By Liana Gurung
Liana is Skillseed’s current gap year intern and a Literature graduate from NUS. At the point of this post’s publishing, she has just eaten the best part of a tub of walnut cookies (happy CNY y’all - we are a very well-stocked office), which no amount of frisbee playing will redress. Energetic (unless you find her post-walnut cookies) and curious, Liana is interested in a little bit of everything.
OUR WORK DAY begins at 5pm on a Monday - I find my colleague Xin Er at Terminal 4’s Coffee Bean, laptop open, furiously typing. At Skillseed we can occasionally trade in our button-downs and ironed pants and skirts for backpacks and duffels; here, we place a premium on wrinkle-free clothes, dresses with pockets, anything that increases efficiency and decreases effort. My knapsack is new and shiny next to Xin Er’s battered overnight.
“You’ll love it,” Xin Er tells me as we head to the airport gate. I skipped lunch - last minute packing; I’m a slightly haphazard traveller, though I’ve been assured this will change as the months go on - so I’m making do with some very crumbly pastry I buy once we check in. “Chiang Mai is great.” I already have some impressions of Thailand: hot weather, bumpy roads, piling into the back of a pick-up, the odd hot-cold experience of a sleeping bag as insulation against hilltop nights (I’d squeezed my way onto an OCIP trip with my mother’s school as an eleven-year-old) but I know that this trip will be something completely different. Not only because I’m in Chiang Mai rather than Chiang Rai this time; but because Xin Er and I have spent the last two weeks scheduling and rescheduling this recce trip, e-mailing partners, researching plane tickets, scouring and settling a spectrum of accommodation. We have an excel sheet that is coded green, yellow, red with a dizzying number of question marks and "TBC"s - but most importantly, we have a plan.
Recce trips are not, as a rule, this harried. But sandwiched between the holidays and Xin Er’s and my own other commitments, we essentially have three days to figure out a direction for this gem of a course. But in many ways I’m lucky - Art for Empowerment speaks so closely to my own personal beliefs and convictions about art. As Skillseed's incoming Gap Year Intern, I had been prepared to read up haltingly and with difficulty on financial literacy, public health, policy, for the host of Skillseed’s other courses - but instead, I come in just as Xin Er is tightening up a course on art relief in Chiang Mai, and welcomed (read: thrust) onboard. Art as important, art as empowerment, has been my bread and butter for most of my life, not only as a Literature major, but as someone who has been shaped so totally by a love for reading and writing.
Probably what I’ve appreciated most since coming in is the sheer inter- and multidisciplinary nature of the work at Skillseed; there isn’t knowledge that isn’t interesting, isn’t necessary, isn’t important. Everything is connected. And Art Relief International, our community partner in Chiang Mai, is one amazing example of how disparate communities can be bridged through a single, unifying force - art. (IS THIS CHEESY YET?) My jaw dropped a little bit, I think, when Hallie ran through the list of organisations and communities she had worked with and planned activities for as the Art Director of ARI. “We had this really interesting project with Urban Light,” I remember her musing at the ARI office, a bright, sunlit house tucked into a quiet neighbourhood. “Then we ran this upcycling, asset-mapping activity for an environmental organisation. I have the name, if you want it.”
As shallowly as I’ve waded into the tumbling overgrowth of the social sector, I realise how difficult it is - and how unlikely it is - that a single genre or range of activities can be applied to multiple communities with different, even diverging, needs. But somehow - through invention, necessity, sheer willpower - ARI has made it happen. Hallie was an amazing guide around Chiang Mai, and equally amazing in introducing to us to some of the people and communities she’s grown close to during her time as Director. We trekked dusty dirt tracks on the city outskirts and were welcomed into a haven for women in risk; we rolled up to a quiet residential area to visit a house-turned-home for orphans - one of the only recognised organisations for orphans with disabilities beyond Bangkok’s much larger state orphanages. We got to witness the many ways in which Art Relief International has engaged its volunteers, and the dazzling array of workshops and programmes that have emerged from this tapping onto such a broad spectrum of enthusiasm and talent - woodblock prints, scarf-dyeing, music, dance - cross-pollination at its finest.
The experiences I've had on this trip have invited me to consider how to access a universal humanity for which art is a tool. Art is a unifier, an equaliser, a means of communication that doesn't require words - and what's more, one that celebrates diversity and difference even as it emphasises commonality. Art is what made a RISD graduate cross an ocean to lead an organisation in Chiang Mai, thousands of miles away from home; art is what found two Singaporeans navigating songtaews and bustling Thai back alleys in order to design a course about how it might be harnessed for social good; and art is what is giving people voices in this incredible community, even now, as we speak.
More recently Xin Er and I had the amazing opportunity to meet the inspiring team at Very Special Arts Singapore and see their incredible new space - the point being that we don't need to travel all the way to Chiang Mai in order to use art for impact, though we would certainly encourage you to join us on this journey if you're able. If you're an educator interested to find out more about our upcoming Art for Empowerment course, or a student interested in volunteering opportunities, or anyone in-between, drop us an e-mail!
(Note: Some of the communities we worked with and visited in Chiang Mai are vulnerable ones, so we're not putting photos of them or their premises here! Pictured instead are the tiny moments and breaths we took during the recce; the mountains; the thresholds)