2011.01.13: January 13, 2011: Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of New Jersey share images from their service through art

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Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of New Jersey share images from their service through art

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of New Jersey share images from their service through art

The exhibit is sponsored by the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of New Jersey and includes five paintings by curator Nancie Gunkelman and 74 photos that show life in countries like Afghanistan, El Salvador, Micronesia, Kenya, Benin, Sierra Leone, Honduras, Mali, Cameroon, Paraguay and others. The photos were taken starting with the Corps' earliest days in the 1960s, up to the present. Ms. Gunkelman says the idea came about last year during a meeting of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of New Jersey with the 50th anniversary in mind. "Many of us thought we should do something special because many people do not realize the Peace Corps still exists and still does wonderful work," Ms. Gunkelman says. "We were hoping to call attention to the Peace Corps and what the volunteers do. In order to do that, we thought we'd have an exhibit." Art and Barbara Lee met while volunteering for the Peace Corps in Juan E. O'leary, a town in Paraguay. They not only served, but they fell in love and got married "We were a Peace Corps romance!" Mr. Lee says.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of New Jersey share images from their service through art

Corps Matters

Peace Corps volunteers share images from their service through art

Thursday, January 13, 2011 1:05 PM EST

By Anthony Stoeckert

THE pictures weren't meant to be art. Their images capture memories, to be looked at with reflection or to give people an idea of what life in the Peace Corps was like.

But the photos are striking, beautiful to the eye and informative. They were taken all over the world in various decades, and each tells a story. Images from the Peace Corps Experience, Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps, on view at the Plainsboro Public Library through Jan. 29, features photographs and paintings by Peace Corps volunteers. The exhibit marks the 50th anniversary of the first Peace Corp group, which has deep roots in New Jersey because it trained at Rutgers University before heading to Colombia.

The exhibit is sponsored by the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of New Jersey and includes five paintings by curator Nancie Gunkelman and 74 photos that show life in countries like Afghanistan, El Salvador, Micronesia, Kenya, Benin, Sierra Leone, Honduras, Mali, Cameroon, Paraguay and others. The photos were taken starting with the Corps' earliest days in the 1960s, up to the present.

Ms. Gunkelman says the idea came about last year during a meeting of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of New Jersey with the 50th anniversary in mind.

"Many of us thought we should do something special because many people do not realize the Peace Corps still exists and still does wonderful work," Ms. Gunkelman says. "We were hoping to call attention to the Peace Corps and what the volunteers do. In order to do that, we thought we'd have an exhibit."
Art and Barbara Lee met while volunteering for the Peace Corps in Juan E. O'leary, a town in Paraguay. They not only served, but they fell in love and got married "We were a Peace Corps romance!" Mr. Lee says.

Mr. Lee is everything you'd want a 1960s-era Peace Corps volunteer to be. During an interview, he wears a shirt he designed himself, a converted Penn State sweatshirt with a pocket from a pair of Bermuda shorts on the front. The shirt is decorated with colorful patterns made from the clothes of his mother, who died in 2009. Fittingly, a peace sign is on the back and on its side are letters spelling "Art."

"Is Art there because it's your name or because you like art?" I ask.

"That's a good question," Mr. Lee replies with a welcoming laugh. "Both!"

He brings along a box full of memories, framed black and white photographs, notes and newspaper articles from his time in Paraguay.

Mr. Lee was born and raised in Hawaii, and Ms. Lee grew up in various parts of the country. Both joined the Peace Corps for similar reasons, to help people and to see the world. Mr. Lee joined in 1967, Ms. Lee in 1970. They finished their service together in 1971.

"This sounds kind of corny but when I was in high school, I really liked John F. Kennedy," Ms. Lee says. "When he gave his speech about joining the Peace Corps and serving your country, I was inspired by him. I went to college but I always had it in the back of my head that it would be a neat adventure."

A home economics major, Ms. Lee taught local girls nutrition, how to cook, crochet and how to make simple clothes.

