NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

PortWatch

February 17, 2012

Painting with a purpose

Michele Martin’s life purpose came to her in a dream.

"I dreamed that I should paint murals around the world," the 30-something illustrator said. She didn't know at the time that purpose would unfold before her in a remote village in Cambodia as she helped impoverished schoolchildren learn art.

Although she's been home for six months, the Merrimac woman's eyes still shine when she recalls the year that changed her life. While living among the locals on the southern coast of Cambodia, Martin worked with the charitable organization Cambodian Children's Painting Project.

"What is unique about this project is it's an art-based initiative," Martin said. "Daily art lessons encourage a noninvasive approach to self-expression and help the children cope with trauma."

Before heading to the opposite end of the world, the Montserrat College of Art graduate taught art to children in her Amesbury studio. But Martin wanted to find a way to more deeply touch and heal the lives of children worldwide, particularly those who were "fractured" emotionally.

"So I 'Googled,'" she said. Searching online, Martin aimed to find a program and a country where she could use her skills as an artist to make an impact.

Because Martin didn't speak the native language when she arrived in Cambodia, she used art to communicate, as well as a tool of artistic expression. "Cambodia is an art-based culture," Martin said.

Her first class was a group of 20 students.

"I sat at a table with them and painted," she said. "They all watched me very closely. Then they painted, carefully doing their best to express themselves."

Throughout her year in Cambodia, Martin used art to help "draw out the movie" in the minds of her students, who ranged in age from infant to 17 years. She painted whimsical murals — underwater ocean scenes, sunflowers, Gecko lizards — all "soothing artwork" to lift the children's spirits.

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