Found on the Fringes

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As the art world veers farther away from attempting realistic representation, a growing number of prefixes and suffixes finds its way into the international artistic vocabulary. Terms like "post-graffiti" and "futurism" allow us to intellectually divide and conquer the unbounded arrangements of shapes and pigments that might fill a blank space, envisioning the possibilities of creative expression as observable waves and movements.

However, none of this is a concern for the artists at Paintbrush Diplomacy. Many of them haven't had their first art history lesson, let alone their first kiss or their first missing tooth. But they have participated in a cosmopolitan children's art exchange setting up its home base in Berkeley.

Founded in 1975 by San Mateo artist Char Pribuss and her husband Rudy, Paintbrush Diplomacy is a non-profit organization fostering interconnectedness and understanding through art. While grown-ups busy themselves with wars and financial meltdowns, Paintbrush reaches out to youth ages five to 18, inspiring cultural awareness in attempts to secure a more peaceful global future through a common childhood pastime - drawing and painting.

"(When) receiving a drawing from another part of the world, you actually get to see a concept of who (the other people) are… It may be in the form of the style of art, it may be in the form of colors," explains executive director Louise Valeur, "It's the openness when you're in the creative process, when you're actually doing a drawing and you get to think not only about your drawing, but where in the world it might go."

Funded mostly by grants and private donations, Paintbrush Diplomacy sends a so-called Diplomatic Pouch filled with paintings from around the world to any classroom or individual willing to partake in an exchange. In return, participants mail back their artwork, usually pertaining to an annual theme (this year's is "Outside my Window") that reflects something about themselves or the community they live in.

"It's not always that easy for a child to give up a painting, so sending it out into the world and then wondering about that world is one component of it. Just knowing someone else might want something that they've created themselves," Valeur adds, "It's thinking beyond the world that they live in and thinking about children who are just like them, only in another culture, and (becoming) curious about them."

Despite the tired trope often used to dismiss abstract art as childlike, much of the children's art in Paintbrush Diplomacy's permanent collection is anything but elementary. The collection has been exhibited by the likes of the UN and the Smithsonian Institution. With a grant from VISA International, Paintbrush formed the International Children's Art Museum, occupying the SF Ferry Building until 1999.

The paintings in the collection range in complexity, from adorably crooked drawings of houses to carefully shaded human and animal figures. In a painting titled "Playmates" by a nine-year-old girl from Ukraine, a smiling, pink-skinned girl with long braids smiles in the foreground. Behind her, the diligently painted figure of a friend in a pleated skirt stands waving against a background of mustard yellow floral wallpaper. In a boy's watercolor from China, a majestic tiger gazes fixedly into the distance, its stripes painted faithfully as if reproduced by camera.

Many of the paintings have an attached message and photograph of the artist. A 17-year-old from Tanzania writes in English, "I hope you are doing fine. I very cool to draw pictures to you, our school is so nice. We are doing good. You are welcome in our school." On the back of a pastel drawing of twirling ballerinas, a 14-year-old from Poland expresses her desire to go to Australia, win a Nobel award and meet Sandra Bullock.

The themes of the projects are broad enough to encourage individual creativity, but upon looking at Paintbrush's vast storage of works, what's most important to kids is apparent. For that matter, for all people in general - family and friends, flora and fauna, food and music. With the complexity of adult-world international and interpersonal relations, it's easy to lose sight of shared basic values and emotions.

Rather than indoctrinating classrooms with political correctness or diversity dogma, Paintbrush allows children to communicate what's important to them on their own terms, and to see that others share similar interests. Perhaps later in life, the foreignness of those others won't be so shocking.

After a number of structural changes, Paintbrush Diplomacy arrived in Berkeley this June to make a comeback tantamount to its prestigious history. Valeur and other dedicated volunteers have struggled to maintain the organization, and Paintbrush moved its headquarters to Firehouse North, the gallery and art space of Firehouse Art Collective on Shattuck Avenue.

The permanent collection is archived and stowed in the labyrinthine halls of Palo Alto Research Center, but Paintbrush Diplomacy plans to launch a month-long exhibit at Firehouse in mid-August. The arts are the first to suffer during an economic blow, but perhaps these projects will prime the world's youth for transcultural dialogues and mutual cooperation for generations to come.


Paint pretty cultural snapshots for Nastia at [email protected]

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