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Colombian artist's painted houses tell stories of healing after violence, massacres

Edwin Rodriguez couldn’t bring the Colombian mountains, so he brought the sky.

It was, of course, not the actual Colombian sky — cotton ball clouds hanging over colorful, birdhouse-sized versions of people houses on pedestals at various heights would have to do in the Chapman Gallery in K-State’s Willard Hall, thousands of miles away from the country. They symbolized the rolling landscapes and rural towns, much like Kansas’, in the South American’s home.

For as much as the sky told a story of peaceful serenity, the houses hid a more complicated history that Rodriguez shared in his exhibit, “Memories in Color.” Sporadic but intense violence between government and guerilla forces has left over 200,000 people dead in the past half century, and frequent, hostile guerilla takeovers have ransacked the country’s rural towns, including Rodriguez’s hometown of Vegalarga in the Huila department, or Colombia’s equivalent of American states.

Over the course of the violence, Vegalarga was taken over 25 times, and Rodriguez himself lived through 17 of them until he was given no choice but to flee his home for his safety in 2004.

But that’s not the story that the exhibit’s colorful houses tell. In starting the project, Rodriguez said he wanted to tell a new story — one of forgiveness, peace and reconciliation.

(The reporter conducted the interview in Spanish, translating Rodriguez’s words).

After he left his town, he started to ask what he could do for his town and other communities like it. He also asked himself what drove him to get out of bed every morning, and when he realized that the answer was a drive to influence or change lives through art, he knew what he had to do.

The towns in his region each had different stories and identities. Each had its own difficulties with hostage situations, assassinations and other repeated violence. Common to the towns, though, was the fact that they had been stripped of their sense of safety, place and home.

Rodriguez wanted to restore each town’s pride and safety, so in 2013, he returned home and developed the “A Thousand Colors For My Town” project, in which residents empower themselves by painting their houses bright and beautiful colors, he said. The painting allowed the residents to reclaim their towns, and after painting almost 7,000 houses in 27 towns, Rodriguez said the project has created new identities for these towns where tourists had previously been warned to avoid under threat of death.

When the fighting forces came to these towns, they left behind complicated legacies, where the lines between victim and perpetrator were not always clear. In his tour of the 27 towns in the region, Rodriguez said he had found 120 former guerrilleros, or members of the rebel guerilla forces, who had dropped their weapons and returned to civilian life.

“We (say to) them, if you could hold a gun for 20 years, you can hold a new weapon,” Rodriguez said. “I have a saying that says, ‘Let art be the only weapon to shoot the soul.’ It’s through art that we give the people new weapons to take on life. We first taught them carpentry, and they learned how to make chairs, tables and other furniture.”

That led to the next phase of Rodriguez’s community rebuilding project. These reformed guerrilleros would create small, wooden shoebox-sized houses to send to the victims of their violence.

“When you ask a victim what they miss most, it’s their home,” Rodriguez said. “But if you also ask the perpetrators what they miss most, they’ll also say it’s their home, so the homes are something that unite the people. A home is not something with four walls, but a place.”

The houses came with paint kits and letters from the reformed guerrilleros, and the victims were encouraged to use the paint and houses to tell their stories, with a focus on healing any lingering wounds of time. Throughout the process, the guerrilleros also talked about how they had been stripped of regular lives when they were forced to pick up guns at 13 or 14 years old and forced into war.

“Understanding it is complicated, but when we stop putting labels on each other, we begin to understand that we are all human beings who share the same space,” Rodriguez said. “It also became an individual process, with the idea that although they might’ve previously taken up arms, they had to approach the victims not as perpetrators but as human beings trying to start fresh.

“The two groups started to understand each others’ realities without looking back,” Rodriguez continued. “They started walking toward a brighter future.”

From that project came 120 houses, with 30 of them on display this past week in the Chapman Gallery.

Rodriguez also recruited other Colombian artists to help tell the stories in less literal but more direct ways. One of the houses is made up of colored and regular pencils, with the latter making up the roof. Rodriguez said the house’s colorful walls symbolize the various ideals of the country supporting the regular pencil roof, which symbolizes education.

On another pedestal, a house tells of a massacre in a small, rural town called Montes de Maria.

