Tree Hugger <3 Nature Conservancy

I live in the wooded part of a small city in a mostly rural county in far northeast Home summerWisconsin. Our city borders Lake Michigan’s Green Bay, which I can see from my loft windows. Today the bay is sparkling blue. Our daffodils are blooming and the tops of the tall trees – mostly white pine, red pine, maple, and oak – are waving in the cool breeze. It’s spring in the northwoods, at last. And I’m happy here in my refuge from the chaos of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

I’m a tree hugger, a nature lover. So I relish the natural beauty that surrounds our home. My husband and I take long walks and greet, from a safe distance, neighbors raking leaves or preparing flower beds and vegetable gardens or simply basking in the sun. Some are out biking, jogging, or walking, often with their dogs and children. Everyone says “Hi” now. Strangers in occasional passing cars smile and wave. We’re all hungry for more social contact but know that it’s best for everyone to stay apart for now. 

As I write, lots of other people are working to help us with food and health issues, garbage and power, news reporting and law enforcement, and other essentials. Although its offices are closed, the Nature Conservancy also continues its important work outdoors. It’s my favorite environmental nonprofit. I’ve been a member (but never a volunteer, alas) for many years.

Peninsula Park GCNature Conservancy’s priorities sync with my environmental concerns and values: protecting land and water, tackling climate change, providing food and water sustainability, and building healthy cities. Worldwide it helps to protect over 125 million acres of land, thousands of miles of rivers, and countless wildlife. In Wisconsin, it protects over 236,000 acres of forests, wetlands, rivers, lakes, prairies, bluffs, dunes, and more.

In my general area, Nature Conservancy manages 5 preserves and, overall, helps to protect almost 8,000 acres of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. The peninsula juts into the big waters of Lake Michigan to form the bay of Green Bay. From where I sit, I can see the silhouette of the peninsula’s bluffs 15 or so miles across the water. A fast motorboat can reach it in about 30 minutes. But being boatless, my husband and I travel by car, taking close to 2 hours. We like to make the trip twice a year, always for an overnight or two, sometimes camping in Peninsula Park atop a bluff overlooking the bay.

Of course, many other environmental nonprofits are engaged in vital work. Along with Nature Conservancy, Charity Navigator gives top ratings to the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, Rocky Mountain Institute, and Greenpeace. I encourage you to learn more about the work of these groups and to discover Nature Conservancy’s projects near you.

Stay well. Protect others. Protect our environment.

Photos: Our home; a view of Green Bay and Peninsula State Park Golf Course in
Door County where my husband and I enjoy playing. 

On Voting During a Pandemic

The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it. ~John Lewis in his final words to the nation, NYT op-ed

As long as young people are protesting in the streets, hoping real change takes hold, I’m hopeful but we cannot casually abandon them at the ballot box. Not when few elections have been as urgent, on so many levels, as this one. We cannot treat voting as an errand to run if we have some time. We have to treat it as the most important action we can take on behalf of democracy. ~Barack Obama in his eulogy for John Lewis

We truly are living in perilous times, marked by a raging pandemic and dire economy worsened by an incompetent, corrupt, and increasingly totalitarian government. This cannot stand. Nor can such actions by the Trump administration as caging children; beating and gassing protesters; defending criminals like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone; embracing white supremacy; refusing to confront Russia for its bounties on American soldiers; engaging in acts to suppress the vote; and so much more that threatens our democracy.

The Republican Party has done nothing to stop Trump’s un-American, sometimes unlawful behavior. We must vote Trump and his Republican accomplices out on November 3rd. As Obama said, “few elections have been as urgent, on so many levels, as this one.” To protect our democracy we must vote them out.

Because the pandemic is unlikely to go away by election day, voting this time may take extra effort. We need to plan now. Below are six things to consider as you prepare to vote.   

1. Vote by mail. Five states mail registered voters ballots that they fill out and mail back: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. In 34 other states, plus D.C., voters can request an absentee ballot to receive and return by mail without needing an excuse. For the remaining states, you need an excuse, at least at this time. Fear of contracting Covid-19 may be an acceptable excuse. To learn about your state’s requirements for voting by mail, go to On this site you can see if you’re registered, register if you’re not, and find out how to request an absentee ballot in your state. Election Protection is another good site for voting information.  

