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Gainesville artist teaches Haitians to paint mural using recycled trash
The palms of the tree for the mural were made by tracing the local children’s hands on paper and cutting them out.

When Cathy Little heard there was plenty of garbage lining the streets of the rural Haitian town she was preparing to visit, she didn’t think of it as offensive or unsanitary.

Her only thought was of color and which shades she might find among the discarded items.

Little recently went to Martin, Haiti, a small community about 120 miles from Port-au-Prince, with other missionaries from Chestnut Mountain Presbyterian Church in Flowery Branch, and Haiti H2O, a ministry that leads short-term missions and partners churches in the U.S. with churches in Haiti.

This was the church’s second trip to the island nation and Little’s first.

"The people are dirt poor but they have a strong faith," Bob Bradbury, one of the missionaries, said. "In contrast to the way a lot of mission trips go, we do not come primarily to get a job done. Our primary focus is building relationships with the Haitian people."

The missionaries work on small projects for the community they’re visiting. Some missionaries washed the feet of Haitian women who worked in a kitchen and painted their toes. Others taught the people how to repurpose old T-shirts — which are plentiful because of donations — into shopping bags and dresses for little girls. Others walked around the community visiting with families as they went.

Little, a Gainesville artist, was asked to go on the trip to design a mural for the local school.

But instead of using paints, Little decided to use whatever elements were readily available in the community to beautify the school —- in this case, trash.

"There was just a lot of trash around the community that some of the people who’d been before had scouted out," Little said. "They said ‘You know, they just need to recycle their stuff.’"

So, Little found a way to recycle the items and create beautiful folk art for the school.

Knowing she wouldn’t have much time when she arrived, Little began working on the project at home by designing the smaller detailed elements, like a pink pig and a green lizard, by using colorful plastic and aluminum bottles.

She packed the pieces in her suitcase between folded shirts and pants.

When she arrived at the school, she said she noticed the students lived in a "gray environment." All they have in the classrooms is a chalk board with plain white chalk.

She said it took the Haitian teachers and students a little while to understand what she planned on doing with the mural.

"They kept asking me ‘Well, where is your paint,’ Little said. "I said ‘I’m not painting. I’m going to use things from your environment to create the colors.’ I don’t think anyone had thought of it that way."

Little showed the students and teachers how to create the mosaic using cut pieces of plastic and small rocks.

Bradbury said a lot of the Haitian women were intrigued by Little’s lesson.

"The Haitian ladies got involved with that and enjoyed it as much as anybody," Bradbury said.

Little and the other missionaries enlisted the help of the community in finding all the pieces they’d need for the mural.

The children and their mothers went out to find as many small, smooth, flat rocks as they could to serve as the trunk of a tree in the mural.

"We asked the children on the first day to collect the trash," Little said. "So we involved the community, they collected the trash for us and then we sorted it into colored categories."

Little said she was relieved to see that the children were able to find so many colors. She said she was particularly worried that there wouldn’t be enough blue trash to create the water scene she’d designed.

Little had to wait until school let out in the afternoons to work on the mural and could only work until the sun went down because there was no other light source inside the classroom. It took two afternoons to complete the project.

She said she was surprised by how quickly the mural came together. The Haitian people recited a local proverb while they helped her work. She said it translated to "Many hands make light work."

"They were very happy to be involved and we’re so pleased at the end with the way it turned out," Little said. "I felt like it was a way to introduce that they’ve got something there that they can color with even if they don’t have all the finer art tools. They can be inventive in themselves and create something."

She said it was amazing to see the people realize that they could transform items they usually throw away into works of art.

"It wasn’t about me implementing it or just doing the installation," Little said. "It was about me inspiring someone else. Once they started coming in and wanting to learn, that put the joy in my heart. They liked it. Yes, it’s a tedious thing to do a mosaic, but it was soothing to them as art is to me."