St. Thomas resident Chelcie Porter and her team of artists will be transforming an African homestead in Kenya with murals reflecting the heritage and culture of the local tribe. The project is a part of the La Casa de la Artista program, using art as education and therapy for youth all over the world, from Ghana to Thailand.
You might think of Porter as somewhat of a Renaissance woman. She has traveled throughout her life, having lived in Thailand, Czech Republic, the Caribbean, Alaska and Kenya, and has visited more than 30 countries and all 50 of the United States.
Her photography, an art she has cultivated since the age of 6, is largely documentary in nature, focusing on themes of feminism, culture, the African diaspora and self-exploration.
She attended Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she opened a contemporary art gallery and honed her skills in curating, painting and jewelry design. She has worked as a fashion model, photographer, writer and blogger, and is also a certified life coach, reiki master, meditation coach, Zumba instructor and dancer.
In 2010, Porter produced her photography book “Wabi Sabi, A Series of Fine Art Female Nudes,” and is author of “Travel Therapy,” which documents her decade-long trip around the world and discusses how she used travel to heal from her husband’s sudden death in 2009.
Porter resides on St. Thomas for six months and travels the rest of year with her company, Roots and Culture Travel, an immersion travel company. Its artist’s residency program, La Casa de la Artista is fiscally sponsored by the non-profit arts service organization Fractured Atlas. Porter and her late husband established La Casa in 2015, teaching children through art workshops around the world.
Currently, La Casa brings its work to Kochia, a tiny village in western Kenya, home to the Nilotic tribe, the Luo people. They are working in conjunction with Oneno School in Kochia village, with students ages 4 to 14, and Porter says they are hoping to provide art workshops for up to 400 youths.
The youth they work with have limited access to food, sanitation, clean water, health care or infrastructure.
“We are here to help them learn and inspire creative solutions to their problems,” Porter said. “We strongly believe in an empowerment model rather than a welfare model. Our goal is to use art to supplement the education provided to the under-funded region. We believe in art as not only a form of therapy, but an important supplement to learning and a viable career path. As Kenya’s art scene is currently being steered by millennial artists, now is the time to inspire the youth of Kenya to take charge of their talents.”
The Nilotic tribe believes the spirits of their ancestors still live in their homes, which are kept clean and tended, though no living person resides there. The art project will be transforming homes and a burial ground with murals of the people who lived there, honoring both the ancestors and tribal beliefs. Because there are no books documenting their oral traditions, some murals depicting tribal mythology will also be painted.
“The culture of the tribe and ancestors of the actual land is continuing to grow and will last,” Porter said.
Porter and others are presently in Kochia, priming and painting to prepare for the murals. The first artists will arrive in December and work through February, with a second group working May through July, with artists coming from places like Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Zambia and Maryland.
One of those artists is Virgin Islands artist, painter and sculptor Chunikwa “Chunkiii” George. Growing up in the Virgin Islands, she tries try to portray her roots in every piece, project and interaction in a variety of mediums. She studied architecture and has been concentrating this year on body painting and murals. Seeking to create a strong art community in the Virgin Islands, she has painted murals for Pistarckle Theater’s summer program, conducted a workshop at Black Power Theater, curated collections for the LGBT community for Pride Week and has taught art for young girls through the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. As a member of the V.I. Council of the Arts, George is currently partnering with teachers on St. Thomas to mix math and art, leading art projects based on math lessons in class.
The Kenya project allows George to interact with other artists while learning about other cultures and sharing her own.
“More than anything else I love to learn,” she said. “I want to go and listen to the people of the tribe and learn how they would like to be portrayed. I want to take myself out of it and be a tool for their story.”
Artists raise their own money to make the trip and help support team efforts, often sponsored by their own community through scholarships. Contributors may make a tax-deductible donation to the project at https://fundraising.fracturedatlas.org/la-casa-de-la-artista. For more information visit RootsandCultureTravel.com.