2. Vote early. If you’re voting by mail, you should mail your ballot as soon as possible. The new Trump-appointed Postmaster General has implemented new procedures that may slow down the mail. Don’t take a chance that your ballot will arrive after the deadline. In 2016, millions of absentee ballots were rejected (approximately 1% of the 33.2 million ballots mailed in) due to not having a signature, a signature not matching the one in state records, a return envelope problem, or for missing the deadline. Carefully fill out the ballot, double check that you’ve done everything required, and mail early.

3. In-person voting. Let’s say you don’t want to take a chance with a mailed-in ballot. In some states, you can vote early. If you vote on election day (and even early), the lines may be long; you may have to wait for hours, depending on where you live. Note that many states have closed hundreds of polling places, often disproportionately affecting minorities, especially in Republican-led states (a clear attempt at voter suppression). Check to see if your polling place has changed. Wear your mask, bring hand sanitizer, and, if you expect long lines, consider taking extra water and snacks for those who wait near you – and extra masks for those who forgot theirs.

4. Stay in Line. If your polling place tries to close before you vote, stay in line. And immediately call the hotline administered by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683) to report the attempted closure or any other improper or unusual polling incident. A polling place is required to stay open until everyone in line has voted. You can also call the hotline above for help of any kind about voting.

5. Provisional ballot. If your eligibility to vote is questioned at a polling place for any reason (for example, your name is not on the electoral roll or you don’t have an acceptable ID), you should be offered a provisional ballot, at least in most states. If they fail to offer you one, ask for one. And if that doesn’t work, call the hotline above for advice on what to do next.

 6. Strongly encourage your family and friends to vote. Remind them that this election is, without a doubt, the most important one of our lifetime. Of course, every election matters, whether local, state, or national. But this time we the voters will determine what kind of country we want to live in and want our children and grandchildren to grow up in.

Vote and help get out the vote!

All images from Creative Commons: “Respect My Vote” posted by SEIU International (Creative Commons: BY-NC-SA 2.0); “Vote!” shows the voting booths in the George W. Bush Presidential Library.

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Resistance Art on a Fence

I wasn’t planning to go. I was too busy, I thought. But my conscience got the better of me. So there we were, my husband and me with about 100 other people standing on the sidewalk of the Interstate Bridge, some sitting on the “Welcome to Wisconsin” sign, all of us protesting the murder of George Floyd.

People carried signs, most of us wore covid masks. Lots of people in passing cars honked their horns, waved in support, flashed peace hand signs. It was all good and peaceful. Of course, there were a few dissenters like the guy walking about in his in-your-face Trump T-shirt, and a few burly young men in fatigues holding rifles as self-appointed guards at stores downtown. They seemed so out of place, so anachronistic somehow.

Local young folk organized this grassroots event for our small twin cities of Marinette, WI and Menominee, MI. I thank them and wish I could have stayed longer. I’m told that the protest remained peaceful and convivial with a gathering of around 200 people later in the day.

That was on June 3, two days after peaceful protesters were forcefully driven from Lafayette Park so that Donald Trump could walk from the White House to St. John’s Church for a photo-op of himself awkwardly holding a bible. That was one day after a temporary black metal-mesh fence began being erected around Lafayette Park, and several days before the fence became a pop-up art gallery that practically hid the White House from view.

I wish I could have been there. I wish I could have seen the resistance art covering the fence. I wish I could have slowly walked along the perimeter fence to admire the posters and other art showing that resistance to racial injustice and police brutality would not be denied. One visitor to this grassroots art show said, “We finally got a wall and it’s beautiful.” Others saw it as a place of healing and of hope.

Before the Park Service began removing the fence on the evening of June 10, reporters and visitors memorialized the artwork with photographs and videos; volunteers carefully collected some of the art for possible preservation by the Smithsonian and other museums; and other volunteers moved some of it to a nearby construction site fence.

Since then I’ve reflected on this question: What function did the Black Lives Matter fence gallery serve? For one thing, it functioned to blot out the White House; as such, it served as a visual metaphor for what the artists would like to do – make this administration go away, one that has failed to further the interests of black and brown people, let alone recognize the validity of the protesters’ concerns. For another, it turned a “you don’t belong here” symbol into a “hear us roar” expression.

