Tree Nation bringing green back to the Sahara

7″ x 9″ watercolor, $70 ($10 donated to Tree Nation)
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I received an email recently from Jeremiah at Tree Nation that sparked the inspiration for this painting. At first, I was a little skeptical of a project (albeit backed by the United Nations Environmental Program) that was set out to plant 8 million trees in the unlikely location of the Sahara Desert. I don’t really equate a healthy, hardy forest with an arid desert, but the project location (a park in Niger) is apparently experiencing desertification; meaning it naturally isn’t meant to be so barren. This phenomenon is the result of climate change and other human related factors which has induced dwindling wildlife and compromised the wellbeing of many communities (think farming and commerce).

I posed my concern about planting trees in such harsh conditions to Jeremiah, who promptly responded with:

The trees we plant at the border of the Sahara Desert first spend their first months in a nursery growing strong . If they reach a certain age, the trees are brought to the spot in the desert where they are put in to the ground in a hole which is deep enough for them to reach the water sources beneath the desert, within a certain amount of time. Within the first months in the desert the trees are checked for their growth. It’s not easy, and there are definitely trees which fail to grow and which need replanting, but the value of trees fighting desertification and reproducing fruits and other benefits in one of the poorest countries of the world is well worth the trouble.

The Tree Nation website really lets you virtually get your hands dirty with a map, reminiscent of the old school video game Zelda, that allows you to see where your tree of choice has been planted, how it’s doing, and browse the profiles/progress of trees/tree owners around you.

This is a great gift idea for a techy friend who love social networks and environmental sustainability. Definitely check it out.

Hunger Awareness Day

7″ x 9″ watercolor, $70 ($10 donated to Second Harvest)
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I thought I had landed on some bogus website when I read that approximately “25,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes.” It turns out this statistic is stated in multiple sources, and therefore I assume it’s accurate. I was raised in a town of 30,000. I can’t imagine nearly that entire community being wiped out in one day, but the equivalent does happen every day.

Tomorrow is Hunger Awareness Day and I’m positive there multiple ways for you to get involved in your own community. Personally, my time is precious and I’ve already committed tomorrow morning to being in family court as a CASA volunteer. Therefore, I’ll direct you to a website where, in a time-efficient manner, you can make a difference that is engaging and sustainable. I recommend you go to and contribute funds to an individual receiving a micro-loan to run a food related business, like Tusiga. Tusiga needs a loan to pay for a fence to protect her crop from wild animals and thieves. She’s requested a $850 loan. I couldn’t buy a fence at Home Depot for my yard for that amount that would keep crop snatchers at bay.

I love financially contributing to something that perpetuates giving beyond a one-time experience. Besides making a difference in the world, Kiva is causing a lot of buzz as the “coolest,” new, hands-on way to address poverty. You want to be cool, don’t you? 😉

“Food Stamp Challenge” a guaranteed weight loss diet for congressmen

$21 a week for food? Anyone relying on food stamps to feed themselves wouldn’t find this such a crazy idea. Apparently, this is “the amount the average food stamp recipient receives in federal assistance.”

I found a shocking article in the Washington Post detailing 4 congressmen’s experience of eating for one week on a humble $21 ($1 per meal).   The objective was to gain an understanding of the magnitude of this reality for those living it week after week.   The “Food Stamp Challenge,” presented by the House Hunger Caucus, meant “the four House members [could not] eat anything beside their $21 worth of groceries. That [meant] no food at the many receptions, dinners and fundraisers that fill a lawmaker’s week.”

The article is certainly worth a read.   I was particularly reminded of the implications such budget restrictions have on one’s   health options.   Only the poorest quality foods, laden with additives, bad fats, sugar, and refined/processed carbohydrates, are affordable. It’s an ugly equation resulting in a snowball effect of further poor and compromised quality of life.   Read for yourself; here’s a link to the article.

A Louisville yardsale with purpose

‘Tis is the season, once again, for the exchange of “stuff” on the cheap from the comforts of someone’s driveway. God bless America!

But, would I tell you about any ordinary yard sale? Of course not. I just received an email from the executive director of Women in Transition of Kentucky about their:

to benefit Women in Transition’s travel to the US Social Forum
Saturday, June 2
corner of 3rd & Ormsby
rain or shine

I’m having trouble accessing their website, but will save a fleshed out article about WIT, with a working link to the organization, in a full profile at a later time. For this post, what you need to know is that WIT is a small grassroots nonprofit assisting members (poor women, often times single mothers) in their transition from from poverty to success. Beyond their support to participating women, WIT is very involved in the political process and lobbying for policy that positively impacts their constituents.

