Painting for Peace, Interview with Laurie Marshall, Singing Tree Project Founder

Artist, Author, Educator Laurie Marshall
Interviewed by Bioneers’ Polina Smith

Laurie Marshall, an author and artist, founder of the Unity Through Creativity Foundation and the Singing Tree Project, is a certified K-12 Art and Social Studies teacher. She has worked for four decades to empower youth and adults through creative collaboration in her Peace Building through Art Inspired by Nature programs. An Arts Integration and Project-Based Learning specialist, she joins in creativity, a love of learning and a collaborative spirit with youth, adults and elders. Making use of visual art and storytelling, she has developed a wide range of consensus building, leadership training and conflict prevention initiatives with clients that have included NASA, FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Interior, the U.S. Botanical Gardens, as well as public schools, hospitals and prisons around the United States.

Polina Smith (PS): Laurie, how did you initially get involved in art, activism and teaching?

Laurie Marshall (LM): I grew up in Pennsylvania, and I got involved in peace activism very young. My parents, though my mother was raised Lutheran and my father a secular Jew, had become Quakers after they met during WWII. They resonated with the non-hierarchical Quaker belief that everyone has a divine light within them, with the silent meetings to listen for guidance from the Creator, and with the emphasis on good deeds in the world.

At nine years-old in 1958, I went to a Quaker conference in Cape May, New Jersey, with my family. Inside a long narrow hall, I felt the resonance of an electric voice that filled the crowded, creaky building. Waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashed below us. I couldn’t see the man who was speaking. I only saw the belt buckles and bellies of the grown-ups around me, but I experienced a contagious excitement. The man’s voice was a deep song. I remember his words, “People of all colors will live together like sisters and brothers.” The man was Martin Luther King, Jr. My soul was imprinted with this message. And at age 11 I dreamed I was sitting between Nikita Khrushchev and President Kennedy negotiating an end to nuclear war. I wanted there to be peace.

My path as an artist also began around that time, at the age of ten, but it got nipped in the bud. I wanted to draw trees. My family went on camping trips every summer, where we are all together—a rare treat with my father’s long work hours and my out-of-reach sisters in higher grades at school. I felt happy and excited on these adventures close to the Earth, the stars, and the mountains. On these camping trips and our suburban streets, trees captured my imagination. I found their smells, textures, changes, variety, blossoming, fruiting, falling, rooting and reaching endlessly fascinating, and trees house birds, which I also love. To express my love for trees, I set out to draw leaf after leaf after leaf. I tried to draw each leaf, but I was overwhelmed, daunted, and frustrated. After months of failure, I gave up—not only drawing trees but drawing altogether. My confidence was dashed. No one told me I could draw the big simple shape of the tree. Getting lost in the details had prevented me from seeing the whole. I stopped making any effort to capture what I saw and express what I loved.

But my path as an artist got resuscitated when I was 23 after a heartbreaking divorce. I was left with a gift from my failed marriage, the rediscovery of my love of drawing. As an extreme extrovert, I do not have easy access to my inner experience. During my childhood, I was often in a state of frozen numbness. But when I began to draw again, images appeared on the paper as if from an unknown source. Despair, sadness, anger, frustration, fear, terror, as well as joy, showed up. As the pictures appeared, the unconscious hold of the feelings dwindled. Drawing and painting allowed me to experience my Inner Light, giving me an endless abundance of ideas and a way to share my feelings with others.

I was also blessed to have a clear calling from a young age of wanting to be a teacher. I found pure joy in being with children and playing with them imaginatively. I majored in Education and History at the hands-on institution of Antioch College, getting certified to teach 7th-12th grade social studies. I was inspired by the work of visionary educators such as Paolo Freire, Sylvia Ashton-Warner and Jonathan Kozol. So, as art became more important to my own healing and self-awareness, it naturally evolved that I would combine those two passions of teaching and art.

I completed a self-directed Master’s Degree in Community Art, a title that did not fit into academics at the time, from Beacon College, now the Union Institute. I crafted a two-year program making art with elders, incarcerated youth, mentally-disabled teenagers and elementary school students. I also increased my artistic skills at the Art Students’ League in New York City and with local artists in Rappahannock County, VA, where I lived.

PS: Were there any among your many projects over the years that felt especially significant to you, that strongly affected your trajectory?

LM: In 1999, after I painted a 24’ x 4’ mural with all 130 students at Hillsboro Elementary School in rural Virginia, an eight-year-old girl, Meredith Miller, said, “I wish the whole world could see our painting, and then the whole world would be happy.” Then she asked, “What if the whole world made a painting together?”
Bam! My soul’s longing for peace, harmony and unity was met in this vision. What an impossible task—to invite the whole world to create together, but if all of humanity could consciously work together on a painting, it would demonstrate that we could work together to make a peaceful world.

I was excited and inspired but had no idea how to even conceive of trying to engage on such a project; then the model of individual trees joining forces to create whole forests sprung into my mind, and a structure for a series of murals began to grow in my imagination. I attended a conflict resolution conference with my father in San Sebastian, Spain, when a young teacher from Northern Ireland was puzzling about how she could bring the Catholic and Protestant children there together. I suggested making a painting of a tree, with children from both sides making leaves. The very subject that had made me give up drawing as a child became the key to my life’s work.