Not only did this DIY art gallery give voice to protesters’ concerns and grief, it also served as a memorial to those lost to police violence – their names and faces graced the fence. Plus, it was a call to keep up the fight against racial injustice; and it was a call for white people like me to reflect, at last, on our own contributions to and privileges afforded by American systemic racism.

I saw a poster on TV yesterday during an Atlanta protest prompted by the killing of Rayshard Brooks. It read: “If all lives mattered, then we wouldn’t be here.” That made me think. I hadn’t given much thought to the All Lives Matter mantra until I read that. The poster is right! If all lives mattered, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and far too many other unarmed black men and women would still be alive – and other daily injustices to black people like those regarding healthcare, housing, education, and employment would be addressed. Black Lives Matter!

Photo credits in order: My photo of the BLM protest on the Interstate Bridge; Stephani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Image found on NPR station WAMU 88.5; “Police-Free Schools” and “Say Their Names” both found in a slide show on NBC NewsCenterMaine (not on that website today); Poster signing photo also found on WAMU 88.5.

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Stories Around the House

Our homes are filled with stories, filled with memories of where, when, why, and how we acquired the objects we display. We keep them for a reason, often for their backstories: the photograph of children on the sideboard, the handmade potholders over the kitchen sink, the books along the study walls, the carving from friends’ vacation, the Amish quilt on the bed. It’d be hard to find any object in my admittedly cluttered home of 30 years that doesn’t have a backstory. 

Participants in Suleika Jaouad’s “Isolation Journal” were recently asked to think about the backstory of an object in their homes. The prompt went something like this: Imagine that the gaze of a visiting friend lingers on one of your objects. She’s curious about why you’ve displayed it. The task for the journal writer is to pick such an item, provide its backstory, and tell why it’s meaningful.  

On reading that journal prompt, I began imagining I was the visiting friend. I saw lots of curious objects but kept coming back to one in particular: a small framed picture of a squirrel eating a berry in the crook of a tree trunk and limb.

That picture holds many memories for me of my favorite cousin, Joanie. An accomplished watercolorist, she sometimes sent notecards that featured prints of one of her paintings. The squirrel was one of those, greatly reduced in size, of course. My husband and I are fond of squirrels (most of the time). They play all around our wooded area. They eat the old bread and apple cores I put out for them. We enjoyed the notecard image so much, we framed it and offered to buy the original watercolor.

A generous soul, Joanie said she would give it to us, but she grew sick and died a few weeks later. We are fortunate to have a number of her watercolors, but the notecard was the last thing she could send. It has special meaning for that reason, among others. In particular, I associate the squirrel notecard with her playfulness. I also associate it with the incredibly moving experience of attending her funeral in a Quaker church in Richmond, Virginia. The reverent silence brought comfort and peace. And out of that silence arose her friends’ stories – softly, gently, lovingly spoken, all beautiful like the person they honored, Joanie Harper.

I could spend hours just walking around the house recalling backstories of objects here and there. For me, even mundane things like the toaster oven, recliner, and desk hold stories. My newfound interest in backstories of home-displayed items has broadened to include those of cable-news contributors and guests who, like me during the time of covid, have self-isolated. I’m taking a kind of voyeuristic delight in glimpsing parts of their homes and spotting the occasional curious item.  

The rooms of a few talking heads reveal hardly any decoration; others are in rooms that would make an interior decorator proud; and yet others have a well lived-in look. It’s the latter that interests me. The most common objects behind them are books – in filled bookcases with framed photographs, on a shelf with small art objects, on a fireplace mantel lined between decorative bookholders, or even a book in full view that they’ve authored. I try to read titles and generally conclude they’re nonfiction, which makes sense for writers like those in the bookcases of Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson and New York Times journalist Peter Baker.

Other items are more inscrutable. For example, why did former White House communication director Jennifer Palmieri have a framed image of a rainbow trout (perhaps a watercolor) behind her, or why did political strategist Steve Schmidt have four whole pineapples sitting up in his kitchen? Then yesterday I was intrigued by civil rights activist Alicia Garza’s attractive liquor bottles on a cabinet against which protruded the handle of a canoe paddle, and behind her was the bottom 2/3rds of a portrait of a woman in an old-fashioned dress. Nice!  

I imagine that you have lots of objects in your home that evoke memories and emotions, items visitors find curious. Just look around. You might be surprised how deep some of your items’ backstories take you.

