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Artists team with Somalis to create an understanding

Saturday, March 2, 2013
by Stephanie Dickrell

Mohamud Adan, who was the interpreter for Hands Across the World, stands beside a piece of art he painted as one of the participants of the program. Adan was originally a fashion designer, and now owns Hormud Sewing Clothes in St. Cloud.
Mohamud Adan, who was the interpreter for Hands Across the World, stands beside a piece of art he painted as one of the participants of the program. Adan was originally a fashion designer, and now owns Hormud Sewing Clothes in St. Cloud. / Jun-Kai Teoh, [email protected]

Sometimes the hardest step to take is the first one.

But that’s what organizers at the Paramount Theatre and Visual Arts Center and Hands Across the World did with a special collaboration. The project resulted in a visual arts exhibit called “Free At Last: Journey of Hope,” now showing in the lobby.

Last year, Paramount Executive Director Tony Goddard expressed concern that the Paramount isn’t certain how to serve the Somali immigrant population’s artistic needs.

So Goddard and Education Outreach Coodinator Jane Oxton met with Brianda Cediel at Hands Across the World, a nonprofit organization that works with refugee and immigrant families of Central Minnesota, to discuss what they could do.

They initially didn’t know how to begin, because there were so many unknowns and the language barrier is significant.

“It’s hard to know what you don’t know,” Oxton said. “We need to learn.”

After some discussion, they decided they had to organize a project as a first step toward bringing the art and immigrant communities together. They would learn as they go.

“The best way to do that is to get in and get your fingernails dirty,” Oxton said. “You can talk about it … until the cows come home but that doesn’t get anything done.”

A group of local artists gathered to teach classes in various media.

They also sought funding. The Central Minnesota Community Foundation was one of the first funders of the project, said Mimi Bitzan, who is chair of the Community Programs committee, which makes funding recommendations.

Organizers realized the project was in line with two of the St. Cloud-area priorities: facilitating connection with new immigrants and refugees, and elevating culture and arts in the community.

Bitzan said the project intended to help build social capital, deepen relationships and promote understanding.
“It just seems that everybody ... got really excited about it ... and the art they produced is quite beautiful,” Bitzan said. “The relationships that were built went deeper than maybe they imagined they would.”

“Now we want to share with the community what we learned,” Oxton said.“We’re not going in as experts, but we’re well intentioned,” she said. “We’re getting to know our new community members.”

Both sides learn

For the participants, the classes helped them improve their English vocabulary, learn American social norms and form relationships with people in the community.

Quilter Solveig Anderson had them create squares with a cutout of their hands sewn on. Then she sewed the pieces into a banner that will hang at Hands Across the World.

She hoped to teach them how to sew with precision to take advantage of the industrial sewing jobs that may be available, she said. And she was blown away by the results.

But the program was not without its challenges, she said. Originally, they hoped to have all the classes at the Paramount, but the level of comfort wasn’t there and so they were held at Hands Across the World.
“Attendance was a challenge,” she said.

Many things could interrupt a participant’s ability to be there every week, like a doctor’s appointment, a social service obligation or a class.

The challenge of teaching with a language barrier motivated artist Dan Mondloch to put together a vocabulary list of things such as colors and names for paintbrushes.

There were vulnerabilities on both sides, Oxton said.

“I think the most telling thing is that all six artists have said they would do it again,” she said.

“We still know very little, but we have a better understanding of what we don’t know. This was a really important step in the process,” she said.


Charlene Sul is the independent program evaluator for the project. She evaluates nonprofit programs as an outside consultant and provides training to arts organizations throughout the northern part of the state. At the very beginning, she said, organizers came up with ways to evaluate the program, aligning strategies with desired outcomes and ways to collect information.

They wanted to look at the final product, student engagement, instructor experience, community engagement, and culture and language acquisition.

“We anticipated that it would increase for the students,” Sul said. “One of the pleasant outcomes … instructors also increased language. That was not something that we anticipated.”

At the end, she’ll give a report on the success of the program and make recommendations. She hopes instructors share what they learned with the community.

“We anticipated cultural exchange. I think the instructors really gained a lot from this,” she said “I think long-term this experience hopefully will open doors for other people that will provide services.”

She thinks the insight could be shared with the school district, police department or anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of that population.

“So when people are working with the population ... and are not sure how to include them … that they really talk to these instructors who had a chance to work with them very closely for a period of time.”
But workplace skills weren’t the only goal.

“Also, it was an opportunity for artistic expression, relaxing and having fun and remembering,” Oxton said.“ “They help us to see each other. We realize we’re just all people, doing the best we can.”


Photographer Carol Weiler documented the entire process, even though some of the participants were uncomfortable with their faces being photographed. So many of the shots show the pack of their veiled heads or their hands actually working with the clay or painting. A slideshow will run showing the photos at the reception from 5-7 p.m. Monday.

Mohamud Adan of Hormud Sewing Cloths helped interpret, but he also participated in the some of the classes. His background in fashion meant he was invaluable in helping students learn the different sewing machines.

Artist Lee Ann Goerss helped the participants decorate suitcases. Originally the concept was meant to illustrate their journey from their home countries. But they found that suitcases didn’t mean much to people who sometimes fled with bags or blankets of possessions. The concept was a little too much for the time allowed and with limited communication ability.

It was discouraging at first. But she still found value in the work.

“The experience itself was far more rewarding than I anticipated … I learned a lot as a person and a lot as an artist,” Goerss said. She said she found common friends with the women, on topics such as family and children.

“We do have sisterhood no matter what cultural differences are,” she said.

Goerss tried to put herself in their shoes — in a strange country with different customs, after being surrounded by violence in what was once your home.

She learned many of the families were fractured, some not coming to Minnesota together. She also was surprised to learn how long some had lived in refugee camps.

“So it was very, very eye-opening for me,” she said.

'In their world'

Weaver Jeri Olson-McCoy helped the students create bags.

“I think we all went in with preconceived notions … we all changed that as time progressed,” she said. She had an interpreter with her one time.

“I left with a real warm feeling for these people. I’d like to do something again,” she said.

When they saw the technique for a twisted handle, they showed her a technique that was much easier. She asked what they used it for in Somalia, and the answer was almost everything, including building their homes.
Mondloch taught watercolor to the participants.

“I think overall, I just got an appreciation for what a new immigrant might experience,” he said, such as a scenario where he’s the odd one out when it comes to language.

“For me, painting is a hard enough activity to begin with … then you add a language barrier,” he said.

They started off with something as simple as a color wheel to explain mixing colors. Then they progressed to painting the Somali landscape and homes.

Artist Melissa Gohman helped the participants create pinch pots then decorate and glaze them.

“Clay is kind of intuitive,” she said, so the students picked up the work pretty fast. She learned the word for smooth, as it is key in the pot-making process.

The same patterns kept popping up in their glazing, she said, a pattern she guesses that was familiar in Somalia.

They also all gravitated to the same colors: red, black, yellow and green. “That palette was comfortable for them,” she said.

“I was very struck by how tight-knit of a community they seem to have. They were very quick to laugh at themselves,” she said.

“I think it just gave me a window into what they’re like on their terms,” Gohman said. “I was in their world and it was a wonderful window into their culture and way they behave when they’re comfortable in a group.”


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