New Bereskin Gallery Exhibit Raises Awareness, Money for Clean Water in Africa
Saturday in the Arts is a weekly feature covering a trend, subject, event or personality of local interest. It runs every Saturday morning on your site for the best entertainment and arts coverage in the area, QuadCities.com!
The intertwined arts of photography, painting and filmmaking can produce a tide of emotion and giving in ways that simple words often cannot. That trio of talents are behind the latest exhibit at Bereskin Gallery & Art Academy, 2967 State St., Bettendorf.
Pat Herath, executive director and founder of Moline-based Wells 4 Wellness, met this spring with Pat Beréskin, the gallery owner, artist, and teacher, who have been longtime friends. The two Pats agreed on an idea of taking photographer Willie Herath’s arresting images of natives in Niger, Africa and using them as inspiration for Bereskin’s advanced students to make pastel and acrylic portraits. Willie is Pat Herath’s
son and a documentary filmmaker.
These 20-plus student portraits will be shown in a new gallery exhibit – “Wells of Inspiration” from May 4 to 27 — to help raise money for a well to be drilled at a school in Niamey, Africa, the capital city of the impoverished nation.
These students in Niamey will finally have clean drinking water. With the funds raised, they will not only be putting in a well, but also a water tower, solar panel, and solar pump, according to Herath.
“When the thought of water comes up, we do not second-guess about it being clean and safe to drink,” she said recently. “However, those in Niger simply do not have that luxury. The luxury of water to them is a necessity to us.”
Wells 4 Wellness is a nonprofit organization the former nurse founded in 2010, which is committed to providing clean drinking water to the nation of Niger, in west-central Africa. It has raised about $7,000 toward its goal of $8,000 for the new well at the school in Niamey in Niger.
Fewer than half of Niger’s population of 20 million has access to clean water, and it’s estimated every one out of four children dies before the age of 5, according to Wells 4 Wellness.
The Bereskin Gallery will host a free reception on Friday, May 7, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., to showcase the student portraits and Willie Herath’s Niger photos. The event will include packaged refreshments, a documentary from Wells 4 Wellness (“Bottom of the List”) and opportunities to donate to this school that needs water.
May is typically the Student Art Show at Bereskin’s gallery (including five works each from graduating high-school seniors) and “this year we have focused on ‘digging deep’ and finding ways to expand our creative thinking,” Bereskin said recently. “My advanced-level students undertook the challenge with great effort.”
“Children here can certainly understand the need for water,” she said. “We have hammered into their heads for over a year the importance of hand washing and cleaning work spaces. What if you had no water to do either of those, especially during the pandemic?”
Student artwork, both related and unrelated to Niger, will be on display throughout the month of May.
“It also shows the cross-section of the artwork, where some students have taken art for 13 years and what can they do,” Bereskin said of their varied talents in drawing and painting. “It’s artistic wells, digging deep into children’s psyches. Kids have worked really hard, some of them didn’t go to school this past year, and had art classes online.”
Students ages 5 through adult will be exhibiting. In addition to the portraits of the Wells 4 Wellness project, other highlights of the exhibit will be 26 life-size portraits and a special exhibit by Bereskin’s graduating high-school seniors:
- Maya Diabira, Bettendorf
- Martha Fey, Davenport Central
- Jaide Logsdon, Davenport Central
- Joe DeBlois, Davenport Central
- Claire Tjaden, Assumption
- Paige Magistrelli, Bettendorf
- Alondra Gomez, Homeschooled, Moline
- Brissa Dahlburg, Bettendorf
- Maya Roberts, Davenport Central
“It’s going to be a really nice show,” Bereskin said. “I saw the photos that Will took. I thought, we had done a project with the Masonic Home,
done portraits of seniors, and this would be a really good teaching experience. Students will have the opportunity to see people who have benefitted from the water.
“There are so many kids that come from privilege, they don’t realize the magnitude to walk two
and a half miles to get a couple buckets of muddy water to wash yourself, wash your clothes,” she said.
“With this year’s emphasis on washing hands, we felt that what if we didn’t have any water? Here’s people that would have to normally wash their hands in water that animals defecate in, the same place kids play and have their water,” Bereskin said of Niger (pronounced “knee-szhare”).