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Bad Poem Illustrated

It’s fun Friday. Time for another bad poem. This one is for my friends here at home who may wonder why I play World of Warcraft (WoW). But, of course, I hope everyone who lands on this page enjoys it. I illustrate my verse with screenshots that I took at various times while playing. It can be sung, sort of, to the chorus of Bing Crosby’s 1944 hit “Swinging on a Star.”

Would You Like To?

Would you like to fly in the clouds
On a dragon so blue and proud,
Glide grandly all up and down, Toa 1st day on cloud serpernt 111412

Or would you rather fly a pig?Jolly &amp; flying pig3

Would you like to camp by the sea,
Spend some time with my fox and me,
Fry some fish on an open fire,VixxCampZand2new

Or would you rather dine with friends?IBmeeting tavern2new

Would you like to go to a faire,
Watch fireworks burst in the air,
Roll the coaster for a fun scare,DarkmoonFaire Rollercoaster

Or would you rather dance with bears?snowballsIBnew

Would you like to join in a fight,
To kill monsters that are affright;Spirit Kings4 fight 6-8-13

Triumph of good over evil feels right
For reflection at the beginning of night.Xipe overlookAnyportDrustvarSauna

Now this game of WoW is by no means highbrow,
But it works for me quite enjoyably.


The Doughnut and an Economy for Everyone

Today on Mother’s Day I’m remembering a mother and friend I’ll call Adeline. She could brighten my day with a funny greeting card. She loved animals and usually had a little dog, a cat, and a large collection of mechanical stuffed animals. She lived alone in a run-down house with floors sagging under the weight of her kitchen and bathroom fixtures. Her generous heart was as big as her stories were long. She would go on and on about the doings of someone I didn’t know. After all, she had little to give but her stories and time. Adeline worked hard at low-paid jobs most of her life, mainly waitressing. She held a minimum-wage job at a nursing home her last years, before dying of breast cancer.

childhood bunny

Today I’m also thinking about the mothers and their children who are going hungry in increased numbers since the pandemic stripped them of their meager paychecks. The Brookings Institute reported that in April about 20% of American children age 12 and younger experienced food insecurity, a rate three times higher than during the Great Recession. Alarming! And yet, as the New York Times reminds us, although Republican legislators agreed to spend trillions of dollars on other distressed economic sectors, they “have balked at a long-term expansion of food stamps,” a proven program for reducing hunger. Meanwhile, we see images of cars lined for miles to access food at food banks.

These families live, as Adeline had, in the economy’s doughnut hole, a widening hole now with unemployment in April over 20 million. Many powerful people who could ease their hunger and health concerns care little about them, care little about the low-paid workers who help to keep this country running – domestic, retail, agriculture, health, and service workers. Forgotten, uncared for, struggling just to get by. After the pandemic, their condition will persist unless we learn how to create and maintain an economy that works for everyone.


Now is an excellent time to reconsider our economic values. Kate Raworth, a senior researcher at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, has an intriguing plan. She calls it Doughnut Economics. She calls for us to change from growth to sustainability as our economic model, to abandon the economic goal of endless growth through consumerism and take as our goal a healthy, happy population and a healthy planet by mending and fostering the Earth’s life-support systems like climate, water, forests, biodiversity, and soil. (For an quick explanation of Raworth’s doughnut, watch this 1 ½ minute animated video.)


To help us plan for a better future, Raworth asks us to think of the sustainable economy as a green doughnut. The doughnut itself is where our needs are taken care of, where everyone has food security, health care, housing, education, job opportunities, and overall quality of life. I now enjoy these things. Chances are you do too. But too many in our country and worldwide are missing some or all of these essentials for a good life; they are in the doughnut hole and not, like us, part of the doughnut itself. Beyond the doughnut are the needs of the planet and all life on it – climate, air, water, vegetation, wildlife, resources, and so on. The goal is to bring everyone into the green doughnut and to mitigate the damage to the life-supporting realm beyond the doughnut.

Our current measure of economic health (GDP), Raworth says, is like the trajectory of an airplane that flies higher and higher without ever landing. How is such an economy viable in the long run? What happens when our airplane hits an unanticipated storm? Well, our airplane is currently in a storm unlike one we’ve ever experienced. We’ll get through it, somehow. But we need to land the plane and ground it in favor of an economy that works for all of us, from the poorest to the richest citizen.