WIT is fund raising for the cost to “attend and participate in the United States Social Forum as a member organization of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign.” They will be addressing issues such as the Kentucky child welfare system and inadequate wages during forum workshops.

There are other similar organizations (if not identical) throughout the country, and perhaps in your neighborhood. Try a google search to find one near you as nearly everyone, regardless of your own economic standing, will come in contact with a person in need of such services.

If you have items to donate or questions, call WIT executive director, Jennifer Jewell, at (502) 298-0462. Otherwise, let the season of yard sales begin!

Venezuela, part 7

10″ x 20″ oil on canvas
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Traveling to Venezuela in February of this year left me perplexed about my own stance on various forms of government, capitalism, and corporate involvement in politics, the media, and foreign affairs. I met with many disadvantaged Venezuelans who made the benefits of socialism hard to dispute, if as nothing more than a transitional solution to their social and economic crisis. On the other hand, I associate with many people working for, starting, and investing in capitalist ventures who logically make solid arguments as to why competition in an open market benefits society, including who least fortunate.

Essentially, I’ve come to the conclusion that corporate responsibility is the issue at the heart of the problem. Venezuela’s poor majority has repeatedly elected a president who promises social and economic salvation. Hugo Chavez stood on a platform of free health care, education, and the availability to business opporunities; exactly what the majority of Venezuelan people want and need. It’s hard for someone in this position to consider the downfalls of socialism when children are going hungry and uneducated because there is no work (that pays a living wage) for family members. If corporations thought beyond their fiduciary duty of making money for shareholders, the social impact of their decisions would be taken into consideration. Christine Arena, author of The High Purpose Company, calls this the triple bottom line.

Going into the details of what constitutes an especially responsible or pathetic company is the start of a very long-winded spiel that you’re better served to read about in The High Purpose Company. What is worth expanding on is my endorsement for organizations that offer first-hand exposure to the countries and people grappling with these issues. Paintings, like this one, are the result of my trip to Latin America with Witness for Peace. I applaud the broad itinerary the organization compiled for the delegates with meetings and appointments covering the full gamut of political perspectives. There’s no better way to develop an informed opinion than to witness with your own eyes what is going on behind the curtain. It certainly shifted my thinking.

Teaching what I do best

8″ x 10″ oil on masonite
Not for sale.
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Last fall, I was a guest artist at a Houston community center for ArtBridge. The nonprofit organization offers art programs to homeless children as a much needed emotional outlet. I was given free reign and decided to have the children replicate what I do, with an emphasis on portraiture. My explanation to them of my work went something like this:

“I paint people doing good things. Sometimes their work is very hard (ie CASA) and it can make them sad. Then sometimes they get to do things that make them very happy. I make art of all of it.”

The objective was to have them take the opportunity to embrace whatever emotions they were experiencing and capture it in a portrait. Attention spans were short and I may not inspired any Van Goghs, but we had fun and let off some steam. I think I got the most out of the lesson by being reminded, once again, that in spite of what hardships people face, they can be surprisingly happy. Huge smiles were in abundance.

This portrait is clearly one of my happy expressions. I love painting people I love, so creating this piece was as great as sand between my toes (a good thing for me) or chocolate cake. I hope that my one time instruction helped the disadvantaged children realize the power of artistic expression. This is powerful stuff!

I will soon be formally announcing an opportunity I’ve been afforded that takes my ArtBridge experience to a whole new level. I’m incredibly excited, but you’ll have to wait to hear about it until I get approval from the powers that be.

A brighter future for elephants also benefits people of Zambia

I love problem solvers; people who approach a stale dilemma from a fresh perspective. Hammerskjoeld Simwinga, a 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, is one such person. He has brought new opportunities to fellow Zambian residents once dependent on poaching elephants as a desperate source of income.

In the 1980’s, elephant numbers were dwindling as poachers relied on their meat and tucks for survival. With the help of the US funded, North Luangwa Conservation Project, Simwinga convinced many poachers that micro-lending, agricultural education, and health care training would provide them with legal and viable options for self-sustaining communities.