Rodriguez said paramilitary forces there killed about 1,200 people and in some instances cut off the victims’ heads and kicked them like soccer balls on the town’s streets.

About 80 women who survived the massacre came together to talk through their experiences, and after each woman told her story, they wrapped a string of yarn around the house. An orb at the front of the house shows Arachne, the Greek weaving goddess.

“In Colombia, we’ve become numb to the violence,” Rodriguez said. “Through this project, we take that numbness and declare that no, death is not a part of our daily lives. It never has been, and we can’t let it become our constant. On the contrary, these projects allow us to start speaking and thinking differently with new outlooks on life.”

K-State’s Spanish department hosted Rodriguez for his first visit to the U.S. through a grant from the Center for Engagement and Community Development. Over the past few years, students in Spanish professor Laura Kanost’s classes helped translate the project and its description for the gallery display, and they helped interpret for Rodriguez.

While Kansas has not seen anything like the violence that’s been common in Colombia, Kanost said Rodriguez’s universal message of peace and understanding resonates globally.

“Every society has issues and conflict, and I think that through art, creativity and collaboration in projects like this are a way to bring people together,” Kanost said. “It helps us cope with our pasts, even if they don’t involve civil conflict like in Colombia.”

The houses also paint a picture of a hopeful future, Rodriguez said.

“We might live amid terrible violence, but these houses let us take back our lives,” he said. “They let us live, not for fear, but for happiness. They’re our hope.”

County tours new RCPD shooting range

The Riley County Police Department plans to install a 25-yard and 50-yard shooting range for officers at its new facility near Tabor Valley and Zeandale roads.

The Riley County Commission spent its afternoon Thursday visiting the 170-acre range, which is close to the current one, with RCPD Director Dennis Butler, Capt. Josh Kyle and Lt. Brad Jager, among others.

“There are some misconceptions sometimes about what a range is,” Jager said. “It’s not just coming out here and shooting a gun. You know it’s about learning decision-making and how to ... respond to certain threats.”

The county purchased the property for $374,000 from Tarkio CD Disposal in July. The current range’s lease ends June 30.

In addition to the two ranges, RCPD also hopes to put in several types of training buildings and a covered space for vehicles, Kyle said.

Butler said installing a driving course in the future would also be beneficial for officers to practice driving in hazardous conditions. He said officers can also correct driving mistakes by using the course.

Kyle said the course is something the department is eyeing down the road, 10 to 15 years from now.

RCPD trains officers during normal business hours or up until 8 p.m., Jager said. Butler said if noise is a concern for neighbors, the department will evaluate the situation.

Vape Bar sees 25% drop in sales since September

E-cigarette sales are down, according to one local business, after recent reports of vaping-related illnesses and deaths across the nation.

Vape Bar owner Antonio Saverino said sales at his shop at 312 Tuttle Creek Blvd. dropped 25% since the middle of September.

Saverino, president of the Kansas Vapers Association, said recent news reports give vape shops like his a bad rap, and he said he wants to set the record straight.

“It’s making people like me look really bad,” Saverino said in a recent interview with The Mercury.

He pointed to the sale of THC cartridges as reasons for people getting sick from vaping, not from the type of vape juices he sells.

As of Friday, there have been 26 deaths — two in Kansas — related to e-cigarettes, according to Jennifer Green, director of the Riley County Health Department.

City officials said there are four vaping establishments in Manhattan, but other entities are exiting the e-cigarette business in the aftermath of these deaths. Walmart, Walgreens and Kroger, the parent company of Dillons, recently announced that they would halt the sale of e-cigarettes in their stores.

According to a Kansas Communities that Care survey, one in five Riley County teens have tried vaping products.

Green said the survey reported in 2018 that 4% of teens were actively vaping, but now that number has more than doubled to 10% in 2019.

“So it’s on the rise,” Green said.

Saverino said he and his store combat underage vaping.

“My policy, if you are not 18 years old, you don’t come in. Period,” he said.

Saverino advocates for vaping as a replacement for cigarette smoking, not as a new practice for those who have never smoked tobacco before.

Although they are not regulated by the FDA as a quitting method, Green said e-cigarettes have the potential to help adult smokers if they’re not pregnant and they use it as a complete substitute for regular cigarettes.