For social and economic policies to be just, wrote American philosopher John Rawls in Justice is Fairness, they must “be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society” or, at the very least, to do them no harm. Likewise, Jesus said during the Sermon on the Mount, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

Note: I learned about Raworth’s economic model during TED Radio Hour’s episode called “What We Value” (5/1/20, beginning at minute 14:45). She goes into greater detail in her TED2018 talk. I recommend both to you.


Photo Credits: My childhood bunny and friends; Kate Raworth cropped photo by Stephan Rohl , Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0; Doughnut Economics infograph – Own work, Wikipedia Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0. 

Bad Poem: “Wild Hair”

An Isolation Journal writing prompt appears in my email inbox every morning. I mostly lurk, while thousands of others internationally engage in this covid project. In other words, I don’t keep a journal but do enjoy reading Sulieka Jaouad’s introductions and her guest contributors’ stories and prompts.

To take a break from a serious post I’m working on, I thought it’d be fun to try today’s prompt. The prompt, briefly put, goes like this: “Write a bad poem,” whatever a bad poem means to you – sappy, singsongy, inscrutable, or whatever. Why not try to write your own bad poem? Meanwhile, here’s my bad isolation poem. It can be sung to the chorus of The Troggs’ 1966 hit “Wild Thing.”

Wild Hair

Wild hair,
You make the people stare,
You make me crazy,
Wild hair.

Wild hair,
It just isn’t fair,
You are an awful scare

Wild hair,
I had no recourse,
My salon is closed,

Wild hair,
I grabbed the scissors,
And I cut you,

Wild hair
Is now a worse scare,
When they see me,
On Zoom.


Photo: We call her Coco. She comes from one of the Caribbean islands where our son and his wife honeymooned. They gave it to us as a gift for helping them with trip expenses – a bit odd, but lovable. The main difference between my hair and Coco’s are my ever-growing long, stringy, graying bangs. 


Suleika Jaouad Inspired Me

It’s day one of Create 31. As I mentioned in my previous post, each day during May, a few friends and I will attempt to devote at least 15 minutes to an individual creative project. In my case, it’s primarily working on posts for this blog. I’m not a fast writer; I often get bogged down in background research – that is, I often become more involved in a subject than needed for a post. As such, I’m not holding myself to an impossible (for me) standard of posting anew everyday. But I do have a concrete goal: to publish at least 12 posts this month.

Today I reveal my inspiration for Create 31. Earlier this week I listened to TED Radio Hour’s April 24 podcast called “Meditations on Loneliness.” The last segment (beginning at minute 38:14) features Suleika Jaouad, who talks about her long-term hospital isolation during her battle with leukemia, which included a bone-marrow transplant. She was in her early 20s, just out of college, when her life was interrupted for years of medical treatment. She was a “bubble girl” unable to leave her room, attended only by hospital staff in protective gear.

To help her through this harrowing experience, Jaouad recruited family and friends to join her in doing an individual creative act each day for about 15 minutes (or more) over 100 days. Her mother, for example, painted one tile a day, and her dad chronicled his childhood memories. She returned to journal writing, aspects of which appeared in a New York Times column called “Life, Interrupted.”


Fast forward to April 2020: Jaouad, cancer-free at age 31, took refuge from Covid-19 in her parents’ attic, where she started a new project called “The Isolation Journals.” Tens of thousands of people from over 100 nations signed up to receive daily email prompts for journaling during the month of April. They wrote about their isolation experiences and feelings, along with other topics, like this prompt: “write a letter to your younger self.”

Create 31 combines aspects of both of Jaouad’s projects: to engage in a creative act each day and to limit the project to one month, the 31 days of May. After that, who knows? It’s worth noting that as our small local group launches Day 1, Jaouad’s enormous international group begins Day 31. Yes, she and her team have decided to keep the “Isolation Journals” going, this time for 100 more days, the timeframe of her first project.

If you’re interested in joining the “Isolation Journals” group and receiving daily prompts, you can subscribe at To learn more about Jaouad, visit her website at To learn more about Create 31, leave a comment on my blog, and I’ll get back to you. I also anticipate posting about some our Create 31’s experiences from time to time.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Protect others.