Photos taken by Mr. and Ms. Lee include one of two women standing near the huge wheel of an ox cart, and one of women carrying cartons full of Coke bottles on their heads. This was an area that wasn't electrified yet, but Coke managed to sell its soda there.

The photos were struck from slides taken on 35-millimeter film. The couple isn't sure who took which pictures, but Ms. Lee says her husband took most of them. "When I looked back on those, I said, ĎArt, did you realize what a good photographer you were?'"

The images have a richness and depth of color that stand out. Film and slides, as opposed to modern digital wonders, may have something to do with that, but Ms. Lee thinks it's more about the pictures' subjects.

"Part of it is the actual locale we were at," she says. "It was very raw then and natural. It seemed beautiful all the time, very green and the sky (at night) was just black and looked like it was lit up with diamonds."

Christine Musa was in Sierra Leone in the early 1980s. One of the things she did was help build ponds that were stored with tilapia to provide a source of protein for the people in the village.

"I think it was a good program, and it worked well; we got a few ponds started," she says. "We introduced the technology, and then the local people can take it and do with it what they want... It was interesting to see the people, some people didn't want any part of it and some people were all ears and ready to help. I think that's the same all over the world, you have a handful of people that are ready to jump in and entertain a new idea and others who want to hang back and see how it works out."

Photographs by Ms. Musa include one of a tilapia pond being built.
"I've always liked to take pictures and I purposely took pictures in the beginning because I figured after I was there for a while, everything would be kind of normal and it wouldn't seem worthy of taking a picture," she says. "You wouldn't walk out your back door and take a picture of something that's everyday and normal to you so as it was new I was taking pictures."

Her photos were taken with 35-millimeter slide film. She also took black-and-white images that she gave to the people in the community. Those were developed at a "local" store - 40 miles away from the village she lived in.

Ms. Musa says she was always interested in traveling and learning about different cultures, and that a chance meeting with an elementary school friend encouraged her to volunteer. She had just graduated college, and the friend had recently come back from a stint with the Corps.

"He showed me some pictures that he had, and I had always had it in the back of my mind, but that really prompted me to put in my application," she says. "And I was interested in the cultural exchange and experiencing different cultures but also interested in participating in a program, a grassroots program, that might benefit a developing country."

One of Ms. Gunkelman's goals with the exhibit is to show how Peace Corps volunteers' outreach extends around the world.

"I wanted to show the variety of the places that Peace Corps volunteers have worked in," she says. "The situations varied widely, some worked in very modern cities and some worked in very rural places." She herself spent time in Kenya, which she says was a "wonderful place" where wild life roamed free, and in Naobi, a modern city.

The exhibit will travel around New Jersey through all of 2011, and will make stops at Howell Living History Farm in May, and the Monroe Township Library in December. One of Ms. Gunkelman's goals was to show the actual work volunteers did. She points out two photos that show an irrigation canal in Cochapata, a poor agricultural village in southern Ecuador in the Andes Mountains. Gary Richardson and Stan Laser were volunteers from an engineering contingent who, in 1963, helped build the canal to bring water from the mountains to the town and surrounding farms. The project eventually took seven years, with Peace Corps volunteers doing the surveying, engineering and supervision. In 2006, Mr. Richardson and Mr. Laser returned to Cochapata and learned the canal was still being used.

That's what makes the Peace Corps experience so valuable for these volunteers.

"It compels you to really understand how other people are thinking," Ms. Musa says. "Yours isn't the only way, and that's an important thing for people to understand, especially now with a global economy and everything. We have to understand how other people are thinking in order to relate to them and function well. I just think it's an important thing to encourage."

Images from the Peace Corps Experience, Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps is on view at the Plainsboro Public Library, Plainsboro, through Jan. 29. Works are in view in the Main Gallery and in the Community Room Gallery. An artists' reception will be held Jan. 23, 3-5 p.m. Gallery hours: Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 609-275-2897.




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Headlines: January, 2011; Local Groups; Art; New Jersey





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