Initial Strokes: Art and Environmental Consciousness with the Youngest Generation of Shipibo Children

After completing a series of murals with the children of the Shipibo urban community of Bena Jema on their elementary school, the teachers of the preschool next door came to us with an interest in a mural for their building as well. I saw this as positive feedback from the community, since both the children involved and the teachers in Bena Jema were anxious for more collaborative art projects.

This was an exciting opportunity for me as an art facilitator, as I had never worked with such young artists. The participants were as young as two years-old and for the majority of them it was their first time ever using a paintbrush. Many of them were shy at first and unsure of their own artistic capacity. My job was to give them the space, tools and encouragement to explore, experiment and create with the paint. Once the first marks were made, their excitement and participation grew.

Fun with paint

I decided upon the theme of artistic reforestation for this project, since it was simple enough to maximize the involvement of the smallest children while at the same time addressing an important environmental issue. Decades of unsustainable environmental exploitation in the region has deeply affected the traditional way of life of the Shipibo people. Trees traditionally provided fruits, medicine, shelter, and firewood for the Shipibo, but now there are so few trees in the urban communities that the part of the youngest generation that is growing up in an urban environment has been thoroughly disconnected from that aspect of their culture.

It was a challenge to channel the interest and creative energy I found in the community into a work of art that could be painted by children who are still in the process of developing their basic motor skills. I approached it by meeting them where they were, which meant finger painting the grass, sponge stamps for the leaves and flowers, and guiding their hands to teach them how to make certain kinds of brushstrokes.

Painting tree trunks

The interest in the project radiated outwards into the community, and both the parents of the children and older kids from the neighborhood came by to get involved. This help was welcomed as the participation from the youngest of the bunch was limited by the blistering sun and short attention spans.

It has been an honor and a privilege for me to introduce the children of Bena Jema to a new form of creative expression. My hope is that the experience has expanded their understanding of their capacity to make a positive impact in their community and in the world. The mural will remain to serve as an inspiration and reminder as they continue to learn and grow.

Written by Eileen Hinckle, who has been interning with Alianza Arkana since January 2015 and has co-created many murals at Shipibo schools in that time.

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