|An Art Miles Mural, from the Multicultural Diversity Mile
"Kenya Mural" by St. Mary's School, Nairobi
Each one starts as a blank canvas, like a clear mind that is void of all thought. A simple white piece of paper, it appears course and bland to the touch, boring and dull to the untrained eye.
But to the eyes of Joanne Tawfilis, each 5’ by 12’ canvas represents a blank slate, the potential for artistic expression, and another step closer to making her vision of “a better, more harmonious world” a reality.
Her goals and the words she uses to describe them are very ambitious, but Tawfilis measures her progress one mile at a time. It is the very essence of the Art Miles project the humanitarian co-founded with her husband, Dr. Fouad Tawfilis, seven years ago.
Her colorful journey started in the room of an orphanage in Bosnia, where the first of over 1,300 murals was painted on a battered, bullet-ridden white bed sheet.
“We put a large canvas on the wall and the children started coming in to paint,” Tawfilis said. “They were from all ethnic groups, all ages, religions, speaking many languages… many refuges as well.”
Over 300 children participated in creating that first mural. Today, more than 20,000 people from all walks of life- many of them children who don’t even stand as tall as the canvas in front of them- have now put paintbrush to paper in the Art Miles campaign.
“Neither [my husband Fouad] or I could have dreamt how much attention the mural project would get,” admits Tawfilis, who says the purpose of the project is to promote understanding and respect through art to create a more peaceful world.
A chain of 447 murals strung together side-by-side creates each mile of color and artistic expression. Twelve miles are now completed, each one representing a different theme. Tawfilis plans to unveil all of the different miles during this decade, and will circle the Great Pyramids of Egypt with the record-breaking display by 2010.
|An Art Miles Mural, from the Women's Mile
in honor of artist Laurel Burch , as painted by Austrian artist Sylvia Pecha
But while the scope of the Art Miles project has grown enormously, impacting countless lives around the world, Tawfilis says its purpose- to teach understanding and respect through art- has always remained the same.
“In the end, we hope we see [the children] realize their own creativity, how sharing works, how language is no barrier, how their imaginations can be stretched, how much alike we are despite our differences,” Tawfilis said.
Tawfilis and her husband, who are both involved in numerous humanitarian activities, have donated thousands of hours and dollars to promote and run the project and buy the supplies and materials to make it happen.
“My husband and I see ourselves as facilitators with big imaginations and a shrinking purse to fund it,” Tawfilis said.
But it is a sacrifice that the two are willing to make, and Tawfilis says some of the murals closest to her heart are painted by children from parts of the world that have neither the money or the supplies.
“I love the ones that come from children who have never had the opportunity to use color before,” Tawfilis said. “Many countries don’t have the materials for the children, and when they get it, the paint literally explodes all over the canvas.”
Tawfilis can relate to the economical and social hardships she sees many children going through from her own childhood days growing up in New England. Being half Pacific Islander and half Italian, she discovered racism at a very young age. It was just the beginning for the young girl named after Eleanor Roosevelt.
“I lived in an abusive foster home for a few years with my sisters and was subjected to incredible physical and mental abuse,” Tawfilis said, “and because I was the eldest, I had to take on the strength and determination that all little children should never have to.”
For the woman whose motto is “Healing Hearts with Art,” time and a lifelong passion for art mended her childhood memories and have driven much of what she has accomplished to this day.
Besides the mural project, Tawfilis has served the United Nations as Director of Human Resources Management Services in Nairobi, Kenya. She has organized a woman’s conference on voices in democracy with former First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton in Vienna, Austria. She is credited with writing the successful proposition to bring the United Nations Environment Program 2004 International Children’s Conference on the Environment to the United States.
And that was when she wasn’t traveling all around the world promoting her message of peace and understanding to all that would listen or look at the artwork.
|An Art Miles Mural from the Peace, Unity, and Healing Mile, USA 2001
“Whenever I want to give up… some child looks up at me with those eyes shining because of what they created and because they have made new friends,” said Tawfilis on what keeps here going with such a demanding schedule.
Next on her lively agenda is a public unveiling on Earth Day of the Environmental Awareness Mile in Denver, Colorado with Earth Day founder John McConnell.
“I really admire what Joanne is doing and wish her all the best of luck,” said McConnell. “She inspires change with a global state of mind.”
The 90-year-old McConnell says he has only met Tawfilis once, but immediately found respect for both her and all of the effort she has put towards making the world a better place.
“Art has repeatedly communicated better human values throughout history,” said McConnell. “It brings people together and the values that are important.”
Tawfilis, who made a special trip to Denver just to meet McConnell and plan the Earth Day event, said she was “in the presence of true greatness. [He is] a simple, humble man with a great message.”
And although Tawfilis would never admit she is one herself, she says many of the people in her life are heroes in her eyes. People like Laurel Burch, a fellow California-based artist who has been battling bone cancer more than half of her life, since she was a teenager.
“She [Burch] works prolifically from her sickbed and is my age,” said Tawfilis, who herself is a cancer survivor. “She is my inspiration and mentor. I love her.”
It is ironic, though, that her description of a hero is very similar to how the people around Tawfilis would describe her.
“The people out there in the trenches that do the real work that needs to be done, they are the real heroes; the ones no one ever even knows their names,” Tawfilis said.” We are simple, ordinary people with a notion that what we do works.”
And it has worked, as far as the Art Miles project goes. With each empty paint bucket, every ear-to-ear smile on a child’s face, and every mural mile, she is a step closer to her goal for “a better, more harmonious world.”