Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Drawing on support — Soldotna artist hopes to start graphic design school for youth in Philippines
By Jenny Neyman
The barriers between Soldotna and the Philippines are many: language, culture and economics, not to mention an entire ocean.
Yet even on a rice farm in a rural area of the Philippines, among straw huts, livestock running free and pig intestines for meals, Les Nelson, of Soldotna, found something oddly familiar — the romantic musical stylings of Dan Hill.
Nelson was visiting friends’ relatives at the farm. His group brought a rental karaoke machine to celebrate an 18-year-old’s birthday. They set it up outside a hut and took turns singing, when a 6-year-old boy wanted a turn.
“He knew all the words to ‘Sometimes When We Touch,’” a love ballad by Hill, Nelson said. “He had that entire song memorized. That kid came out and started to sing and the screen froze, and he kept singing the entire song without the lyrics on the screen.”
Nelson isn’t a carpenter. He’s not a doctor. He certainly isn’t a rice farmer.
“I tried my hand at it for five minutes, mostly just as a novelty for them,” Nelson said. “It was very National Geographic. I get there and we were surrounded by straw huts and water buffalo and exuberant village children and elders who’d never met a foreigner before. Actually, none of them had even met a foreigner before.”
But he is an artist, which bridges cultural, language and a host of other barriers, even better than ’80s love ballads do. Nelson, 26, is hoping to use his art background to help make life more beautiful, at least in one little corner of the world.
Nelson, who grew up in Soldotna and graduated from Nikiski High School in 2001, is Web and graphic designer along with many other media — drawing, painting and amateur photography. He’s a devotee of Flickr, a photo-sharing Web site on the Internet, and set his computer to show a sampling of other posters’ images. About two years ago he saw a photo by Ralph Matres, from the Philippines. Matres documents life in the Philippines, including those in poverty — children living on the street, youth trapped in the sex industry and farmers in rural areas.
The photos captured Nelson, and he struck up a correspondence with Matres. Their friendship developed at a time when Nelson was at loose ends. He’d gone off to school “for a semester and a week,” he said. He went to study graphic design, and was so passionate about it he felt like he’d learn it on his own, even without school, he said.
When he was a teenager he’d started a Web design firm – creating logos and other image branding designs. After school he did a variety of things, mainly working on the Web design company in Oregon and back in Soldotna.
Through Matres, Nelson learned about some of the challenges people in the Philippines face, especially poverty, fed in part by a lack of educational opportunities and jobs. The region became part of Nelson’s “someday” planning. Someday, he wanted to move there. Someday, he would look into starting a graphic design school that would give young adults a chance at a better life.
One day, Nelson figured he’d put an actual date to “someday.”
“I decided, ‘Well, that’s one of my long-term goals. I might as well make it a short-term goal. If I keep thinking it would be cool to do this in the future, it’ll never get done, so I need to start working on that now,’” he said.
He traveled to Caloocan, Philippines, and the surrounding area for a little over a month in October and November, to finally meet the friends he’d made long distance, and to start laying the groundwork for a school.
It was an eye-opening experience. The food was “quite delicious, actually,” Nelson said. He ate anything put in front of him, from pig ears and intestine to fertilized and partially gestated duck eggs. The weather was hot; it’s 80 to 90 degrees year-round with only two seasons — rainy and not so rainy, he said. And the living conditions some people endured strengthened his resolve. He met one family of 13 living in a house about the dimensions of a king-sized bed. They had to sleep in shifts because they couldn’t all fit in there at once.
And there were bright points. Nelson said he had a great time with his friends and met a lot of talented young artists that would benefit from the tutoring center he wants to start.
“Everyone’s showing me their art and they’re really proud of it and it’s really great art,” he said.
The goal is to start with graphic design. Students 16 and up with artistic leanings can learn design, create logos which they can put on T-shirts and sell, and put together a portfolio which will hopefully get them hired by an advertising firm, or one of the other international business opportunities the Philippines offers.
“A lot of them have jobs that they are ashamed of. They can’t even tell their families or friends about it. I’d like to give them an opportunity, if they have talent, to be graphic designers, to have an opportunity they can tell everyone about and their family can be proud of,” Nelson said.
Nelson wants to start with graphic design because that’s what he’s skilled at and is able to teach, he said. He hopes to expand the school in the future by bringing in volunteers to teach creative writing and filmmaking.
The first step is building support and laying the logistical framework. During his trip, Nelson found a three-story building that would be perfect for the tutoring center and office space upstairs and a retail shop on the main floor to sell students’ work, including shirts and books with covers the students would design. The owner is the son of the town mayor, and is willing to cut a deal on the space — 50,000 Philippine pesos, equivalent to a little over $1,000 a month, Nelson said.
“Everyone was incredibly warm and welcoming and very supportive. I didn’t meet one person who seemed like they were going to stand in the way. Everyone really wants this to happen over there,” Nelson said.
Nelson plans to spend the winter in Soldotna, squaring away the organization’s nonprofit status — it took nearly a full ream of paper to print out all the paperwork, he said — and plan some fundraising opportunities.
He’s already started one, a travel magazine called Ferdinand, as in Magellan. The first issue was about the Philippines, with photography from Matres. Nelson is hoping purchases of the magazine will help support the school. It’s available online at http://ferdinandcc.org, and people can sign up for e-mail updates about the project.
He’s hoping to publish and sell a coffee-table book of Matres’ work, and is thinking about holding auctions locally. Once the school gets going, he wants to sell the books students will design on the Internet, as well.
He’s looking forward to returning to the Philippines to get the school started once he gets funding squared away.
“I knew this was what I wanted to do. When I got back to Alaska, I’m still kind of homesick for the Philippines. I got there and it became home for me,” he said.