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KIND Philly

Sharing KINDness in the City of Brotherly Love

Artist Spotlight: Momo Refathun – Filling in the Blanks

The blank canvas. For artists, both new and old, it can be a worst enemy, a challenge with no apparent solution.

Yet, in spite of this, everyday the young woman appears, accepting its call. Training her steely gaze onto the blinding whiteness, her vision burns.

A deep breath. She closes her eyes, and the outside world melts away.

Sparks fly across her neural network in a dizzying array. Patterns of thought previously organized for reality are disrupted, transformed into a slingshot for the artist to explore the boundaries of her expression.

And with grace, Refathun Momo, 18, translates her findings, washing her brush across the permanent expanse. Her watercolors swirling together, she invents a cohesive surrealist showcase.

As this all unfolds, it’s hard to believe that the high school senior has been painting for little over a year. Still, the maturity that shines through her artwork remains no surprise.

After all, this isn’t the first time Momo has been sent flying into unfamiliar territory.

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Ready for display

“I came to the U.S. about three years ago from Bangladesh,” said Momo.

Her words roll with an impressive command of English. But her other accomplishments speak louder.

Valedictorian of her class. Student council president. 525 hours of community service working at hospitals, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. All while making breakfast and packing lunches for her little sister and helping her cousins with their homework.

The resume writes itself. The hard work doesn’t.

“Everyday is a tough day,” shared Momo. “Sometimes, it can feel like I have too much on my plate and that I don’t have a strong support system.”

“But my dreams keep me going. Life is not easy, so you need to have a goal. Without a goal, you are like a sheep without a shepherd.”

In spite of her faith, such belief that goals lead to success can be a luxury in Bangladesh. The unfortunate reality is that truly limited resources can hamstring even the most determined.

“In Bangladesh, your success is not guaranteed,” said Momo. “You have to work very hard, and even then, it’s not guaranteed.”

But with two daughters to stand for, Momo’s father taught them that the only sure way for nothing to happen is to not believe. He led by example, dreaming to build two free hospitals, good healthcare also being a luxury in their country. 

His message echoes in Momo. After all, he was more than just a role model for her.

“I could talk to him about anything in my life,” said Momo.“My dad was my best friend.”

“So,” she continued, pausing if only for a heartbeat, “when he was gone, I lost hope.”

Momo’s father passed away four years ago.

Without their shepherd, the young girl, her little sister and her mother were placed up against the odds.

In both urban and rural parts of Bangladesh, large pockets of communities believe, to a superstitious extent, that educating women undermines their willingness to fulfill traditional roles.

As such, many girls will end up being pulled out of school and instead, arranged into early marriages.

Because of this, women are either left at the mercy of those providing for them as they are without an education, or carrying a scarlet letter for the “crime” of seeking self-sufficiency.

“But in America, you can write your own destiny,” said Momo, smile widening.

Momo’s mother believed this too so she acted quickly to move her children to the U.S., asking her sister to take them in.

Although a prudent decision given the circumstances, it is still a jarring experience to be stripped from your home and shipped halfway around the world to a complex city like Philadelphia.

Momo now knows this was and is the right place for her, but it didn’t always feel that way.

“For two years of my life,” she stated, “I really struggled.”

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Where does the artist end, and the piece begin?

Disconnection. Loneliness. Frustration. These emotions circled around Momo, swimming in her mind, diving deeper and deeper into her core.

“I just didn’t know how to release my depression,” said Momo.

The only thing Momo knew to do was to keep striving and working. She quickly set her sights on a Doctorate. After all, between gaining medical expertise, a financial base, and a network of healthcare professionals, it would be the key to, as she notes, “living her dream through [her father’s] dream.”

Still, in spite of her sense of direction, nothing kept her from feeling lost in handling her inner struggle. There seemed to be no relief in sight.

But while such pain is difficult to manage, there is a bright side. Pain can also be a source of strength. It can surface new tactics for survival, habits that become life-changing.

And just like that, the canvas appeared in Momo’s life.