“We’re pretty blessed when we can connect kids. It’s very intimate to do somebody’s portrait,” she said. “When you paint somebody, you have to look in their eyes, and study them, It’s very cool, especially some of the children’s ones – for those portraits, they are kids doing kids.”
“They are remarkable,” Herath said of the Niger portraits. “I’m available and my son really wanted to come to the event, but (Bereskin) wanted him to quarantine. He lives in Utah, and she wanted to quarantine for two weeks before, but he just can’t take that much work. He really wanted to be here. “My son was so thrilled. He was like over the top,” the Wells 4 Wellness director said.
Q-C students count their blessings
Alondra Gomez of Moline – one of four students who this week won a prestigious $12,000 Brand Boeshaar scholarship from the Figge Art Museum – is one of the Bereskin students who did an African portrait.
She’s a 17-year-old homeschooled student who has taken a couple classes at Black Hawk College, and has studied art with Bereskin about seven years.
“I work the best in drawing, because I feel I can excel more. Painting, not so much, but I’m trying to learn, I’m trying to get better,” Gomez said recently. “I just think painting requires a lot of patience. “What I’ve always enjoyed was the unity of being with the other art students to be able to create together. But also we’re all very independent. I do like how she includes different mediums — like we get to try different things and to kind of explore what we like and what we don’t like.”
Gomez was apprehensive about doing the Niger portrait, though she likes to do portraiture.
“My fear about painting and especially acrylic painting, I don’t want to portray this boy wrong,” she said. “It was a fun experience, and I think I’m proud of it.”
She did a light sketch first before painting it, but not any detailed studies. Several students worked on their
portraits together, both pastels and acrylic.
“We were working on this project around the holidays, around Christmas, and I was in quarantine, and we also went to Mexico, so I didn’t have the ability to be with the people at the same time,” Gomez said, noting she worked separately on hers.
She was not familiar with the Wells 4 Wellness group before this.
“I think it’s good to raise awareness for it,” Gomez said. “For me, as a person I think I can be very closed-minded and so I’m not aware that other things are happening. And that people, I’m pretty spoiled in a way — I mean, not really.
“But I have luxuries that other people don’t, and I think during that time when we were painting, I went to Mexico, right?” she said, noting her parents are immigrants from Mexico. “And we were in my mom’s town, and she lives in a small ranch and it was hard to get water as well.”
“Being in a car for like two days and I just like wanted to shower really bad and I couldn’t because there was no water and then when there was, it was really cold water,” Gomez said. “And it was just like, it opened my eyes because I didn’t realize that, I don’t have the same water as I do here in the United States and so and I can’t imagine how it’s like for them. So It’s just like, it’s just very eye-opening for ignorant people like me.”
Gomez usually works in the gallery about three days a week and helps Bereskin teach some of her younger students (ages 6-8).
Paige Magistrelli, who’s graduating from Bettendorf High School, also works in the gallery and appreciated the “Wells” project.
“Honestly, I think it was a really cool experience. I kind of felt connected to the person that I was painting and took a different experience,”
she said. “Because usually I paint people that I know personally, and I really enjoyed thinking, someone new and I know it was for a good cause too, and we were spreading awareness. So I was very inspired. And then I had a lot of joy going into the painting.”
“I’m painting this person, and I do not know this person, but I feel connected to them,” she said of the Herath photo. “Personally when I paint somebody, afterwards, I feel very connected with that person. I feel like I can kind of know their face structure – I kind of know into them and so after doing my painting, I have that connection with painting this boy. I have that connection with the guy and now like seeing the painting.
“Looking at all the other ones, I mean they’re beautiful, but seeing them from my other peers and from people who I know, it’s just amazing,” Magistrelli said. “I can connect with their paintings as well. It’s sometimes hard for me to look at them too because I know the kids in Africa there are struggling and I really do want to help them. So I think it was a good idea to do these paintings and hopefully help them more.”
She said it’s cool that younger kids have done these portraits to connect with the humanitarian, life-and-death issue.
“Pat was talking about during the pandemic, washing your hands is very important,” Magistrelli said.