Photo: Sunset on Anna Maria Island, FL, Feb. 2017. This photo, one I took, suggests to me the peace a person can find in creative solitude. 

Everyone is Creative!

Tomorrow begins Create 31, for which a small group of friends will join together to engage individually in a creative project of their choice during thirty-one days of May. During a Zoom meeting yesterday, we talked about possible projects. The question arose, “What counts as a creative project?” And we concluded that creative acts are much more than just creating something artistic like a poem, painting, or song.

But this morning I began to wonder: What is creativity, anyway? Scanning websites, I found that most people agree that creativity includes using the imagination to form and enact new ideas. It also involves being receptive to new ideas and experiences and thinking divergently, especially by mentally exploring a number of possible solutions, often quickly (since that’s how the brain works). But it need not be a forehead-slapping “aha!” Rather, creativity is often involved in common household decisions + actions.

Workarounds, for example. I suspect that most of us frequently employ them, like finding a substitute in our pantry for a recipe ingredient we don’t have, figuring out how to mend bad feelings with a friend after having “words,” or deciding how to find room in our small garden plot for those heirloom tomato sets we bought on impulse. Everyone is creative! Cool, huh?

Cleaning, too. A possible creative project mentioned yesterday involved increasing storage space by getting rid of stuff. In fact, since Covid-19 keeps us mostly at home, some of us have embarked on long-ignored tasks like going through those boxes of old photos, children’s art, other mementos, and things in general we’ve been loath to part with for sentimental reasons, objects in our attics, closets, and garages that hold memories, stories, and feelings. The act of deciding what to give away and who to give it to, as well as what to keep and what to trash often takes creative thinking.


But, of course, being creative does require having a “product” of some sort that can (at least theoretically) be known by others. The product can be a meal, mended feelings, tomatoes grown in decorative pots, or a less cluttered house and mind (and perhaps making people happy with the cool things you gave away).

Now, none of the above is meant to pooh-pooh what most people think of as creative acts. If you’re so inclined, involve yourself in visual, musical, fabric, dance, photography, and/or writing projects. Or whatever is your passion. Or maybe you want to try something new, to explore, to take risks, to jump out of your self-imposed box. Jazz great Duke Ellington once said, “When it sounds good, it is good.” And I say, in the context of this project: When it feels creative to you, it is creative. In other words, if you think it’s creative, then it is creative.

My initial look at creativity suggests in simplified form something like this: Need/passion > divergent thinking + imagination > action > “product” = creativity. Everyone is creative! Sometimes, though, I need a little push to get to the last part of this process, to put into action a creative project I’m passionate about – like returning, after a long hiatus, to this blog. Maybe you need a little push too, which is what Create 31 is all about.

Basic Guidelines for Create 31
1. Choose a creative project (or more than one).
2. Let the group know what it is.
3. Attempt to work on it for a minimum of 15 minutes each day throughout May.
4. Give yourself grace if you miss a day or two now and then.
5. Use this group for support, encouragement, and sharing your experiences and progress.
6. I’ll check in with the group frequently and hope you will too.
7. As May 31 approaches, we’ll decide how to wrap-up Create 31 and whether any of us want to continue with our projects or start new ones – and whether we even want a timeframe.
8. Thoughout, know that you are creative!

Photo: A part of one of my bookshelves, with candle curls on top that I accumulated over time. I consider it a wax sculpture. And it continues to grow. 

The Brightness of Compassion

It was a late winter day, dreary. I couldn’t take it anymore, the meanness and stupidity, the incompetence and corruption revealed daily in the news, in Twitter storms, out of the mouths of two old men talking tabloid in the supermarket check-out line. Back home I looked for something to brighten my day – and found it in a Rio de Janeiro favela.


What I saw was the stunning photo above, a panoramic view of 34 brightly striped houses in Rio’s Santa Marta favela, the result of a project called Praça Cantão” (2010). I wanted to know more, so I dug in.

It all began in 2005 when Dutch artists Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhaas, who call themselves Haas&Hahn, came to Rio to make an MTV documentary on hip-hop music in the favelas. Non-favela Brazilians avoided the areas, viewing them (often rightly) as dangerous and lawless; tourists were warned not to enter one.