I watched a wonderful video this morning that illustrated how Simwinga has carried out his vision. Former poachers used simple machines to extract oil from harvested sunflower seeds used for cooking, as a cash crop, and feed for farm animals. An initial round of seeds were donated and the machines were purchased with micro-loans.

Now communities, once struggling in a black-market, are thriving legally. And lets not forget that the elephant population in the neighboring wildlife park are greatly improving. Simwinga accurately sums the reasoning behind his work by stating “Conservation of wildlife communities is not possible in the long term without simultaneously meeting the basic needs of the local human communities.” Hats off to an innovative thinker willing to grow ideas into reality!

Venezuela, part 6

8″ x 10″ oil on canvas, $220 ($50 donated to Witness for Peace, or a nonprofit of the buyer’s choice)

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Harsh criticism never gives anyone the warm fuzzies, and until I returned from Venezuela, this blog had only faced mere complaints about careless typos. I’ve certainly changed that. In my on-going efforts to tell more people about my artwork, I recently jumped in on other blog conversations related to Venezuelan issues. I was quickly reminded of how naive I can be when I was verbally jumped by bloggers and blog readers because of my “10 day tour of generalities.” My novice, although sincere, interest in Latin American issues of politics and humans rights were indicted by many with long standing personal experience in Venezuela. With a simple link to my website and two lines of text, I unleashed a Pandora’s box of emotion and fervor in others that made my palms sweat (here’s a rather mild example).

My greatest struggle has been surrounding myself with a group of people who share very similar beliefs and, without any previous point of contextual reference, I begin to mold to that group’s philosophy. Then, I intentionally immerse myself in another group with opposing views because I want to get both sides of the story and find that, again, my thoughts bend to that group’s opinion. As a result, two things have happened; 1) I’m overwhelmed and uncertain, and 2) I’ve really ticked some people off by simply entertaining ideas of people on the other side of the fence. Everyone has facts, statistics, and personal accounts, but as I taxi back and forth from one side to the next with new information, inevitably I’m met with equally substantial informative ammo once again.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave me anywhere especially productive, but I have a plan. I’m going to list just a couple of repeatedly mentioned talking points, and with extra prompting on my part (via sending emails), I hope to start a discussion in comments below.

  • Hugo Chavez has been decidedly democratically elected president three times by clear majorities, but have his election platforms been more talk than anything else? Some argue it has been unfilled propaganda to appeal to the poor majority; playing to their needs foremost to position himself in the authoritarian role he is now in. Others feel that Chavez has truthfully implemented many of his promises, such as social programs addressing literacy and job creation. For those agenda items left unfinished (or even not yet started), many believe he will come through in time and that anyone with such a monumental job of leading a revolution needs allowance for error and time for implementation.
  • Although Venezuela has a long history of being a country rich in natural resources, the distribution of this wealth has not been fairly distributed. Corruption has bred a great divide of classes that Chavez is supposedly tackling by nationalizing many companies and industries. Through small business loans and support of community cooperatives, Venezuelan poor are enabled to pull themselves out of poverty and develop a skill that sustains them and a community. Others argue that many such ventures are not sustainable. They rely on government aid for survival, reinforcing the dependency of the majority of Venezuelans on Chavez’s “hand outs” which keep him in office.

This is my enticement to encourage the behind the scenes messages that slam my inbox to come to the forefront by leaving comments here.

Venezuela, part 5

6″ x 9″ watercolor
See all paintings available for sale.

For as much grief as Hugo Chavez gets for “enabling laziness with government handouts,” it’s important to note the multiple cooperatives I visited while in Venezuela. A new concept to most of the country’s poor citizens, part and equal ownership in a business of their choosing is an opportunity surpassing what most dream of. Loans from the government, and other lenders such as Banmujer (The Women’s Development Bank of Venezuela), are made available to less than typical borrowers to start entrepreneurial ventures such as opening a bakery, a textile factory, or a grocery store.

A loan given to the fishermen above was used to purchase engines for their boats. The fruits of the fishermen’s labor, similar to much of co-ops’ work, serve members of their own communities. Many of the basics needs of life (food to clothing) are made available from within the pocket neighborhoods by these businesses. The co-ops create jobs and lessen the need for Venezuela to rely on importing many of essential goods.

The loans enable Venezuelans to help themselves out of poverty without dependence on welfare. Doors have been opened for individuals as well as entire communities. It was endearing to see, that almost exclusively, co-op participants altruistically chose to start businesses that served their families and neighbors. The commitment was sincerely beautiful.

