How to Draw a Lion

New York-based artist John Platt has been volunteering at the Rift Valley Children’s Village each summer for the past three years. John has been volunteering as an art teacher and has taught students ranging in age from 3 to 19. Below is a series of journal entries from John’s years at RVCV. They provide insight into his experiences in Tanzania and the talent and enthusiasm that he exudes and brings out in our children.

June 6th, 2014

The road to The Children’s Village was long and bumpy and for the first time you realize the nature of where you are, how remote it is, but also how special. It was in the car that I suddenly had a fear that the kids might not want to make art, or that this whole idea could somehow not work. I needn’t have worried. The kids are enormously welcoming and playful and I think the word got out that I was coming because a few said to me “Are you the art teacher? Can we paint?”. The Volunteer Coordinator was there to meet us but stealing the show was Dickson, age 5, who grabbed a 50 pound bag full of art supplies and determinedly started dragging to it our house “Serengeti”. Once there I was clobbered by the other boys who live there, all of whom were very eager to meet their new volunteer.

How to Draw a Lion

June 16th, 2014

Another day of working with the Standard 4 – Ally and Yohani are both amazing. The girls are also really talented – Sharifa and Rehema both painted really complex flowers while Ally seems to really love painting lions. Yohani did a great set of Pelicans but then he decided he didn’t like one of them crossed it out with paint – much to my dismay. I might show it in New York anyway.

Boni and Musa came to paint during play time – just the two of them. They are so adorable! Musa narrates everything he draws and paints – whether it’s a Dinosaur fight, a bicycle race, or an undersea adventure. Today he drew a living room, then a door, then a shark coming through the door. Boni is something different than any other child I have ever worked with. He is so in love with color that most of his process was working the palette, so he spends most of the class mixing just the right shade of a color and then placing it on the paper in these very controlled, distinctive dots. Today I asked him “Boni, what are you making with these dots?” to which he answered “I’m making soda.” I started laying out the finished pieces in my room today and am thinking about installing the pieces as a safari – with different animal groups on the Serengeti plains. I have decided to call the show “How to Draw a Lion.”

How to Draw a Lion

Boni and Musa’s paintings became the center piece of the “How to Draw a Lion” show in 2014. Ally’s lions were a highlight of the show. World renowned artist Ross Bleckner bought Sharifa’s flower. I ended up showing both of Yohani’s pelicans, although I still have the one he crossed out hanging in my apartment. In honor of the first show, I call my whole program, which now stretches across 3 African countries, “How to Draw a Lion.”

June 11th, 2015

Ally and Vicenti have been the real stars so far this year, and they are always eager to get more painting time. I notice that they are getting a little competitive, which is something I am trying to keep under control. The lions they started yesterday are almost done and are completely breathtaking. What’s amazing is how much personality they are able to stamp on the image.

During the morning class Neema came up with a brilliant solution to collaging feathers on a bird by cutting up National Geographic! She used the same technique on a butterfly. Today in the afternoon we had a great time playing Michael Jackson during art class. I was delighted when (fellow volunteer) Victoria came in and was hanging out on the couch with some of the younger kids. She took this hilarious video of me and Esau dancing. Of course I am so tall next to him that I look like a dancing tree.

How to Draw a Lion

How to Draw a Lion 2015 was an exciting mix of paintings from Malawi and Tanzania. Ally and Vicenti’s paintings hung proudly on the now-famous “Wall of Lions”. The installation immediately called people into the gallery from the street and quickly sold out. Neema’s idea of cutting up magazines for her bird collage is now a project I have repeated several times in other schools to great success. Victoria and I are still dear friends, Ally and Vicenti are still friendly rivals, and Esau is still a killer dancer.

June 24th, 2016

It was something extraordinary today to watch Big Ema and Nada paint across the table from each other. I have always loved the way the two of them draw and I am thrilled with how committed they are this year. During the free time before lunch I didn’t want to do a class because it seemed a good time for a break. Nada insisted on painting so we went and worked together, him on a tiger and me on my sketches. At the Gyteghi graduation he won the academic award – for the third straight year – and I am immensely proud of him. I just did a Facebook post about how great the older kids are with the little ones and the main image is Nada, the doting big brother, painting with Esau on his lap.

Meanwhile Ema has done a lion which has to be one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. His talent has always been putting such strong emotions on the faces he paints and this year he has really out done himself. This afternoon I repeated my yearly practice of laying the best pieces out on the floor in the volunteer room to take stock of what I have to bring back to New York. It was completely awe-inspiring, not just in terms of what the kids have done, but how far they have come as artists.

How to Draw a Lion

How to Draw a Lion 2016 will be presented at three different gallery venues in New York City this fall. The Tanzanian Children’s Fund paintings will occupy Mark Borghi Fine Art on east 76th Street. The Gallery usually shows the work of some of the 20th Century’s leading artists, a fitting venue for these amazing young talents.