Haas&Hahn, however, witnessed the depth of creativity and optimism that ran through the favela and were dismayed by outsiders’ unfavorable opinions. So an idea came to them: What if the favelados painted their own neighborhoods in ways that portrayed them in a positive light? Could it change the negative stereotypes held by outsiders – and, in the process, change the conditions of the favelados themselves? (See “8 Years of Haas&Hahn,” 2013 video.)

Mural in VIla Cruzeiro

Their first two projects were in the Vila Cruzeiro neighborhood: “Boy with Kite” (2007) and “Rio Cruzeiro (2008-09, above). For both they partnered with local youths, who were trained and paid. Given the success of these two projects, they decided to go bigger and bolder, creating Santa Marta’s “Praça Cantão.”

The Santa Marta project continues to draw international attention. Recently CNN and Australia’s Herald Sun placed it among the world’s most colorful places. Academics in a variety of disciplines – including sociology, anthropology, and architecture – have utilized aspects of Haas&Hahn projects in their urban studies research. And Haas&Hahn have received requests from other places in the Americas, as well as abroad, to bring the power of color to distressed neighborhoods.  

Philly Painting Haas&amp; Hahn

In 2012, for example, they brought their art to one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States, North Philadelphia (photo above). There, as reported on NPR’s TED Radio Hour, local store and building owners and a team of about a dozen youths worked together for two years to paint 50 storefronts, transforming “their own neighborhood – the whole street – in a giant patchwork of color.”

On their Favela Painting Foundation website, Haas&Hahn explain why they create artworks with community involvement in “places where people are being socially excluded”:

“By collaborating with locals, art is used as a weapon to combat prejudice, create sustainability solutions and attract positive attention. By ensuring that each step of the creative process is open, collaborative, and community driven, Favela Painting can effectively contribute to the education and empowerment of the community, particularly local youth, installing a sense of pride and community ownership.”

Favela Painting Academy, founded in 2016

In other words, the transformations that distressed neighborhoods experience aren’t just  aesthetic; they’re also personal, social, and economic. Haas&Hahn claim that the “projects bring hope, positivity, beauty, job opportunities and stability” (The Telegraph). 

Supporting their claim, research at the Yale School of Medicine and other places indicates that public art “can lead to increased levels of community engagement and social cohesion,” serve “as a powerful catalyst for improved mental and physical health,” and improve “perceptions of both the pedestrian environment and neighborhood safety” (Center for Active Design) – especially when artists are teamed with  neighborhood residents. Mural Arts Philadelphia’s  Porch Light Program is a prime example.

Santa Catarina Palopó newpaper

Another glowing example of community improvement through community-created public art is the ongoing project in Santa Catarina Palopó, Guatemala, on the shores of  Lake Atitlán (example above). The goal is ambitious: to paint 960 buildings in the vibrant colors and designs of women’s traditional blouses. Over 35 buildings have been completed so far. And, according to Architectural Digest, the project “has already sparked development, job opportunities, pride, and empowerment in its 5,000 locals, plus increased cultural tourism awareness.”

Haas&Hahn’s Rio favela paintings inspired this project. In fact, they led an initial workshop in Santa Catarina, after which locals took over. Crucial to this entire project, say the promoters, is community involvement. For instance, community leaders approved the final color palette and design templates, and families of each home get to choose how their house will look from these options.


Other places where Haas&Hahn projects have brightened distressed communities include Miami’s Wynwood district (2014), Caribbean island Curaçao (2014, 2016), Port-au-Prince, Haiti (2015, above); and an Amsterdam prison converted into a hub for refugees (2016).

I don’t know what Haas&Hahn have lined up for 2018, but I did discover on Dre Urhahn’s Instagram page that this past December they finished another favela painting project in Rio. He wrote:

So hard to say goodbye to our second home, rua Santa Helena in Vila Cruzeiro. An amazing place, the coolest people and the best crew ever working on the latest #favelapainting project, colored walls, tiles, mosaic, turning the street into a place of magic. Hope to be back soon!!! Valeu 


Photo Credits in order of presentation: “Praça Cantão” in Santa Marta favela; “Rio Cruzeiro” in Vila Cruzeiro favela; Philly Painting in North Philadelphia; Favela Painting Academy members at work on the island of Curaçao; Santa Catarina Palopó buildings with traditional Guatemalan designs; Haitian Painting in Port-au-Prince; Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhaas in Rio’s Santa Marta.

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