Deep in the interior of the Dominican Republic surrounded by endless expanses of sugar cane fields small cramped shanty villages appear. Their existence is literally grounded to the earth, for food and for employment. Sugar is the “oil” to which its monetary value is obviously not shared with the exploited labour. The will to live is a powerful motive inspired by the community’s strong Christian spirituality. Sister Maude Rhenaud has answered the call to ease the resulting (unnecessary) poverty. Over several decades she has, basically single-handedly, established a school (grades 1-3), a dormitory, a chapel, and a senior’s home. She travels long distances to personally oversee the distribution of clothes, food, and medical supplies all because of her unabated devotion to serve.
I had know idea, no concept. It is approximately eight feet in height and fifty feet in length. The image was already expressed on the blank wall, everyone else could see it except me. I got up early that morning. The left over coffee was lukewarm but caffeine at any temperature still works. I poured a cup and walked out into the courtyard and greeted the wall then up a set of stairs onto a flat roof. Orion was directly above. To my right was the sameness of the dark. To my left exposed by an acidic blue light was a fenced compound guarding heavy machinery. The sunrise didn’t disappoint. It made this place look like paradise.
The wall at first light is in the shade, a fact that I soon learned to appreciate. I take a sip of coffee, it’s hot and freshly brewed. Behind me is an audience of seniors. All day long they watched. Some came out and grouped on the nearby benches to socialize. “Olah! Olah! Olah!” By noon the seniors retreated to the tree and are replaced by the school children. The word got out. “Olah! Olah! Olah!” The afternoon session starts and I’m left alone except for this little girl in a yellow t-shirt. Like the others, she found my presence and activity very interesting. So she sat and watched, from the shade, while I worked in the high sun. This scenario repeated itself each of the following days, dusk till dark.
As the image developed, the chatter amongst the seniors increased. Whenever I stepped back and paused, they would surround me and continue in conversion knowing full well I did not comprehend. Yet, we understood each other’s smiles and hand language. The kitchen staff routinely brought out a cup of hot, fresh coffee. I wouldn’t stop. It didn’t dawn on me that I should. And speaking of routine, at noon, the little girl in the yellow t-shirt came by. “Painta! Painta!” she exclaimed while dipping a small brush into a can of red. I was using the red to make brown. At the end of the day, I would apply the unused mixtures to the weathered benches. So, why not make one red? Well, she took it, singing, talking, and painting away in the sun.
It took a couple of days for her to finish all the benches and stools. Some were multicoloured. Some were decorated with dots and slashes. What else was there available for her to paint? She sat down on the gravel and started colouring the stones, one by one. “What if we were to put shovel fulls of this stuff into buckets of different paint then create a mural to walk on?” I thought out loud. Beyond the courtyard lived hardship, poverty, and exploitation and here we were engrossed in a magical world of imagination. Furthermore, the audience of seniors sensed our mindset and were totally buying into it.
There was a small concrete patio just outside the door to the kitchen dorm. I decided that it would be a good idea, at the time as the saying goes, to do a chalking drawing. The little girl in the yellow t-shirt and I gathered a few pieces, walked over, and started sketching and blending. As I returned to the wall to retrieve more colours, a kitchen staff with a fresh coffee in hand saw the little girl. Despite the language barrier, it was safe to assume by the tone alone that the little girl in the yellow t-shirt was being seriously scolded. Needless to say, I frantically tried to communicate with my best, yet awkward, animated hand gestures that I was the one responsible. The praying hands sealed the deal. She handed me the coffee wagging her finger while trying very hard to suppress the urge to laugh. The little girl in the yellow t-shirt obediently hosed down the patio.
On the day of departure, I finished the last part of the mural, the locomotive. I did not see the little girl in the yellow t-shirt. Perhaps because it was the weekend. I walked over to the spot where she had painted the gravel. Back home, in my studio is a sculpture of a red tree. At its base are three red stones. The mural will fade overtime. Maybe I’ll return to repaint it. Better yet, perhaps the little artist in the yellow t-shirt will instead.
The design for the mural was a personal struggle. Again, I cannot take ownership for its conception. I arrived with a blank mind totally void of a plan. The idea came to be by surrendering to a blind acceptance of “something” more divine being in control. The mural honours their choice to live but not in a biological sense of just having the ability to breathe but in terms of their faith. The rationale for having a mural done was initially incomprehensible to me. There was a hesitation on my part to purchase paint instead of spending the funds on the necessities. However, Sister’s gleaming expression validated the notion that she knew what greater importance the artwork would hold. The answer became apparent when the project was complete. It was a testament of hope.
Sister Maude Rhenaud Congregación Hijas de MariaParroquia Santa Cruz/La Higuera, El Siebo Dominican Republic
As noble as this experience was, there lies an underlying guilt. The circumstances behind this story look very familiar that being the persecution, disrespect, and neglect inflected upon our own Indigenous communities. This feels like a bad case of selective empathy on my part.