Venezuela, part 3

One of the highlights of my 10 days in Venezuela was my stay with a family in the small rural town of La Magdalena, in the mountains overlooking Charallave. There is certainly something to be said for experiencing, with your own eyes, what living in poverty is truly like. Poverty is relative, but juxtaposed to my own standard of living, staying with a farming couple who have 4 children and a live-in grandparent all in a patchwork house of metal and scrap wood was humbling, to say the least. We bathed with a bucket of water and a bar of soap, and ate eggs conveniently laid for us by their chickens one thin wall away from the kitchen.

What I found most surprising was this family’s pride and happiness. Initially, when I approached their home, thoughts of pity crossed my mind. By the time I left 2 days later, I realized they didn’t feel they were lacking anything. They gladly opened their home to us with no shame whatsoever. I ended up feeling ashamed of myself because I assumed they would be ashamed. They smiled and laughed nonstop, which is more than I can say for many people who have an abundance of material wealth.

The father worked in construction when he wasn’t harvesting crops. He told us about the loan he received from the government for farm equipment that has made a positive change, and then about some of the hard times he has struggled through (related to changes in the government, as well as poor crop yields). The family now seems to be on their feet; they have means to grow more crops, their children go to good schools, they have access to a nearby health clinic, and many people in their extended family have taken advantage of literacy and GED programs for adults.

The father also told us alarming stories of violence in the nearby city that they choose to leave for their current country town. They now boast a spectacular view of the city from up and afar. They were glad to leave the urban setting that required the father carry a firearm with him on his commute to work. He said crime is still a major problem the government has not resolved. He did have multiple complaints about the Chavez government (although he was in favor of the president), but as I heard from many Venezuelans, you can’t expect everything to happen overnight.

Some argue that promises made by the Chavez, which have not come to pass, never will, and the president’s campaign selling points were empty rhetoric. I suppose validation of that perspective is yet to be determined, and may prove to be true. In the meantime, my host family is experiencing a new lease on life.

Venezuela, part 1

7″ x 9″ watercolor, $70 ($10 donated to Witness for Peace)

See all paintings available for sale.

The best possible approach I’ve come up with thus far for reporting on what I was exposed to in Venezuela is to simply play storyteller. I’m absolutely overwhelmed. I left for Caracas concerned that I was stretching the truth with my coverall statement, “It’s perfectly safe. I’ve done my homework.” Friends leaning left were eager for a report back, and some friends leaning right seemed insulted that I was even going.   Much of what was addressed in my exhaustive itinerary of various meetings touch on very polarized topics that tend to ignite intense debate like gasoline to a flame.   I’ve come back to Kentucky in a dumb-founded state of culture shock, and possibly more unsure on where I stand on political theory.   The experience has been akin to a college freshmen, lost for direction, going to a career fair in hopes of discovering, in one day, what career path defines them best.   I was happy to return to the comforts afforded me by a capitalist system that embraces proportionately rewarding the amount of effort, talent, and resources possessed by an individual.   On the flip side, I was painfully aware of the feathers in my comforter, the clean drinking water from my sink, the fact that my walls are brick and drywall, not corrugated sheet metal.   These are all luxuries that the majority of Venezuelans I met and stayed with did not have access to, and never would, regardless of their potential, if it were not for Hugo Chavez’s government.

So, in maintaining a neutral status by simple virtue of my own uncertainty, I want to share with you, over a series of paintings, what I witnessed.   I strongly encourage your thoughts and open these topics up for debate.   Hopefully, my personal records will stir questions in some of you.   If there is one thing I am certain of as a result of my visit, it’s to scrupulously question what you read in privately-owned, mainstream media.   Everyone has their version of the story, including our best known American news media.   For this reason, I will be making all of my usual donations to Witness For Peace, which is the organization I traveled with to see with my own eyes the “socialist democracy” of the Bolivarian Revolution.   Without Witness For Peace, I never would have had access to the organizations and individuals who eagerly spoke about their own personal and professional opinions of the Chavez government.   I heard from citizens on both sides of the fence and will be sharing all of it with you as I post new artwork of Venezuela in between my usual, American-focused pieces.

And thank you to all of my supporters who financially made this trip a reality.   I truly appreciate your support and look forward to sending my work to those of you who pre-purchased paintings.