Art and trauma

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins, and this is The World. Ross Bleckner is a well-known artist in New York City. He also recently became the first artist named by the United Nations as one of its Goodwill Ambassadors. Bleckner's duty as ambassador is to shine a light on the problem of human trafficking. So he traveled to Northern Uganda to a place called Gulu. It's where a group known as The Lord's Resistance Army has perpetrated violence for nearly two decades. The UN estimates that over the years, the group abducted some 20 thousand children, forcing many of them to become child soldiers. Ross Bleckner went to Gulu to teach some of those kids art.

ROSS BLECKNER: The children I worked with had been formally abducted soldiers, and the girls had been sex slaves, who had been either let go, or had escaped. I met them at the convent where they came to work in what was called an art workshop, and they all volunteered to do this, and were interested in telling a story.

LISA MULLINS: How old were they?

ROSS BLECKNER: They were from 13 to 18, and there were 30 of them.

LISA MULLINS: 30 kids in one classroom. So what was your mindset as you walked in?

ROSS BLECKNER: Well, I knew, obviously, that they would be traumatized. They were really afraid of authority because obviously people in authority have exploited and violated their trust continually.

LISA MULLINS: But that must have made it difficult for you, Ross. As you hand these kids paints, could you say to them, draw, paint about trauma?

ROSS BLECKNER: No, I did not tell them draw or paint about trauma. They drew people in villages, a lot of guns, a lot of huts, a lot of little black spots.

LISA MULLINS: [OVERLAPPING] Little black spots meaning?

ROSS BLECKNER: [OVERLAPPING] Kind of like soldiers and stylistically simple uniforms, and almost like stick figures. Good guys, bad guys. I came back the next day, and I said to them, we're not gonna use charcoal anymore. I thought the use of color would help, so I said, no more charcoal, and what we're gonna do is, you know, you can never go back and you're always gonna have to live with what's happened in your past. Now, you have to remember that these boys, for instance, every one of them has been a murderer forcibly. And when you look at them, I would say to the translator, I cannot believe that these kids murdered somebody. They have so much joy, and they have so much enthusiasm for the future, even though they live here and they have less than nothing. But now we're here together, and this is a safe space, and nobody is judging you. So lets talk about today, about your dreams, about the future of Uganda, about what you want to see happen for yourselves. Suddenly, there really was a tremendous burst of joy and color and optimism.

LISA MULLINS: What else could you say? I mean, could you say please, whatever you're drawing now, even when they were drawing about their past, you know, did you say, be less abstract, more abstract, use?

ROSS BLECKNER: [OVERLAPPING] Absolutely, I did. I guided them.

LISA MULLINS: [OVERLAPPING] But that gets into their own psyche and what they've been through.

ROSS BLECKNER: Yeah. One day we just used letters, and the next day we put the letters in with words, like what do you wanna be? Then you got a lot of, I wanna be an accountant, I wanna be a designer. I suddenly, I kept seeing I wanna be an artist. And, I kept telling then, people will see their work, that they will go to school, that this will be followed through.

LISA MULLINS: Have you sold any of the paintings as you intended to?

ROSS BLECKNER: Many, many of the paintings. We had a show here at the UN, after that I organized a show at a major gallery.

LISA MULLINS: Ross, we're gonna make a link to some of the photos and have more information about the works of these children, and what you're doing as a follow through on our website, Ross, before I let you go, did you keep a particular image for yourself?

ROSS BLECKNER: [LAUGHS] I actually kept a few images for myself. I think the last day when I had left, they made images with my name, and one of them said, ?Thank you Ross for showing us a way of life.?

LISA MULLINS: Thank you very much Ross Bleckner, thanks.

ROSS BLECKNER: Okay, my pleasure.