Painting in Public

By Birgit McMullen
Oct. 25, 2019

When I set out to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, I packed art supplies that I thought would be easy to carry and could allow me to stay in touch with my creative side.

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Before I joined Peace Corps, I had been an artist and art educator for 20+ years. I had a hard-earned studio space in my house and plenty of creative opportunities each day. I had become comfortable with certain techniques but what I was missing was authentic subject matter. I craved subject matter that would excite me, hold my attention, and feel real.

Art is as much about seeing as it is expression. It requires skill, patience, courage, and thinking outside of the box. What I enjoy about making art is the creative process; the assembly of seemingly disconnected elements into a new whole. For some of us expression is important, for others it’s the exact rendering of an object or person. Some like to create an illusion of reality, express an emotion or mood, tell a story, show beauty or ugliness, or just enjoy a great composition. We all have preferences regarding tools and materials.

Birgit leans against a brick wall painting in a small pad
Beginning to paint in public

Artists are life-long learners who explore new creative methods and new tools, constantly perfecting the handling of a material or subject matter. We also have one thing in common: we are not happy when we cannot create. Making art is essential to our lives and to our happiness.

Peace Corps Service, in its beginnings, was fast paced. My mind, spirit, heart, and head were filled with new ideas and impressions minute by minute, and I had no time to process. During this initial period, I carried with me a small sketchbook and watercolor set. Whenever I had a minute, I would pull it out and sketch.

Random items stacked in a colorful watercolor composition

The problem was that I was not used to working on such a small scale. I felt completely incompetent. I hated watercolors and how uncontrollable they were. I didn’t like the smell of them on the wet paper, and I didn’t have a good handle on the small brush. I was embarrassed to paint in front of onlookers and began grieving for my lost art time.

Once I arrived at my permanent site, I had more time. I was determined to bring art back into my life. At the time, I was living in two small rooms that were part of a storage unit of a large residence. Around me there was grass, trees, a wall, and a locked gate. I started sketching some of the corners I could find on my compound. Most of the time I was alone and didn’t have to be embarrassed about the lack of skills. I started to become familiar with the small size of my paper and the flow of the watercolor. I painted a small image every day.

A watercolor painting of a colorful fire with a pot of boiling nsima balanced across 3 stones
Cooking over a 3 stone fire

When all corners of the compound were rendered, I needed to find new subject matter. However, I was nervous to be out in public. Nobody around me seemed to paint, and it seemed to be a very strange activity for locals. I didn’t want my skills to be out in the open for everyone to scrutinize. On top of that, I didn’t speak the language very well and was worried that I wouldn’t be able to explain my activities to onlookers.

Watercolor painting of colorfully dressed women walking down a dirt road with babies on their backs
Women walking down a dirt path with babies on their backs

One Sunday, I rode my bike to a very quiet place in the community. I found the furthest tree to sit under and started sketching the roots. Soon, two gardeners came over to see what I was doing. They were friendly and fascinated. They loved my little drawing. They told others about me and more people came. Soon, I was surrounded by smiling faces. This made me more courageous. During lunch time, some Malawians cooked their nsima right next to me. I asked if I could draw the three-stone fire with the steaming aluminum pot. They were thrilled.

This was the beginning of my love affair with sketching objects of daily lives in Malawi. I began drawing next to a church, outside my compound in the village, even in the middle of the market. My drawings were very small and colorful and still pretty bad, but Malawians didn’t care. They loved them, and they wanted to interact with me. Since I am a rather shy person, this was both exciting and scary at the same time. However, in the bigger picture, I was creating art and I was happy.

Watercolor painting of a woman cooking nsima in her smoky outdoor kitchen
A woman cooking a meal in her outdoor kitchen

I have developed my sketches over the time I have spent here. I am in love with the aesthetics of living compounds in Malawi. The surroundings inspire me. Every corner is a new composition. Where a rational mind sees soil erosion, I see interesting edges and curves; where some might see broken pipes and disintegrated homes, I see romantic scenes. I’ve painted steaming, banged up pots on open fires, rusty wheelbarrows, wild and overflowing markets, colorful mops leaned against a brick wall, a row of plastic buckets catching rainwater off a metal roof, fishermen in their carved canoes on Lake Malawi, and chicken coops on stilts.

I am no longer nervous about painting in public. In fact, I use it to meet new people and start conversations. I have met local artists who taught me which art supplies they use to create their paintings. I experimented with making my own inks out of beetroot, turmeric, and charcoal, and I learned how to make a strong glue out of boiled cassava roots.

Birgit sits on a bamboo mat with a Malawian woman and a child as they hold and mold clay pots in their laps
Birgit learning to make traditional pots

I even studied under a local potter and learned where to find and harvest termite clay, how to prepare it for hand building cookware and water jugs. I learned how to find wood for the firing, how to build firing pits and stack green ware so they will not be broken during firings. I learned that men can be painters and carvers, but only women can be potters.

After 2 years in Malawi, I have now found my way as an artist, and I am staying for a third year. I hardly ever leave my house without my sketch pad and watercolor set. And if I do, I surely regret it. I sometimes walk through the village and ask people if I can paint their kitchen or dish rack. It earns me surprised looks but always a friendly welcome. One time, the agogo (grandmother) of a compound stood between the hot sun rays and me to provide shade for the entire time it took to finish the painting.

Students in blue uniforms stand at the front of the room looking at their paintings displayed on the black board

For me as an artist this experience has humbled me. It took patience, courage, and out-of-the-box thinking to work through fear, discomfort, and lack of skills. I have finally arrived at a place where I feel I am creating authentic art; art born out of my daily life and experiences. I love the potential of each day. I love sharing this passion with the students who are part of our art club at school. And I love that, from now on, I will never be without creating art.

A white, female Volunteer over 50 years of age smiles next to a Malawian woman.

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