Social justice group builds community
By Mindy Cooper/The Portland Observer
To ensure immigrant artists both preserve and share their cultures, one Portland non-profit is on a mission to create a community filled with inter-cultural learning through art, which they believe is a vital part of community, heritage and family.
Founded in 2008, Colored Pencils Art and Culture collective empowers and supports residents who just moved to the city, often from overseas, to continue to celebrate their backgrounds, despite the challenges often faced when moving to a new country.
“Colored pencils found the need for a platform for newcomers to showcase their art and tell their stories,” said Nim Xuto, co-founder of the volunteer run organization based out of downtown Portland. “And these stories need to be heard.”
Xuto, who has lived in the metro area for 25-years, was born in Thailand, where her father taught her art as a young child. “I think art sustains us as human beings,” she said.
Although talking with someone can reveal a lot about a person, she said you can’t reallyknow who an individual is until you hear their story about where they came from, and what happened to their homeland.
“These people never had a stage before,” she said. “And now, with the help of the organization, they have been invited to perform their work in many places.”
According to Xuto, more than 200 people each month share their stories through poetry, paintings, dance and musical performances at their monthly events, which more than 3,000 individuals have been a part of since the creation of the volunteer run non-profit.
Although each artist is unique with their own story, the organization works diligently as a community and brings together artists from all different walks of life under one roof.
“We are a community building process,” she said. “The events are intended to have as many racial and nationality groups as possible. We are a non-profit that builds community through art.”
According to Ronault (Polo) Catalani, Xuto’s husband and fellow co-founder of the organization, the ‘new world,’ including the United States, often perceives the role of the artist differently than in other countries.
He said new arrivals to the United States often feel they have to give up their histories, families and cultures to come here, which can leave individuals vulnerable and broken-hearted.
“What Americans don’t seem to understand or appreciate, is that newcomers come here with a boat load of spiritual, social and cultural capital,” he said. “But we trade that for financial capital, and in this trade, everyone is enriched. In fact, this is what makes America so creative and vigorous.”
Keeping the immigrant artist active is really important to keeping families happy and healthy, he said.
While other organizations use a different kind of method, Colored Pencils is a social justice non-profit that uses art to build a positive community.
Catalani added that every Portlander is welcomed to join in on the mission and showcase their art.
“It’s Portlanders of all abilities and disabilities,” he said.
The couple recounted a dance performance by an African-American young woman who doesn’t have any legs or arms.
“The courage of this woman made us forget she was limbless,” said Catalani. “It’s about learning to work together to produce an event and overcome historical issues from 8,000 years-ago,” he said.
Although immigrants and refugees, whom both Xuto and Catalani refer to as new Portlanders, may be poor economically, he said they are definitely not in poverty.
“We have really rich cultures. We don’t want our poor new comers to slide into a culture of poverty,” he said. “Artists are central to stopping that slide.”
People immigrate to the United States most often because there is no money to be made in their own countries. Although he said economic integration is a real challenge, if you encourage, engage, and empower people, they will not stay poor long, he said.
“What we want to do is let folks know that once we are in our new country, we need to contribute what we bring from home, such as art and culture,” he said. “Listen to the Chinese, Hindi, Russian and Vietnamese.”
Xuto said, however, money is not the reason artists create art.
It’s all about culture and expression, she said.
For me, we are art, and what we promote is in here,” said Xuto, pointing to her heart. “And Colored Pencils ensures that no one has to give up anymore.”
As a way to celebrate community and culture in the New Year, the next Colored Pencils multicultural family room evening will be held on Friday, Dec. 30, at McCoy Academy’s Open Door Gallery, beginning at 6 p.m.
Featured artists include work by Hispanic Painter Manuel Cobarrubias and African American Photographer Michael Simpson, as well as Bobby Fouther, veteran African-American dancer, choreographer, painter and arts activist.
Traditional African food will be served, as well as performances by poet Norma Alicia Marin Favela, Mr. Americana Gary Marschke, Nepali heart-breaker Gauri ‘Raj’, Iraqi poet Baher Butti, Balinese traditional performer Novi Leigh, DJ Chatta Addy, and several spoken word artists.
Prajwal Ratna Vajrachara of the Foundation for Sacred Buddhist Arts of Nepal will also help welcome in the 2012 Dragon Year and celebrate three years of the Colored Pencils Arts & Culture Council putting together Portland’s settled and immigrant communities’ extraordinary vocabulary in spoken words and on canvas, in fine cuisine, in music, and dance.
“I think Colored Pencils gives people of all cultures within Portland an equal opportunity to showcase their work,” said Xuto.
“It is time now for us to show who we really are—the colorful Portlanders.”
For more information about the organization and their upcoming event, visit coloredpencilsart.com.