|The Chungju Teenage Girls' Shelter is seen in April after the completion of a mural project. / Courtesy of Gayeon Ji|
By Gayeon Ji
Many people probably have heard the term?butterfly effect. Based on a theory by physicist Edward Lorenz, it implies that flutter of a butterfly wing could either stop or cause a tornado on the other side of the planet. It often refers to the concept that a seemingly insignificant change can cause a significant impact elsewhere. A story based on the small town of Chungju proves that small changes can create enormous opportunities through which all parties involved can learn from each other and grow.
As an art major in the United States, I searched for inviting and accessible modalities that broke from the conventional forms to make art less intimidating. Then halfway across the world from the United States, in a small town in Korea, there began the Chungju Teenage Girls' Shelter Community mural and garden project.
The Chungju-based shelter is a nonprofit organization that provides a safe home for those without a place or family to return to. Some of these teenage girls are orphans or have experienced domestic violence.
I initially visited the shelter to volunteer as an English teacher in my hometown before going back to the United States in the fall for graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. However, I could not ignore the dark walls and abandoned yard I saw as I walked into the shelter. Knowing that the shelter girls had not been outside for a month due to COVID-19, I thought it was crucial to provide a safe outdoor space. Soon began a conversation with the shelter community over how to cultivate an outdoor area for self-reflection, rest and new memories.
One of the main challenges was to break through the barrier that "Art is difficult," or "Art is not for us; we can only draw stick figures." Initially, when these girls were asked "What should we draw on the mural?" no one spoke up; they were hesitant to reveal their thoughts. Moreover, a girl who had experience with art therapy expressed that art makes her feel exposed and uncomfortable.
While brainstorming different approaches to the mural's design, I engaged in various activities and conversations to build trust with the community. I wanted to invite everyone to think creatively, absorb freely and empower themselves through art. It was my goal to provide a sustainable and creative outlet for these girls beyond this project. Day after day, I was able to become a part of the community, where I provided a safe environment for the members to let their guard down and converse through creativity.
One of the girls told me: "We may be slower than others. Through the guidance and support of Teenage Girls' Shelter, we can learn, grow, and prepare for the future at our own pace. Each one of us is just like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly when we break from within."
Inspired by her remarks, I started to translate these teenage girls' thoughts onto the canvas. I emphasized the need to incorporate the voices of the community as much as possible. The mural is composed of butterflies, a yellow background, a rainbow, a river, trees and the phrase "We are family."
Butterflies symbolize growth and progress. Yellow signifies warmth, vitality, creativity, and happiness. The rainbow conveys a message of equality, diversity and serenity.
Halfway through the mural project, we volunteers noticed the need to transform not only the mural but also the yard, which was full of garbage and dead plants. However, the shelter did not have the budget to proceed with the idea.
The shelter community and I sought help from the local community of Chungju. Surprisingly, donations flooded into the shelter within a week. Words of encouragement and support also came in. ??
One of the sponsors said, "I live near the shelter, but never knew this amazing organization that supports teenagers existed near me. It means a lot to be able to contribute to such a good cause."
Sponsors mentioned they always wanted to contribute to the local community but did not know how or where to channel their efforts. Some of these sponsors of the community mural and garden project have pledged monthly donations to contribute to the shelter.
Then the seven-day community mural project became a month-long self-funded community mural and garden project. Volunteers and the girls together created the "Shelter Garden" through painting the murals, planting grass and flowers and creating an outdoor cafe with their own hands.
In reflection of the project, the director of the shelter noted: "Because of COVID-19, the girls were stuck inside. Through this project, they were able to come outside, work together, communicate and create. This project reminded our children to seek hope, even in the darkest times."?
We try our best to make the shelter feel more like home for the young people here. This project allowed the teenagers to feel as if they were decorating their own home. It was an honor to be a part of such a great project and make new memories, especially with the girls at the shelter."
One young resident of the shelter said it was rewarding to bring all the girls' ideas to life.
"I thought it would be difficult at first, but it was fun to do this altogether. It's nice to see the brightness of the yellow background from my room or outside," she said.
I felt honored to be a part of such a great project, too. I cannot thank the shelter community enough for believing in my direction and opening up to me. After transforming the space together with the girls and volunteers, the shelter garden is now a bright, welcoming space for them to make new memories, rest and study outside. It will always have a big place in my heart.
I have continued to explore interdisciplinary forums to best utilize my passion for art, education, entrepreneurship and mentorship and to contribute to the local community.
I recently opened the doors of an art pop-up store and cafe to provide a place for growth and experience for local aspiring artists for three months. The Cactus (Instagram: @cactus.artpopup) offers young artists opportunities to not only exhibit and sell their work but also hold art classes and communicate with their audience. Also, 10 percent of the proceeds are donated to the Chungju Teenage Girls' Shelter.
Moreover, I will be directing another Community Mural/Garden Project at the Chungju Teenage Boys' Shelter, where I have been volunteering as an English teacher.
Establishing the shelter garden has impacted not only the shelter members but also the local community of Chungju beyond the walls of the shelter. A small movement served as a catalyst for positivity and creativity, influencing a bigger crowd of people.
The writer (email@example.com) is an incoming graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.