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Painting their way out of a corner

Hayhurst resident heads a team of Portland artists to El Salvador to teach self-expression

HAYHURST - About a month before the delegation arrived, the children in Bajo Lempa, El Salvador, ran around the village collecting dried cow dung and dug a large pit kiln.

There, in the second-most deforested country in Latin America, wood is scarce, as are many other resources.

But an artists delegation from Portland was coming to teach them ceramics and other art techniques, and the kids wanted to be ready to fire their clay creations when they arrived.

Bearing presents of art supplies, the artists came for 10 days in February, hoping to teach the children how to use them in order give them a path out of gangs and poverty.

A branch of the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America, the Rays of Light youth art program is designed to give students from ages 14 to 24 the tools to express themselves with art, and perhaps provide a source of income.

The foundation even built a small gallery in Bajo Lempa where the students can sell their artwork. Forty percent of the profit goes to the student and the rest is funneled back into the arts program to keep it self-sustaining.

Even so, the group is at risk of losing its funding.

Hayhurst resident Sher Davidson, who led the February delegation of eight artists to El Salvador, said they need to raise $5,000 before June to keep the center's $17,000 annual budget solvent.

'It's a program that kind of holding on by a thin thread,' Davidson said.

The program was originally developed in response to community concerns that gangs had sprouted up in their rural communities. Teenagers returning from the States, where they had grown up to avoid the Salvadoran civil war in the 1980s, brought with them that aggressive way of life.

'Unfortunately, it's the saddest thing that our country can export,' Davidson said.

Rays of Light was instantly popular among the young adults, bringing about 75 children through the door instead of the 40 who were expected. Their regular art teacher, Jose Alberto Garcia, travels 2½ hours from San Salvador twice a week to teach the children. But Davidson hopes more Portland artists will come as guest lecturers, helping them learn papermaking, pottery, painting, weaving and other techniques in the hopes of giving them a money-making career and an engaging activity.

And the art the students produce has become popular, too. After her first trip there in 2005, Davidson brought back pictures of the art students had made and turned them into greeting cards at a copy supply store. She and her friends have to date sold more than 1,800 cards in packs of three for $6. All $6 goes back to the program to keep it running, she said.

'I realized that the money we, along with all of the other people, had been donating was really going to a wonderful cause,' Davidson said, explaining that the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency does not develop and impose programs on impoverished communities. Rather, the communities decide what they need and ask the foundation for the technical and financial support to make it happen.

That means, said Davidson, that the programs are more rooted in the community and less likely to create a dependency on foreign aid.

Davidson and her husband, Gary, first became involved in Central America in the 1980s as part of the Ben Linder Brigade in Nicaraguan hospital during the war. The Davidsons took their first trip to El Salvador three years ago, but have since become heavily involved in the foundation and are planning many more return trips with Portland artists.

Davidson will give a presentation on the trip at the Southwest Community Center May 6. See the sidebar for more information.

Get Involved!

For more information or to donate, contact Davidson at 503-452-3928 or sherartpacifier.com.

Free event

A 'Report Back on the Recent Artists Delegation to El Salvador' will be at the Southwest Community Center on 45th Avenue in the Multi-Purpose Room from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 6. Sher Davidson will show slides of the recent Portland artists' trip and some artwork by their students will be available for purchase. Some of the artists will be there to share their experiences and to answer questions. This event is free and open to the public.