Saverino said regulation may not be negative for the industry. “We’re expecting regulation,” he said. “Regulation would not be a bad thing.”

Saverino also spoke to the Manhattan City Commission earlier this week along with Travis Kirby, owner of Juicy’s Vapor Lounge, while commissioners contemplated a combined cigarette and e-cigarette ordinance, which administrators said would provide clarity to where smoking and vaping is banned. This would include any city park, city-owned parking garages and other public spaces such as in restaurants and work establishments.

Kirby, whose son founded the company in Oklahoma, also blamed THC cartridges from the black market for deaths.

One of the considerations is whether to allow vaping inside of vape shops.

Currently, the city doesn’t ban vaping inside of those businesses.

Saverino said he agreed with commissioner Wynn Butler, who said he did not want to restrict future vape shops from allowing vaping.

Some commissioners favored grandfathering in current businesses but not allowing the practice at future ones.

Saverino said the city should not limit any business, whether it is his competition or not.

SCHOOL NOTEBOOK | K-State students’ 2019 cost-of-living stays flat while consumer price index climbs

The average K-State student’s cost of living was largely flat this year and grew by 0.4% compared to a 1.7% increase to the average American’s cost, a K-State Economics club report shows.

Much like the national Consumer Price Index, the club’s annual Student Price Index tracks the change in value of a bundle of common goods, like gas and groceries. The student version adds common college expenses like tuition, athletics passes and student housing.

Most of the small increase in the Student Price Index this year was because of jumps in the prices of beer and pizza, which increased by 8.9% and 18.2%, respectively.

Brock O’Brien, a junior in economics and vice president of the club, coordinated the club’s yearly price and data collection. He said the Student Price Index is not perfect, but it generally demonstrates the average change in students’ yearly cost-of-living.

“For example, on campus rental prices remained basically flat this year, but renting an apartment off campus in Manhattan became significantly cheaper,” O’Brien said. “This indicates that markets we may think of as nearly perfect substitutes can actually be quite different. There does appear to be a ‘buyers’ market’ when it comes to off campus accommodations.”

The club first started collecting Student Price Index data in 2002, and since then, prices have more than doubled, with the club reporting an approximate 130% increase in the price of the average bundle of goods. Meanwhile, the Consumer Price Index only increased by 45%. Economics professor and club adviser Daniel Kuester said this year’s flat change was a welcome reprieve for students hurting from increasing college prices.

Gasoline and non-Greek housing were the only categories of purchases that decreased since 2018, with 7.4 and 4.8% decreases respectively. Tuition, movie ticket, athletics passes and internet plan prices were unchanged.

Textbooks prices increased by 2%, and grocery prices increased by 1.5%.

K-State committee to look for new engineering dean

K-State provost Charles Taber has appointed a search committee to lead a national search for K-State’s next dean of the Carl R. Ice College of Engineering.

The position has been vacant since former dean Darren Dawson became president of the University of Alabama in Hunstville in the summer.

Kevin Gwinner, dean of the College of Business Administration, will chair the search committee, which also will use an executive search firm to support the process. The committee will review candidates for an anticipated start date of July 1.

“The Carl R. Ice College of Engineering is very well positioned for the future, with recent facilities upgrades and transformational philanthropic gifts,” Taber said in a statement. “The dean of engineering is a central leader for our university, and I am excited about the heights the college can attain with strong, visionary leadership. This is an exciting time to be at Kansas State University, and I thank the members of the search committee for their commitment to finding our next dean.”

Donations, grants

The Manhattan-Ogden school board approved $20,098 in donations and grants at its Oct. 2 meeting.

Ogden Friendship House United Methodist Church donated $1,000 to Ogden Elementary to provide scholarships to the Community Learning Center (CLC) after-school program for families who are unable to play.

Dillons donated $1,000 to Manhattan High School for band supplies.

Riley County Raising Riley granted $12,040 to College Hill Early Learning Center to reduce fees for families. The organization also donated $4,000 to Eugene Field Early Learning Center for behavioral and mental health support personnel.

The Theodore Roosevelt Elementary PTO donated $1,558 to the school for iPads and cases.

Walmart donated $500 to the school district for general district use.