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.
"Cambodian children are so grateful for education," Martin said. They are also grateful, Martin added, "for the food placed in front of them."
Hunger is a reality.
"Four- and 5-year-old children will collect cans that they turn in for money, in order to buy food for their family." Martin said, adding that the children's parents are often sick.
Martin remembers stepping outside the rudimentary quarters where she lived, near a well that locals would visit.
"They drew water for drinking, for laundry and for bathing. Little children bathed in a bucket," she said. Whenever Martin walked past them, they would ask her for food.
"It was heartbreaking," she added.
One mission of the Cambodian Children's Painting project is to help feed its 150 schoolchildren.
"Cambodia is a country in need," Martin said. With its older generation virtually wiped out by the Khmer Rouge genocide in the mid-1970s, Martin says that a strong sense of survival prevails among today's generation. "Cambodian children live in the moment," she said.
Martin might still be in Cambodia had she not contracted Denque fever, a mosquito-borne illness that brought her back home unexpectedly for treatment and recovery. She is feeling well now.
"I would not take back one second of that trip," Martin said. "It was a most wonderful experience."
The most heartbreaking aspect of her year in Cambodia, she added, was when she had to leave the children whom she had come to love.
Back at home, Martin continues her life's calling to inspire and "unlock" the emotions of her students through art. She is working in the children's psychiatric ward of Anna Jaques Hospital's Amesbury facility, a position she held immediately before her departure for Cambodia.
"I feel such gratitude that I can return home and educate children," she said.
She hopes to one day embark on a similar journey. "I would like to further travel the world and help traumatized children in some fashion," she said. Teaching art to children helps to touch and heal their souls, she added.
To raise funds for the Cambodian Children's Painting Project, Martin has established "The Purpose Behind Every Mural is a Child." She will donate a portion of each mural commission to help the children of Cambodia. Martin can be contacted at email@example.com. For more information about Cambodian Children's Painting Project, visit http://www.letuscreatecambodia.org/.