“She’s a natural,” said Ron Kustrup, an art teacher at Momo’s high school. “Her work is like no other student. I have students who have been working in art for four years solid, and, no offense to them, but she blows it out of the water.”

A problem that had seemed so unsolvable, finally had its answer. And it came simply from Momo stumbling upon her peers, working on a discipline that is as foreign to children in her country as she was to her new home.

It clicked and, suddenly, Momo didn’t feel so far away.

“When I’m feeling stressed out, and I can’t do anything or talk to anyone, I just draw art,” she said. “I put all my focus onto the piece and I tune everything else out.”

Momo now spends two hours everyday working on her art. Through it, she releases the anger and frustration she feels. She feels refreshed after a session, like she can overcome anything, as her art provides respite in a faraway place.

“She’s found her signature in the approach of fantasy art,” observed Kustrup. “She understands art history and is heavily inspired by the surrealism of the 1930’s, in particular, Salvador Dali and Max Hurst.”

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The reasons why such artists inspire her as well as her preference for fantasy art is clear, and Momo isn’t shy about it.

“Sometimes, it’s good to live in a fantasy world,” proclaimed Momo with a dry smile. “It gives you hope.”

It’s not to say that Momo isn’t focused on reality. Even while she works, fixated upon her piece, her eyes are still wide open to the world outside.

While Momo’s dream is still to go back home and build the long planned hospitals, her time here has made her understand that there is also work to be done right in front of her. And it starts with changing perceptions.

“In Bangladesh, there just aren’t as many resources available,” she leads. “Even the kids who go to private school, they don’t get good food to eat, nice clothes to wear. Sometimes they go to school without eating anything.”

“They work so hard. They would do great if they just had the resources! But still, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

At first brush, this all sounds familiar. An economic and educational divide is certainly discussed ad naseum as a problem in America today, deservedly so, considering it stands as a major barrier to a level playing field, especially in Philadelphia.

But it’s not the same. And context is important when discussing circumstance with young people who don’t know that they should believe in themselves.

“The students here don’t know what they’re getting!” exclaimed Momo, passion replacing her usually calm demeanor.

“I didn’t have a phone or even a good fan at school, but you all sit in an air conditioned room, sitting on your smartphones, and typing away on computers!”

A deep breath. In spite of her outrage seeing privilege taken for granted, Momo understands that it’s not because people aren’t trying.

“Philadelphia is… changing,” she notes, slowing down, parsing her words carefully. “People have a negative perception about Philadelphia. They see a lot of violence and drama, gun shootings, people killing each other.  A lot of people, angry with each other.”

“But people don’t always have words to express their feelings. Maybe if they could express their feelings, their anger, through art, maybe they could change Philadelphia in a new way.”

So while Momo will continue to seek out her Doctorate, she decided she also wants to pursue and provide art therapy. With how much it has changed her life, and how much she feels the faculty at her school has saved her from losing her mind, she wants to give it back to the community.

“I had a chance to go to a magnet school, but I stuck here because the faculty is so supportive,” said Momo. “I am 98% confused, 99% of the time, but my teachers give me a lot of advice and Mr. Kustrup is always giving me positive reinforcement.”

“They inspired me and I wouldn’t have a life without them. When I first came here, I was self-concerned, but now, I think about my community so much more. So I too, want to inspire people to solve social issues and to feel love for their country. I want to see people uniting together.”

And she continues on, believing in the change in Philadelphia. She believes that people are coming out of their comfort zone. She sees high school students banding together and visiting neighborhoods, starting cleaning projects, having real conversations with adults about how to change their community.

So, with Momo starting at St. Joseph’s University in the fall, she’ll continue to stay in Philadelphia, and work to improve not only her art, but her new community here as well.

“I want to represent my story through my art,” said Momo, her voice brimming with confidence. “I want them to see my story in my art so that it inspires them to be artists who also present their stories, social issues, and their solutions, through their art. Because when you see people smile because of you, it’s a great thing. And I feel proud of myself to know that I can make a difference.”

