Monday, March 21, 2016

on teaching art in belize

Last month, I taught my very first art workshop in Belize!

(It is SO exciting to be able to write that!)

My students were seven amazing women from the United States, Canada and Mexico. The 11 days we spent traveling throughout Belize were packed so full of painting and exploration that it seemed like much longer than that, but also seemed to fly by at the same time. I'm still reflecting on all the wonderful parts of this trip and ways it helped me grow as an artist. It was awesome and a bit life-changing as well.

In 2014, Sharon reached out to me about hosting an art workshop with Arts & Cultural Travel. She visited my studio and we clicked immediately; she recognized the importance of travel and personal experience in my creative process, and the need for authentic, hands-on, genuinely local experiences (no all-inclusive gated beach resorts for us!) We wanted this to be much more than a standard art workshop, so we settled on Belize, where we could have a balance of studio time and plenty of adventurous exploration to inspire our artwork. 

For months beforehand, I pondered how to teach this workshop. I didn't go to art school, never took any classes, and am really still learning to wear 'self-taught' as a badge of pride rather than an insecurity. January was spent paying close attention to my painting process, collecting materials and even making a lesson plan, but I was still anxious. How do you teach something that never came with instructions? Will I be able to communicate something that is usually done wordlessly? Will everyone like what they learn? Will they like me?

Side note: one way to get rid of unnecessary anxiety is to sit in the copilot seat in a tiny 8-person plane that makes 4 dirt road takeoffs and landings before it gets to your destination. All other worries? No longer there.

Sharon and I flew in a day early and our group flew in the next, taking a tiny prop plane from Belize City to Punta Gorda (with 4 stops in between) and then a 45 minute dirt road ride to Cotton Tree Lodge, an eco-lodge deep in the southern Todedo district jungle. Meeting my "students" was amazing! The entire group was made up of vibrant, unique, independent women who were intentionally seeking out an unknown adventure with a group of strangers for the sake of traveling and learning something new -- my people. 

At Cotton Tree lodge, lush green palms and towering cotton trees surrounded small, open-air cabanas on stilts with roofs made of thatched palm leaves, each connected by raised wooden walkways leading to a small organic garden, a yoga studio, a riverside dock and our own private art studio. Bright pink and orange flowers dripped from long branches swaying in the soft humid breeze. Each morning we were blessed by a wake-up yoga session with Rebekka, a traveling yogi and massage therapist, and delicious Belizean coffee and meals made of local ingredients, including fruit from their organic garden and fish caught by other visitors at lodge.

We spent the next few days exploring and soaking up inspiration for our artwork. From Cotton Tree, we travelled to Blue Creek, a remote Mayan village and the entrance to Hokeb Ha Cave, where we swam the cave river upstream for an hour over rock ledges and up small waterfalls in pitch blackness with only lifejackets and headlamps and the squeaky chip of bats far overhead. The route back was a bit easier, as the current helped sweep us through the cave and back out into shining turquoise pools at the entrance.

A short hike later, we were riding zip-lines one hundred feet over Blue Creek and traversing suspension bridges through the lush jungle canopy.

We stopped in Blue Creek Village on the way back, meeting the children and teachers of the village and donating art supplies that my group had brought from home. The next day, we headed into Punta Gorda, a coastal town with a large market, fish pier and a maze of streets to roam around and get lost in while looking for paper material to include in our artwork.

The market was so full of things I had never seen before! That little package wrapped in banana leaf is copal, a white mound of sticky tree resin used as incense by Mayans for centuries for its clean, pine-like smell and meditative qualities. Tables overflowed with roots, dried leaves, bundles of branches and jars of homemade spice concoctions. Most of the buildings were concrete, painted with bright pastel colors and beautiful Mayan murals, with the occasional roof dog standing guard. The bright sun, patchwork of colors, birds chattering high in waving palm trees and the spicy smells wafting from cook stoves were all decadent pieces of a lucious, vibrant puzzle.

After four days in the jungle, we flew to Dangriga and took a boat 14 miles off the mainland for the second half of our workshop, held at the IZE marine biology field station on the tiny, idyllic island of South Water Caye. We relaxed, went kayaking, visited tiny Carrie Bow Cay and snorkeled throughout the pristine barrier reef.

Snorkeling on the barrier reef was incredible. The water was so clear and gentle. Immediately upon getting into the water our guide caught two caribbean lobsters, which we had for dinner, and saw the biggest southern stingray I have ever seen -- it had to have wings 8-10 feet wide -- and many beautiful spotted eagle rays.

Previous 3 photographs by our photographer Duarte Dellarole 
And, of course, art!

"One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself: what if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?" 

