Art Aids Art is an organization that was started by teachers, funded by teachers and run by teachers to help the people of South Africa build sustainable programs to better educate communities. The work they are doing is enabling entire communities to thrive in ways they never have before. I was able to talk with Tom Harding, one of the founders, about howArt Aids Art is making a tremendous impact through the collective efforts of passionate educators.
Love and Water- Tell us how Art Aids Art came to be.
Tom Harding- We are all educators, and started Art Aids Art from a place of being teachers. We had gone to South Africa and met an incredible acting team who invited us back to work on a theater project. It was at the time of the 1999 elections, and they were doing a project about the responsibilities that go along with the rights of a democracy. So we went down and were completely taken by the energy and enthusiasm of the young people- the vision they had for themselves and for their country amidst incredibly challenging circumstances. We were so inspired and returned a year later and found when working with educational projects in the townships, the people were so ready to receive and so ready to take advantage of what we were giving to them that our energies were multiplied many times over. We knew we wanted to continue working there. We discovered a bead work project that some residents were working on and brought a suitcase full of bead work back to the U.S. with us. When people saw it they immediately wanted them. We had a sale at a friend’s house and sold all of the work. The profits from that one suitcase enabled a group in South Africa to open an art studio. So we realized that if one suitcase of bead work can do that much then we need to do more of that. We ironically had a friend contact us to say that his former seventh grade teacher in El Paso wanted to find a project to support with a portion of her retirement funds. She gave us the seed money to start the non-profit.
L&W- How often do you go back to South Africa?
TH- It really depends. Now we’ve opened eKhaya eKasi, an art & education center serving families in Khayelitsha, South Africa. After years of planning, a woman contacted us to say she was selling her plot of land and thought she would see if we could do anything with it. Dorothy, the co-founder of Art Aids Art, was having her 50th birthday, and had a Wizard of Oz-themed party and asked everyone to donate to buy a “yellow brick” to build this community center. From that party we were able to buy the plot of land which had a small building on it, and built an even larger community center on it. A friend of mine from Harvard School of Design got some students together and did an incredible mock-up of how the center could be built. Five of them got funding and flew down with us where we met with the community and finished the designs of the building. It’s just been an incredible outpouring of people giving whatever they have to make all of our projects come together. Now we go back once or twice a year to work with the staff and help support the work of the men and women there to help make it a sustainable center.
L&W- How can people get involved now if they’re interested?
TH- We work with people as young as 14 to as old as 70, and we prepare them with some curriculum before they go, and then take them with us to work on a project.
L&W- What are some ways people can help from here?
TH- There are almost as many ways to help as there are skills people have. We do collections for South Africa, because shipping things can be very expensive, so we try to keep it down to a minimum but still need help with it. We collect multi-cultural children’s books, because there is such a shortage of literacy books so these are good for both children and their parents. We have a link to that on our website. We collect black dolls as well, because there is a shortage of black dolls there. We have a college chapter that we started and high school as well, where students get together and discuss AIDS in South Africa and they sometimes do projects as well. Also, anyone can host a bead party. We provide the bead work and literature on it, and if we can be there in person we usually attend. When it’s too far away for us to go, we have a kit with all the information. It’s a great way to share with friends some great art work while learning about ways to help those in need.
L&W- What has been the most moving experience you’ve had so far working with Art Aids Art?
TH- One of the first moving experiences we’ve had was when we first started the organization and were invited over to the house of one of the students we were working with on the theater project. We knew from the beginning that he was already self-conscious that we were coming over to his house, which was in a very sub-standard housing area. We were very mindful to be as respectful as we could, and his mother invited to have some tea. We had brought some cake with us, and his mother had said that she had always seen that cake in the shops but had never tasted it before. So we all sat down for tea and cake, but his mother and sisters weren’t drinking any. We asked if they were going to have some, and they said we were drinking from their only three tea cups, so as soon as we were done they would have some. It was a very moving moment, that so often people who have the least are so generous with what they do have. It made us all the more respectful and mindful of what people have and what they are able to provide for themselves and their families.
L&W- What else do you want people to know about Art Aids Art?
TH- To know that each person has the capacity to contribute. If you don’t think you have that, then go out and ask, because I know with us we’ve had massage therapists, chiropractors, teachers, young people who were good at a sport, and all of them were able to contribute more than they could have realized. It’s often a skill that someone has that can help others gain that skill and the confidence to do it as well, and that is invaluable.
L&W- That is so good to hear and a great reminder. Thank you so much for talking today.
TH- Thank you for the collaboration. We look forward to sharing it as well.