While Momo has relied upon the guidance of shepherds in her life, she has become ready to grow her own flock. And there is no doubt that she will fill color into those in need of transformation, delivering her message that they’re capable of achieving anything.

Because through her art, through her story, they will see how beautiful something can become through direction and determination.

Even when it starts as nothing more than a blank canvas.

Artist Spotlight: Dynisha Murray – Locally Animated

Everyone’s done it at least once. And if we’re being honest, probably a couple times. And if you tell me you haven’t, I wouldn’t believe you for one second. Or at least, I’d think you’d forgotten. But you can’t tell me that you haven’t, at least once when you were a kid, took a hard look at your toy, a toy that just wasn’t where you remember leaving it, and thought to yourself, maybe…. JUST maybe…

And you certainly can’t say you haven’t dreamed that your family, your crazy but ordinary family, was something more than just a little different. That suddenly, the roof could blow away, and a maniacal laugh could echo through your house. That your mother, father, brother and sister could spring into action, matching jumpsuits and all, ready for a back and forth battle of wills with CGI-tastic super powers!

But that’s the magic of these films right? They make you believe that something that can’t possibly be could just might be hidden right under the surface of our everyday lives. Certainly, that’s a part of it. Yet… we all know there is something else. Something more.

Dynisha Murray, 19, has lived her whole life in the city, and knows a little something about animated films. After all, she’s seen them all. And for good reason.

They’re simple, yet complex. They’re easy on the eyes of the viewers, but hard on the hands of the creators. They’re unbelievable, yet grounded in reality. It’s these wild contrasts that make these movies great and inspire her to chase her dream.

“I want to be an animator for Pixar!” exclaims Dynisha with her bright smile widening.

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Scenes of City Hall blend together in Dynisha’s piece

It extends across her face as if that of a certain loveable panda who first drew Dynisha’s attention to the wonder of creating fantasy dreamscapes. Still, her eyes stay trained, steadiness defining her every movement. A measured approach born not simply of practicality, but of necessity.

“Growing up, there were a lot of ways that I could have gotten into trouble. A lot of fighting going on around me. But my parents taught me to focus on my art, and focus on what I want to do.”

And it’s to them that Dynisha attributes her love for art.

“It’s a family tradition,” she explains as a matter of fact. “I’ve been doing it since I was about 6. My dad taught me how to draw, and my grandpa did the same with him and his brother.”

But these lessons aren’t the only thing that runs in the family. Her father and uncle were comic strip artists, her uncle’s works regularly featured in the South Philly Review. So it isn’t any wonder that Dynisha follows in a similar vein.

“When I was in 3rd grade, I developed a character, Super Rabbit, and my dad asked me to look into it, develop it more,” she explained. “So I made him a family, put a school around him where he’s not one of the jocks, but a well balanced kid who can’t let anyone know his real identity. I added a villain, Evil Cat, and by the 8th grade, I had written a comic.”

 

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Have no fear… a ghostly super-powered anthropomorphic rabbit is here

Putting aside for a second the battles of Super Rabbit and Evil Cat, or the drawings of Mario and Luigi that Dynisha makes for her little brothers, ages 8, 12 and 13, her tastes also extend past cartoons and animation.

As for many, Frida Khalo is a source of inspiration for her, Khalo’s willingness to put her own life on display and paint that which tormented her early and adult life providing new perspective.

“She helped me be more open and honest with my art,” said Dynisha. “To draw more about my life and what I’m going through. Maybe not directly portraying, but indirectly portraying.”

“Sometimes the colors can represent how I’m feeling. And that helps me focus, it helps my concentration, centering myself so I don’t feel so stressed out all the time. It keeps me balanced.”

It is the soothing nature of art that will drive Dynisha to walk around the city seeking inspiration. To move through all of the ever-changing neighborhoods, and down South St. purveying all of the murals and installations that define Philadelphia. And once she gets home, she’ll browse social media, checking out the amazing works of local artists, collecting her thoughts and threading together a mosaic of both the beauty and hardship in her life and all around us.

And it will be from this inkwell of reality that Dynisha will drop her quill as she fills in the remaining blanks in her journey.