The universe also reinforced the importance of trees in the “how” of inviting the whole world to make a painting together. Someone handed me the Hungarian writer Kate Seredy’s book The Singing Tree. It tells the story of her father, who was a soldier in World War I: “One night, his battalion crawled all night long on their bellies to escape the enemy. Everything had been destroyed by war. When the dawn came, one tree was still alive. Birds from hundreds of miles away, who aren’t normally together, filled the tree, singing a song that had never been heard before.”

I saw the Earth as the Singing Tree of the solar system. All the things that divide us are not as important as the fact that we are unified in life on Earth, floating in space. We can choose to destroy each other and our Earth or create something beautiful that has never been seen before, like the new song of the birds in The Singing Tree. We can choose to generate unity through creativity—not through coercion, bombs, and bullets.

So, in 2002, I founded the Unity Through Creativity Foundation, a 501 C-3 non-profit that uses the arts as a peace-building tool, with the goal of transforming pain into purpose, trauma into beauty, and division into connection. I developed the visual structure of a tree on the Earth in space as a way for people to come together to let their visions and voices be known, to strengthen community and to be connected to those who believe in a world that works for all beings. Since then, 116 collaborative Singing Tree™ murals have been created by over 21,000 people from 52 countries, each one envisioning a positive future.

And since 2010 I’ve been coming to the Bioneers Conference and sharing this process with participants, often around the theme of the conferences. The Fig Singing Tree™ of the Child was the first mural I brought to Bioneers, made with youth from Palestine, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Oakland and Santa Rosa, CA ( Bioneers has been a touchstone for the Singing Tree mural project throughout the years. The themes, the speakers, the fellowship, the inspiration of “all our relatives” have strengthened and informed the invitation for the whole world to make a painting together. Another especially memorable episode was when Jane Goodall came to Bioneers, and the mural that year, The Jane Goodall Singing Tree of Love, was dedicated to her.

At Bioneers last year, 33 youth and adults designed and painted The Magical Window Singing Tree during the three days of the conference. Again, using the theme of the conference was the organizing principle of the collaborative mural (For a video of that process click here.

And the most recent, 116th, mural was facilitated by certified Singing Tree Facilitator Dr. Sweta Rein at Albany Middle School, in Albany, CA. It’s called The Ka-Sky-da-Scope Singing Tree™ of Strength and Happiness, and it will be on display at Bioneers 2023.

PS: Are there any new projects or directions on the horizon that you are especially excited by?

LM: I’m now certifying Singing Tree Facilitators to take this restorative, visionary and fun practice to communities around the world – teaching peace literacy skills in the process of inviting the whole world to make a painting together. So far, ten people have been certified from England to Uganda to the U.S.

I’m particularly excited about the Kyangwali Singing Tree to Heal the Trauma of War, envisioned by 27-year-old Kanizius Nsabimana from the Congo who has lived in a refugee camp in northern Uganda since he was nine. He is partnering with Ugandan artist Emma Kavuma. With the UN predicting that over 180 million people will be refugees in the next ten years, this project honors those who have lived the experience of being displaced for decades. Please watch the video we made to help raise funds:

I am also currently inspired and supported by Shiloh Sophia, founder of the Red Thread Café and IMusea – a community of 10,000 women who use Intentional Creativity as a tool for healing and exploration.

PS: Could you tell us a little bit more about the role you hope your art will play in the world. Do you really think it can help build bridges between divided communities?

LM: It is my hope that the image of a tree on the Earth in space will become a widespread symbol of peace and unity, not through force, but through imagination and through modeling nature. Each Singing Tree™ builds the “Beloved Community” one mural at a time. Having a common creative goal makes use of differences and can bring splintered and conflicted communities together. The achievement of a small goal helps people have hope that larger goals are possible. One high school student said: “Seeing that a bunch of us can work together in harmony and make a mural in such a short time gives me hope that we can turn around global warming.”

PS: When things feel challenging and seemingly insurmountable, what keeps you going?

LM: When things feel challenging, I go to art, which helps me get the pain out of my body so it won’t debilitate me, and I can learn from it. When I create, I get in touch with the Creator within me. Because Creator is Abundance, I see endless ideas and unforeseen possibilities. That fights depression. Art is empowering, because I can make a decision and take action with the paper, canvas, clay, paints or pencil. There is so much I can’t control about the cruel and needless suffering of humans and of other beings on our beautiful planet, but at least I can have power over what values I express in my art. I can point a big arrow to what I think is important, like children and trees. I can write out my gratitude, grace, grief and gusto.

I try to surround myself with people whom I feel safe with and who share my heart, my passion for justice, and my belief that creativity and community are unstoppable. I am constantly nurturing my soul and heart and mind with trainings, books, classes, films, projects and people dedicated to self-reflection, engaged scholarship, creating art, developing and recording meaningful stories, being in community, and learning from those who are dedicating their lives to a world that works for all. I nurture the “forest” of relationships I have developed over seven decades. I stay close to children, because they are close to Creator. I stay close to my grandchildren.

I also go outside. I go to Nature and feel the drama that is larger than human stories. I feel the connection to the wonder of soil, trees, oxygen, birds, bugs, bacteria, animals, water. I feel the ecosystem that supports me and all life, and I experience gratitude.

PS: Are there any final words you’d like to share with young folks who may be feeling overwhelmed with the challenges they are facing?

LM: We were born for this time. We belong to the time and place where we are. I am an elder now. You are a young person. Each of us has a unique gift to give to Life, to the Village, to the challenges of our time, to each other. I am here to partner with your genius in building the world we know is possible – an ecologically sane, multi-racial, multi-cultural democracy. Creativity and Community are unstoppable.

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