A Little History...
On a cold February day in 1987 little did I know my life was about to be changed forever.
I, Spring (Gibson) Thomas, with a dear friend, was delivering a handmade wreath to help raise money for the “Seattle Tashkent Peace Park Project”. A peace park was being built halfway around the world from where I lived. This intriguing and important international program fostering peace and understanding was started and supported by the Peace Corps volunteers who traveled to Soviet Central Asia and were deeply concerned about the Cold War and rising tension between the USSR and the United States, both enemies of one another.
A 12-year-old girl named Rachel gave me a drawing to take along with other kids' artwork to see if I may meet any children on the other side of the world who would like to send something back as a sign of friendship.
As Sister Cities, Seattle and Tashkent were destined to become friends. This goodwill venture was embraced by both cultures and together we worked harmoniously across barriers to meet our numerous logistical challenges.
I was on Team Seven. Our group was made up of professionals from many areas including doctors, architects, artists, teachers, social workers and activists - all volunteers. Being on the last team near the completion of the Peace Park project was actually a benefit in so many ways; citizens of Tashkent were well aware that friendly Seattlites were in their city working alongside their people for a common good, building a Park for peace and understanding.
10,000 tiles made mostly by American kids traveled half-way around the world to encircle a beautiful fountain, and I brought with me a quilt made by a Seattle kindergarten as well as other artwork. All these being goodwill gifts for new friends.
We arrived in Tashkent for the September 1988 Official Opening of the Peace Park which was lauded throughout the world with TV crews, reporters, newspapers and the like coming to Tashkent for the historic event. Tashkent and Seattle were the first Soviet and US cities to agree to become friends during the Cold War.
I remember as I walked off the airplane the evening air embracing me with such heavenly dry warmth I felt welcomed immediately. Perfumed scent of roses wafted over us as I heard voices I could not understand. The adventure began immediately with wonderment as to what this ancient city and its people offered! The next morning I was surprised and pleased to see colorful billboards with doves and peace written in Cyrillic (Russian) along the streets in the heart of this bustling city. These were our enemies? - I asked myself.
The light seemed softer than what I knew and stringed music enhanced everything around me.
And of course, for me, it’s always about the people! Simply, the people in Uzbekistan communicated from love and goodwill towards all of us volunteers. I could go on for hours with heartfelt stories of experiences with children and adults; new friends who I will never forget. This was truly a 'life changing' experience which launched the rest of my life in the best ways possible!
The word got out about children's artwork I was carrying. I have no idea who was involved in this kind gesture, but somehow I was invited to a converted former madrassa (a religious school) in Tashkent which now housed artists’ studios and had a spare small building.
Within the walls of this old, beautiful madrassa was a large courtyard and guess who was there! Hundreds of school children! Artists and craftsmen were presenting their works and holding workshops for the kids, who awaited for me with smiles and enthusiasm, curious and courteous to meet an American. What would she look like? What did her language sound like?
Soon enough they found out as unexpectedly I was handed a microphone and asked to lead these wonderful children in song! What would you do? What song do we both know? Some things in life just happen smoothly and lovingly.
Before an awkward hesitation could occur, out of my mouth, in the right key, no less, came “We Shall Overcome”. And, they all knew this movingly powerful song! Through tears children’s history between our two countries was being made. Right there, right on that spot with those people who embraced me into their hearts.
From there I was led to a small, very old building with a big wooden door. Above this door was a sign, in English, that read: “The Seattle Tashkent Children’s Art Exchange”!
Inside was the very first art exchange show that came about because a 12-year-old Rachel acted kindly and wanted to extend friendship to someone she didn’t know from another culture and country. You could do that, too! See how powerful that was?
On that beautiful day I made a magical connection with a precocious 4 year old little girl named Anastasiya (Stas'ka as endearment). She came over and began drawing in order to communicate with me.
Quietly, she stayed continuously by my side, unable to understand my English words. She kept drawing and handing me message after message!
Uzbek children's art traveled back to the US, and American children's art was shown in Tashkent. Stories, games, ideas, smiles - were exchanged.
The Children’s Art Exchange went on for four years; supported by a Seattle Arts Commission grant. People carried children’s artwork back and forth on airplanes around the world. Kids got to know one another, growing in understanding!
Of course her mother was close by and she turned out to be Elena (Hellen) Dmitrieva! Elena was teaching art to children at the Palace of Pioneers as well working as a director of the Kuranti Gallery under the Bell Tower in Tashkent.
We became friends! I went visiting Elena at her gallery the next day and we made our first plans to continue the Children's Art Exchange into the next year.
Life is never a straight line, it takes you on a journey! Stas'ka grew up, and went on to have a daughter of her own, who is now drawing pictures, singing, and dancing. Many, many children who participated in the Children's Art Exchange went on to become adults - carrying in their hearts a powerful affirmation that we are all connected on this Earth.
Children's Art Experience! evolved as a result of that long ago adventure. And today, more than 30 years later, we are reconnecting old friends, making new ones, and are joining forces in empowering and supporting All Children Everywhere to draw, paint, express themselves, be heard throughout the world!
Two of the greatest life lessons I learned are these:
“We All are much more ALIKE than we are different”
“When the people lead, the leaders will follow.“
We can live on, and share cooperatively this precious Blue Planet no matter what differences we think we have. It is time for Humankind to become more intelligent as a species! Do you know what we mean? Don't you agree that this is a Truth?
We can and must change for a better world; a healthier, stronger, more cooperative and loving planet. It's common sense.
It is possible. In fact, it has to be inevitable!
All Children Everywhere deserve all the support we can give them. And we, the grown ups, need to see the world through THEIR eyes.
The "Children of Today" are "The Guardians of Life".
This is not some fairy tale idea. In truth, we must change. Simply, we’ve got to wake up, don’t you agree?