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Philadelphia’s high rises captured in a wispy, colorful portrait

“I don’t have any formal experience in animation,” notes Dynisha. “So my goal is to graduate, transfer to a four year college, get my Bachelor’s, and get an internship with Pixar. And from there, possibly make my own dreams come to life one day.”

She’ll continue to take it one step at a time, applying and reapplying her experience as she transitions into a world of fantasy, blurring the lines of real and unreal.

And through it all, she’ll remember how important all of these inspirations were to her, as she encourages her little brothers to pursue art while laying out the plans of her future studio in which she will help teach kids who are interested in art and animation.

“I believe everyone should do art,” said Dynisha. “My dad was a big supporter for me in that, but I tell people that if you don’t have the support, go find it! There’s a lot of people out there that are like you, who need support, and will give you support. So you can’t be scared! Build your own support.”

Dynisha is a shy person by nature, having previously turned down opportunities to put her art on display in shows. But she’ll be featuring them prominently this Saturday for The KIND Institute’s Benefit Fundraiser, just as she had for the local Art Feast.

“I just wanna push myself. I’m still an artist-in-training, but I’m getting better. So I say, to others, really push yourself too! You gotta get out your show. Just get out your show!”

And as she displays her talents, what will shine through is a family tradition that goes beyond a long Saturday afternoon learning how to draw with her grandfather at the University of the Arts, or creating comics with her father. A tradition of sharing a real superpower that charges the feelings that is the heart of these wonderful animated films: love and support.

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A gift!: Dynisha’s mom captured as Alex from Madagascar

A Vision from The KIND Institute

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” – Pablo Picasso

We’ve all seen it. The grimace of complete anguish. Those adorable tiny fists, balled and thrashing about in every which way. And the tears, streaming down with no chartable course for consolation.

But even in a display as ugly as this, there’s just something about the raw emotion of a child, unbridled and fearless, compelled by something as simple and silly as a misplaced toy or a bad stumble, that is amazing and inherently human.

Of course, in these troubling times, that kind of ridiculous behavior doesn’t fly for us adults. We bottle our feelings, keep them in check, and hope that they don’t burst out as we navigate the rough waters that many are spelling as inevitable doom for our collective ship.

After all, how can we deal with threats of climate change, ravaging our global community if we’re too busy throwing a tantrum? Or the renewed crisis of confidence in the social and political fabrics of our nation for that matter? And, of course, we can’t forget economic disparity, tracking its muddy boots on every corner of our beautiful city of Philadelphia.

But in all this fear of uncertainty, this rigidity to keep calm and carry on, this compulsion to avoid rocking the boat, we seem to have forgotten something.

Which is that, all of these challenges we face today, are no different in nature than the challenges that have always stood in our way. Never has there been a time in human history where we as people didn’t face dilemmas on a global, national, and local scale.

And you know how we managed?

It wasn’t through resignation. It wasn’t by accepting our fate and facing it with silent dignity. It was through expression.

It was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution that Monet’s Impressionist movement gained steam, creating a series of works dedicated to melding our perceptions with the beauty of nature, inspiring and drawing us closer to the world around us. It was the music of The Beatles, that brought messages of love and peace, soothing the political turmoil of the 60’s. And it was the legendary writing of W.E.B. Dubois, which shed light on the socioeconomic struggles of, what he referred to as, The Philadelphia Negro.

These influential works are all a product of expression and a free release of emotion. These artist weren’t scared to feel and  shared those feelings with anyone who would listen. They put themselves up at the mercy of those who would judge, and demanded change actively, not passively.

So, here at The KIND Institute, our goal is to ensure that we spread the wisdom of a child, encouraging all to develop themselves through creative outlets, regardless of experience. Through this, we aim to redefine on a local level what it means to be an artist and to ‘grow up’, educating children and adults alike that their works can have meaning, not only in inspiring them to be themselves, but in inspiring others in the community to believe in progress.

And through the stories we will share here, we will show the value of preserving the artist in every child through the stirring results of those in our community who believe in expression, and the change it can create right here in Philadelphia.

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