“I have taken things for granted – and water especially is so important. And I’m so grateful that we have it and then I’m able to just wash my hands during the pandemic, or get a glass of water in the middle of the night when I need it, or take a take a shower whenever I want to.”
“I can do this when I want to, and some people don’t have that opportunity,” she said. Magistrelli enjoys working in a group with the other students.
“I really like that we’ve had a bond together, and even seeing their work progress and we’ll hype each other up and say, that looks great. We’ve become very close together,” she said. “It’s awesome, graduating together and seeing out artwork on the wall.”
“Personally, I don’t feel like there’s any competition. It’s more like I get inspiration from other
people’s work. Sometimes, we’ll have step away from our work and take a circle around and look at everybody else is working. I just get inspiration.”
Magistrelli said she’s learned so much from Bereskin, including an invaluable two-week summer 2019 trip she took with her to Italy, among a small group of students.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned to be more kind, more patient,” she said. “One thing is not to be frustrated when you’re working and not be hard on yourself, the inner voice in your head. You can’t criticize yourself or be down on yourself if you make a mistake.
“She always talks to us, the voice inside your head has to be kind when you’re doing art and I’ve taken it into like real life too,” Magistrelli said. “If I’m in a situation where I’m struggling, I have to be kind of myself and everything will go more smoothly.”
Art-related, Bereskin helps students with basics like highlights, contrasts, shadows, and especially different values – which means the strength and intensity of colors in a painting. For example, in a blue sky, the whole sky would not be the same shade of blue, so the sky would include different values of the same color, Magistrelli.
Spreading kindness and compassion in Africa
Pat Herath – who’s worked as a nurse on and off for 50 years – started her nonprofit when she was 60, originally inspired by a Maryknoll missionary’s message at her school in 2nd grade (her father was a former mayor of East Moline). Herath literally welled up.
“I was in second grade, he just told us about the poor people and all the stuff about their livelihood and I couldn’t imagine,” she said of Africa. “So I thought, oh my goodness, I’m going to go there some day.”
In 1982, Herath made her first trip to Africa, with an Orion church group to Kenya, and she later worked to dig wells in Cambodia. Herath’s longtime friends Ron and Jerry Childs live in Niger and originally encouraged to devote her clean-water efforts in that country, where Herath has
visited eight times over the years.
She and her son filmed their 17-minute documentary, “Bottom of the List,” in November 2019. Its title stems from the United Nations’ Human Development Index report, in which health, education and income carry the most weight. Of all 189 countries of the world, Niger ranks at the bottom of the list in each area.
According to Unicef, water-borne illness, poor hygiene and poor sanitation are some of the leading causes of death for children under 5.
Sanitation facilities are almost nonexistent in Niger, with 70 percent of the population accustomed to open defecation, the film says. Only 56
percent of the population has access to a source of drinking water.
Niger is dead last in regard to worldwide income, with a per-capita income of $912.
“My husband Bob, he and I said, we have to do something,” Pat says in the video. “We went back and formed our nonprofit organization. The board, when they started with me, I don’t think
they had an idea how difficult this was going to be. But they kept standing behind me and encouraging me – to this day, they are still encouraging me to keep going.”
Someone in Texas donated a rig for the drilling, and the local residents had no idea how to drill, requiring Wells 4 Wellness to train them, she said. “The team members love what they do and they’re so good at what they’re doing,” Herath says in the film.
“None of us in America, none of us in Niger ever planned to quit,” she said. “Taking on this project, it’s been a challenge and it’s been fun.”
“Whenever I have a day when I’m gonna pull my hair out because I have no idea what I’m gonna do, someone will call me; someone will knock on my door; someone will give me an office; someone will give me a truck,” Herath said in the film.
“A dream, a vision comes all at once, but direction comes step by step,” she said. “And each one of you have been that next step. It’s just absolutely amazing what has happened in these last 10 years.”
She started Wells 4 Wellness in 2010, first working with Operation Blessing, that matched its fundraising. She went to a school in Texas to learn about well drilling.
“I didn’t know anything about any of this stuff and I had to learn about compressors and all
that,” Herath said recently. “So that was about a three-year learning.”
She also took classes in fundraising with the American Association of Fundraising Professionals. In the first five years of the organization, just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong, before they started getting some large donations, in excess of $20,000.