In between adventures we spent time in our traveling studios: an open-air hut alongside the river at Cottontree, and IZE's marine lab on South Water Caye. I began our workshop by sharing the above quote by conservationist Rachel Carson, which has helped inspire most of my own work. It has been a mantra for me over the last few years as my artwork becomes more travel-inspired, and reminds me to ask myself, in the moment: what is speaking to me here? What colors and shapes do I still see when I close my eyes? What am I breathing in, besides the thick salty sea air? What makes this moment tangible: the sweep of enormous green palms sawing one another in the breeze; the slow, elegant reach of a heron's leg on the pier; the steady lullaby of a heavy night rainstorm on dry palm roofs, or the sporadic roar of howler monkeys in far treetops?

Asking questions like these helps me feel grounded in the moment and truly attuned to the sensory puzzle that later pieces itself together in my paintings. With these questions in mind, I offered up my tried and true techniques -- washes, textures, layering, photos and transfers, mediums -- and watched in amazement as everyone translated them into unique works of art inspired by their own unique experiences.

The nature of being an artist is that you spend a lot of time alone, contemplative and engrossed in your own vision, so it was a completely new and fun experience to create with this lively group, laughing and chatting and connecting as we worked late into each night. Demonstrating techniques and answering questions, I got to reconnect with my own process and watch new interpretations of these techniques. And did I mention these ladies were awesome?!

Each woman had a different story to tell in their painting, through layers of paint, paper and photographs brought from home and found in Belize. One of my students, Christine, kept a list of all the new experiences she had on the trip -- swimming in a cave, snorkeling off a small boat in the middle of the sea, seeing sharks off the dock -- and then used the transfer technique to layer it over her painting. Our finished paintings were stunning, each a beautiful reflection of its creator's own unique personality, experience and vision.

And then, sadly, it was the end of our trip. We were treated to a delicious last dinner complete with birthday celebrations and wine, wrapped up our paintings and started talking about taking another trip together. Fate brought together the most perfect group of women for our first workshop and I totally got a little emotional seeing everyone leave on their boat back to the mainland. Thank you to my students for making my first workshop such a great experience :)

So... time to plan the next one! Where should we go?


  1. Congratulations on a successful first workshop Mae. I wish I could have joined as it looks like you have quite the adventure. When is the next one?


  2. Those Photos of the birds!! What lens are you using now? Beautiful!! Jess

  3. Breathtakingly beautiful, peaceful and adventurous wrapped up in one overwhelming life changing experience. What a beautiful group of friends I now have. You each taught me so much from your unique life stories. And Mae...Sharing you talent and love for art has sparked a new desire to create again. Thank you for leading us into this adventure :)

  4. Replies
    1. We're planning it right now! Likely early 2017, in the western United States.

  5. Wow! What an experience...This is going on my bucket list!

    I love your work, Mae, and have been searching for clues on how you put everything together. Have you ever considered teaching an online class (since I'm quite sure a Belize-style trip is far outside my current budget, and I'm likely not alone)?

    1. At the moment I'm not planning any online workshops. We're putting together at least one U.S. workshop for next year :)

  6. Wow- what an adventure! Amazing photos and story.

  7. Wow- what an adventure! Amazing photos and story.

  8. Just Amazing. An art workshop that brings people into a cave and underwater! How do I find out about future workshops?

  9. WOW. what an amazing life changing experience :) I hope to be on an artistic adventure like that with you some day :)

  10. Looks like you all had a brilliant time! I would love to attend something like this myself, what a fantastic adventure and a great way to meet new people who share similar passions. Wonderful xx

  11. Wow this is amazing! Beyond my comfort zone but very exciting to see artists enjoying such a great adventure together.

  12. Wow this is amazing! Beyond my comfort zone but very exciting to see artists enjoying such a great adventure together.

  13. great blog !! the most beautiful images I've ever seen congratulations!

  14. I found you, Mae, meandering through Pinterest tonight. My little art studio the back of my home into Toledo, Oregon is finally being sheetrocked and should be finished in a couple weeks. I'm now 71 and have been retired a couple years. Several years ago I woke up and heard myself say "I just want to play with color." This began a journey of exploration into the world of art. I was completely unschooled and thought I was completely lacking talent. Now I understand we all can create if we are willing to find our own way and trust the process. I too, have always loved travel and found it completely transformative. Your work speaks to me in a very deep level and I hope that someday I can join you for a workshop.

  15. Wonderful seeing your photos - and artist's eyes - capturing Belize - I guess you now know why we're so in love with it. SO much diversity, cultural and terrain-wise - and the sea...Oh that sea...
    Aunt Barb