I was doing, but the experience gave me insight into things I’d do differently on all future murals.  I’ve always believed that learning from mistakes is one really good way to reinforce the learning.  I learned.

I made no scale drawing prior to painting this mural.  If I had done this, it would have helped in a couple of ways.  In addition to a huge Beautiful Kidz logo with lots of kids, the people at the center wanted separate drawings of Africa’s Big Five animals.  If you have never gone on safari, you may not know that the list includes elephants, giraffes, rhinos, water buffalo, and lions.  That was no problem.  I had drawings prepared in advance, but I didn’t use a grid.  It was very difficult to transfer my little drawings to the wall and keep everything in proportion.  I’ve never had that problem since, because I always use a grid.  Like I said, I learned.

That little grid drawing provides another very important service.  I color it.  By doing so, that little piece of paper is the answer key to so many questions.  And, even people who speak no English can look at it and know I want the pants blue and a shirt red.  There is no stress.  There is no communication breakdown.  Nobody makes a poor color choice. Everything gets colored the way I want it colored.  And, I like things colored the way I want them colored.  In Namibia, without that key, I told people to choose the colors they wanted to use.  That has never happened since.  Yep, I learned.

 And, one last note about Namibia.  I was thrilled to go there, but in the back of my mind, there was a little trepidation.  The last of the five times I’ve had malaria (Yes, I did say five times.) was in Namibia.  I didn’t want to go for six.  No need for Olympic or malarial records for me.  I learned my lesson, even if it was the hard way.  The last time I went to Namibia, I didn’t have any anti-malarial medication.  I didn’t do that again.