“In 2019, we got to see the desert that had bloomed and the people are back. The cows are surviving and that was just a turnaround in the world,” Herath said. “My family and friends that stood with me and we got to that point. And my board has just been over-the-top amazing.”
“I’ve lived here all my life and I admire the fact that they’ve believed in it,” she said, noting they’re up to putting in 60 wells in Niger. “It’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of amazing volunteers.”
Covid cancelled 10-year celebration
Wells 4 Wellness produced “Bottom of the List” in early 2020 to highlight the challenges facing Niger, located between the Great Saharan Desert and Nigeria, planning to unveil the film at a 10th-anniversary celebration in March 2020.
The Covid pandemic forced them to cancel the planned event (with 350 guests) three days before at Black Hawk State Park, Rock Island,
Still, after they put the documentary online, her organization made about three times as much money as they expected to raise at the celebration, she said.
“So it was quite amazing, it was really good and we keep showing it, and showing it and it keeps producing,” Herath said. “That’s all we’ve had this year to bring in any money, because there haven’t been any events or anything like that and then Pat (Bereskin) asking if she could do this.”
“Then in 2020, we were going to start hiring, because I’ve been a volunteer for the entire 11 years and so we’re going to start hiring someone, except the pandemic broke out,” she said.
“The finances are good but they’re not flowing,” Herath said. “We haven’t had any events and stuff like that. So it’s hard. We just thank God that we had that documentary.”
The group would normally do one major fundraiser a year, and make about $30,000 or $40,000 at each one. The May 7 reception at Bereskin Gallery is not being pushed hard as a benefit, but donations are certainly welcome. Herath also tries to speak to many civic
organizations, schools and churches about the need, but that’s been severely curtailed in the past year.
“A couple weeks ago, was the only the second time I spoke out in a year, since the pandemic started,” she said, noting she’s done many talks online in the past year. “The Quad-Cities has been over and above, so kind to us, it’s amazing. It’s just everyone’s so nice.”
Her husband was a longtime veterinarian in Milan, working in the field 49 years total. They lived in Moline for 20 years and are back in Milan. Pat spoke this past Wednesday at Quad Cities Christian School, 4000 11th St., Moline, which donated $3,000 for the new well in Niamey.
A church-based ministry
For the past six years, the school’s affiliated church – River City at 2305 7th Ave., Moline – has donated office space for Wells 4 Wellness.
“Everybody working together when they raise that much, it’s like, oh my goodness, we were so excited,” Herath enthused about Q-C
Christian. “I’ve never paid rent for six years and then they, they support me monthly and I almost didn’t call the school because I didn’t want to ask for anything else, and then they raised the most money. Amazing, just amazing.
“They’re miracles to me because to have to start a non-profit ministry at 60 years old,” she said. “And to have that, I never would have thought our first goal was 33 wells, and now we’re at 60. So it’s been an adventure for sure. And my kids have been involved — all my friends, all my relatives.”
“I feel like it’s almost like an out-of-body experience,” Herath said of all the hard work the group and its volunteers around the world have accomplished. “I can’t even believe it. When I see it done, it’s just overwhelming. And I say to people that I don’t talk their language, but I talk the language of love and so when we’re there, they’ll pull up and show me that since the well that we put in two years ago, the kind of difference it’s made to them.”
“We don’t care who gets the credit, we just want them to have water,” she said, noting her travels have taken her to five continents. “I love it. You know, I don’t know why I love it. I just do,” Herath said. “And so the thought of not ever going back, breaks my heart.”
With the funds raised for Niamey, they will not only be putting in a well, but also a water tower, solar panel, and solar pump.
On May 7 at Bereskin Gallery, there will also be a photo booth with an 8-foot-by-10-foot picture of a remote village in Niger, with an actual pump that people can pretend to fill a container with water. Masks and social distancing are required in the gallery per the Beréskin Covid policy.
The Wells 4 Wellness documentary will be shown in the STEAM Lab at 5:45 p.m, 6:15 p.m. and 6:45 p.m.
All student artwork will be on display throughout the month of May, and the gallery also hosts its regular stable of 45 artists who show and sell their pieces, Bereskin said.