refugee and immigrant stories from cincinnati

Art – The Universal Language

A few months ago I received an email from Calcagno (Cal) Cullen asking to meet with me to discuss refugees living in Cincinnati. She stated that she was an artist, art teacher, and owner of the Wave Pool Art Gallery. She had recently finished a collaborative project with refugees living in a camp in Southern Italy. She did several art projects related to their hopes, dreams, and memories and worked to turn some of their art into a wallpaper design that now benefits the UNHCR (read more here: http://www.telephoneheart.com/#/wearehere/). We arranged a meeting in late March and the creative adventure began.

Many resettled refugee adults and youth are natural artists and spent their days drawing and creating art to pass the time in refugee camps. Upon arriving in America, art falls to back burner while they try to manage and acclimate to their new life. We noticed their passion for creating and were using art as a way to expand their vocabulary and friendships along with feeding their soul. After meeting Cal there was a new excitement.

Ram Rai’s acrylic painting depicting life in the refugee camp.

I wondered what could we create when led by a true artist? Little did I know that creating art with her would be the tip of the iceberg. The relationship blossomed into so much more.

We did our first project with Cal giving a group of us an up close and personal tour of the Do Ho Suh exhibit at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center.

Former refugee girls began meeting once a month at the Wave Pool to work with Cal and resident guest artists for projects. The girls were introduced to Sam Ihrig and Anna Riley, from NYC, to learn how to bring sand to life via glass. Sam and Anna took the girls through their process, materials and then allowed them to create their own glass piece.

In July they had an opportunity to weave a plant holder and take their own succulent home while working with artists Matt Spahr and Valerie Molnar who transformed the Wave Pool Gallery into a live plant gallery.

The Wave Pool Gallery was the location of the 2016 Girls Teen Empowerment program. Guest speakers visited the site to discuss futures, overcoming obstacles, handling stress and believing in you. Cal incorporated this theme by having the girls use paper to mimic and create Peruvian arpilleras.

Most recently the teen girls and ladies have had the opportunity to view some of the exhibits participating in FotoFocus Biennial 2016.   We have visited three of the six ghost images placed by Paulo Cirio. Visit the Wave Pool Gallery to view the map and location of the six local ghost images created from security feeds.

The ladies kicked off their weekly art program in the Fall by taking donated alpaca wool from Tikkun Farms and learning how to felt the material using the wool, repurposed saris and other wools. The final project ended up being a pillow surrounding their art project.

We were invited by ArtWorks to participate in their Hero Design program. Refugee children visited the ArtWorks Garage in Northside and were greeted by secret agents. The kids then worked with their agents to design their own logo or insignia that described the type of superhero they were. The agents then worked on the creation of a cape that will be presented to the children during a special event to be held this month. The excitement and joy was unimaginable. It reminded me of when my children first saw someone dressed as their favorite character only these kids were their favorite character.

We couldn’t leave this article without discussing the food for our soul the art projects have provided. During the projects there’s a lot of laughter and creation. One student said “before coming to class I didn’t know I could create anything of beauty, now I see beauty in all I do.” Teen girls discuss how they can visually put their storyboards together to keep them on track. In addition, a few of the girls now see art as a viable career option for them.

What’s next? Heartfelt Tidbits and the Wave Pool Gallery plan on continuing down this path. Beading, more felting, photography, drawing and woodworking are all being planned.  Other artists have reached out to work with the community.

We’re exploring how to incorporate younger youth into the creation of a mural that could then be painted on the side of the Wave Pool as a permanent piece of art created by our newest neighbors. The opportunities are endless.

In order for these great programs to continue and be successful, please visit and support our partners that make this such a success: The Wave Pool Gallery http://www.wavepoolgallery.org, Tikkun Farms http://www.tikkunfarm.com/, and ArtWorks http://www.artworkscincinnati.org/.