Foundation Rwanda- Part 1 The Bike Build

SEPTEMBER 18, 2013

I first met Jules Shell last year at the first ever military sponsored TEDx event at Scott AFB, Illinois.  I had been invited by 4-star General Ray Johns (now retired) to be one of the presenters.   General Johns knew me from my work for the USAF Art Program through the Society of Illustrators but also from the embed work I had done with a Medevac unit in Afghanistan in 2011.  I was there to talk about “witness art”.  In this context it related to combat art- work done in the war zone.


Jules was going to talk about her organization, Foundation Rwanda, and their mission to provide assistance to women and the children they bore from rape during the horrific genocide nearly twenty years ago.  The anniversary, if that is a correct term under the circumstances, will in fact be next April, 2014. 


There were 17 presenters in total at this event and everyone had fascinating, resonant, stories to tell. Most were from the military.  A handful, like Jules and me, were from the civilian world.  As per the rules of this TEDx event, we had a maximum of eighteen minutes to get our stories told.  Jules’ took seven but in that seven minutes she gave a wrenching and powerful look into the human catastrophe that was the genocide but also presented a story of hope that left an auditorium of military personnel in tears. 


I went after her and acquitted myself well.  During the break that followed that segment Jules approached me about wanting to discuss an idea she had.  Later, as she began elaborating on her thoughts I knew intuitively where she was heading.  Foundation Rwanda already had a beautiful book of stunning photography from Jonathan Torgovnik, a co-founder of the organization, but Jules was looking to bring artwork somehow into the mix to tell the story.  She wasn’t finished her pitch before I already agreed to come on board and contribute whatever I could to realizing her dreams.  BUT… I also felt that this was a project bigger than me and my counter proposal was that somewhere down the line we would have a number of brilliant illustrators, preferably with the chops to work on location, involved in the creation of artwork and documenting these women and their kids, who are no longer kids but 19 years old. 


Over the course of the year I made Jules aware of and introduced her to illustrators whom I felt could bring something to the table.  Not all the ones I had in mind but I needed to start with small steps.  Most everyone I talked to expressed enthusiasm about being part of the mission.  The challenges, so common for our profession, involved coordinating time and real life deadlines and commitments, and finances- finding financial backers to fund artists traveling overseas.  Both soon presented themselves as considerable obstacles, at least for now. 


Foundation Rwanda was planning another trip to Rwanda for August with the purpose of building bikes to present to a hundred families being assisted by FR.  I had already made enough noise about going on this trip, come Hell or high water, that I wasn’t going to back out regardless of how circumstances played out for my fellow artists.  As it happened, time/work commitments and money forced the few who might have been able to make it take a rain check on another trip.  I’m very fortunate.  My wife, Terri, is successful enough in her own right that she waved off any consideration about money and said, “Do it.”


I had recently done an illustration for The NEW YORK OBSERVER and had mentioned to its then creative director, Ed Johnson, that I was going on this trip.  He seemed intrigued and wanted to follow up when I returned as the NYO was going to publish a UN issue in September.  A story on Foundation Rwanda seemed incredibly appropriate.  It was actually Ed who checked up with me after I returned to continue the dialogue. 

I had brought back a number of half finished sketches and a small boatload of photographs. I realized very quickly into the bike build that even the most difficult 1 minute poses in a sketch class or sitting cramped in the back of a Black Hawk drawing a medic team with a casualty didn’t compare to the challenge of following and drawing the chaos of 17 volunteers plus local mechanics plus kids assisting, all constantly moving and leaving or entering scenes.  I abandoned that part of the drawing mission and soon focused on the women and their kids.  But all that work, along with the journal notes, is still being culled and assessed for a future pitch.  What I did have in semi-completed form were the sketches from the bike build and lots photos to help flesh out what was missing. (I am very grateful I continually reminded myself to pick up the camera and shoot sequences.)  I told Ed that we should concentrate on the bike build and he agreed.  It was an unfortunate coincidence that he would be leaving his duties with the NYO during the course of putting this issue together.  Christie Wright would be managing the art direction.  Rebecca Hiscott was writing up the story and I hooked her up with Jules to interview and get the details.  By fortunate coincidence, Rafi Kohan, who had done such an extraordinary job fact checking my Afghanistan embed story for GQ in 2012, was now the deputy editor at the NYO, and would be supervising the story. 


I had time to work up the sketches, create new drawings and look at the copy along with Jules to make sure the quotes and info were accurate.  The story is out on the stands in New York City today.  My sincerest thanks to Ed, Rafi, Rebecca and Christie for making this such an attractive looking spread accompanying a well written article.  Hopefully it has some impact in reintroducing awareness to the situation with these families in Rwanda.  http://observer.com/2013/09/the-survival-sketchbook/


Over the past five, eight, years I have been presented with some extraordinary opportunities to tell stories visually in a way that I had dreamed of doing when I first started out in this profession nearly 40 years ago.  There have been very few that I have not taken advantage of.  Most of the witness art has been in the combat/military realm and it is good to expand the range of witnessing to include other topics.  I feel particularly grateful for this opportunity, for the friendship and mutual respect that I have with Jules Shell, for the friendships with the members of the FR team who went over to do the bike build.  I remain very positive and focused on expanding the mission to include other artists as I see great things coming out of such a collaboration of styles and points of view. 

Some of the drawings here-like this one- are in the NYOBSERVER piece. Others I have added.

A drawing that I chose not to include as I reminded me of the frustrations of drawing so much happening at once. The only constant here were the upside down bikes still in the process of being built. Everything and everyone else was in constant non-stop flux. So I just decided to drop in the impressions of them as they drifted in and out. The volunteers liked this one. And the kids stood around pointing out who was who. They actually knew who was where and what was happening.

One of the images from the backup photos.


I found a new friend in the Faber-Castell brush markers I brought along. For a while I abandoned my beloved pencils and found a sort of reckless freedom in the ink brushes. There was no gong back once the marks were down.

It seemed at times like a lot of the visuals were of the fleeting variety. There was so much to see and as we drove to our various locations I tried to make the most of those quick impressions of the people we rapidly passed on the roads. It became something of a game- trying to get down as much as possible and memorize whatever else in the 5-10 seconds it would take to whiz by.

Drawn in Brussels airport during the stopover on the way to Kigali.

A very striking woman with her child in Kigali airport waiting with her husband near the arrival gate.