Grace Art Camp helps build cultural bridges

Posted Aug 20, 2012

Storytelling at Grace Art Camp. Photo/Courtesy Grace Memorial Episcopal Church

[Grace Memorial Episcopal Church] On the floor of the parish hall of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon, Grace Art Camp students sit around a large loom. With the help of camp counselors, the children weave in feathers, string, and pieces of cloth that they have brought from home.

On Aug. 12, when Grace Parish celebrated a Peruvian Mass in honor of this year’s art camp theme, parish members were also invited to bring something emblematic of themselves to weave into the loom. Once the weaving is finished, it will go to Casa Chapi, an orphanage in Peru, where it will hang on the wall as a gift given from the hearts of Grace Art Camp students and Grace parishioners.

The Rev. Esme Culver, associate rector of the parish and director of Grace Institute, the non-profit affiliate of the parish that offers the camp, showed a group of visitors to the camp some of the paintings and letters camp children have made to send to their peers at Casa Chapi. She pulled out a large painting of a rainbow with a hand-written note on the back. “This will go to a child to welcome them to the orphanage,” she says.

Over the past 16 years, Grace Art Camp, with its emphasis on creativity and global connectedness, has evolved organically from a small camp that emphasized art through immersion in international folk tales to the largest camp of its kind the Portland area. This year 1,180 students are learning about Peruvian art and culture in 10 art studios, which include everything from visual arts, dance, and music to fiber arts and fused glass. The students also have the opportunity to spend time in a culture studio devoted to introducing children to the creative traditions of Peru. On the small looms set up by artist Ashley Smith in the culture studio, the children weave bracelets and straps, some of which they will sell to raise money for the Portland-based Quechua Benefit, an organization serving children in Peru. The Grace Art Camp children’s weaving efforts have already raised more than $5,000 to send to Quechua Benefit.

Over the past few years, Grace Art Camp’s reach has extended far beyond the church and the city to create partnerships and collaborative projects in the cultures that campers explore through their art. In 2010, when students experienced the art of the Caribbean, they raised money for Haitian relief efforts by selling rings created in the glass studio. In 2011, Grace Art Camp partnered with a Portland-based couple who were born in Kenya, Grace and Paul Kuto, to create relationships with Daraja Academy and the Chwele Community Center in Kenya. Students at Daraja, an all-girls school in Kenya, and Grace Art Camp campers exchanged artwork and campers made rafiki bracelets to raise tuition money for a Daraja student and for the building of a Community Center in Chwele village.

Culver and a lay member of the congregation, artist Julie Romberg, travelled to Kenya in the fall of 2011 to deliver art and letters created by the children of Grace Art Camp. While there, they introduced some of the skills used at the Portland camp. Due to the overwhelming response to this relationship-building mission, leaders in the Chwele Community Center project approached Culver about creating an art camp at the community center. This summer, Grace Kuto, who had helped spearhead the partnership, spent a week at Grace Art Camp. Kuto, along with a team from Grace, will return to Chwele next year where they will work with local artists and youth to implement an art camp. Ideally, those involved say, the program will become a fixture of the community center and a base for artists and young people. Artists from Grace and from Chwele hope to engage in cross-cultural arts exchange and collaboration. Similarly, leaders at Casa Chapi hope to continue their relationship with Grace in a similar way.

“The door never closes on our relationships with these communities,” said Culver. “Grace Art Camp and Grace Memorial Parish will continue to work together to create peaceful relationships in the world.”

Grace Art Camp was the first major project of Grace Institute, a non-profit organization affiliated with the parish and established by the present rector, the Rev. Stephen Schneider, as part of a process of congregational renewal. The camp was first established by artists within the parish in response to a growing need expressed by parents in the face of diminishing support for arts in the public schools. Serving children from age four through the sixth grade, each of the seven weeks of the camp is a unique experience, built around a different folk tale from the culture and then explored through the art studios. The embrace by the camp in recent years of the cultures themselves through collaborative projects is an extension of the original vision.

As Schneider states, “We see the arts as central to the human experience and we believe that the bridges of understanding and relationship that are now being built by the camp around the world will have a lasting impact upon the campers, their families and the people whose cultures we embrace. The camp has certainly inspired and transformed the parish to serve our city and our world.”