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.
“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.”
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.”
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.