Art has always been a tool for self-expression, but what if it could unlock people’s ambitions and their vision of how they can better themselves and their communities?
Eirik Trondsen, now a MIT SPURS Fellow, created Affirmative Art in Kenya in 2012. This came after a decade of working in a variety of rescue and infrastructure building projects with NGOs in Uganda, Somalia, and Kenya. After years of helping provide what he, and the organizations, thought these communities needed, Trondsen began to question how much ownership these people have over themselves and their surroundings.
He realized that the local residents have never been asked what they want or need.
Trondsen sought to address that through art because it’s easily accessible, affordable, and can be created anywhere by anyone.
“The whole principle of Affirmative Art is to help people visualize what their life could be, but it’s their own artistic creation,” Trondsen said. “You can’t just take a poster – somebody else’s idea – you have to have your own drawing or painting.”
Soon after joining MIT as a SPURS fellow in 2015, he met Claudia Paraschiv SM ’10 and Marcus Christensen, a web designer, entrepreneur, and son of Trondsen’s good friend from Norway. The three decided to plan a tour across the U.S.
Starting in Boston and ending in Los Angeles, Affirmative Art embarked on a 21-day journey in their 2004 Ford Econoline Van that they painted themselves.
Throughout May, they made 21 stops, ranging from major cities to smaller suburbs, focusing on community centers where people gather – like libraries, YMCAs, farmers’ markets, and music and art festivals. They set up workshops to help participants, “identify what [they] want in life and then build a community of support to empower [their] dreams,” according to Christensen.
Paraschiv said Affirmative Art doesn’t have a target demographic, as their tour – and future workshops – aim to be “a collision of ages and different groups.”
There are three steps to an Affirmative Art workshop, which lasts two to three hours. The first involves each person determining what kind of impact they want to leave on their community, or how they can improve themselves. Then they discuss it with their peers in a group setting. Next, they portray it through art – each person can either write or draw, present to the group, or pose for a portrait. The final step is to work toward making those dreams a reality.
According to Paraschiv, this is done by establishing a safe space where people can express themselves freely and “share what’s in their heart.” By building a community through the workshops, they hope to establish a network of people who will help each other accomplish their individual goals.
Although the trip was fast, and they only spent one day in each city, Paraschiv said the tour was a meaningful experience for each of the Affirmative Art members.
“We saw the U.S. through the lens of these particular community spaces and workshops that we went through,” said Paraschiv. “The trip wasn’t about getting the postcard-perfect picture. It was about having good conversations with real people across the U.S.”
Affirmative Action is using the different interactions and perspectives gained on this trip to get ground communities help grow the project and to use feedback to improve their workshops.