Step-by-Step moves forward creatively in Sri Lanka rebuilding shattered lives across the board

Step-By-Step Studio Images Children Engaged in Mystery Painting at Vajira Sri Childrens Development Centre Mystery Painting Studios, like the Step-by-Step Studio in Colombo, are not primarily about “doing” something. They are about “being” something: being peace, being hope, being adaptable and dependable in situations that change rapidly and are far from reliable. The Monkey’s Tale Centre for Contemplative Art in Batticaloa was the first Mystery Painting studio. It was born out of the generosity of friends in Canada, America and Great Britain responding to the tsunami, which first swept ashore in Sri Lanka at Marathamunai a town some forty kilometers from Batticaloa, the day after Christmas 2004.

Just as with the response of the international community, people in Batticaloa reached into their hearts and helped out however they could. They weathered the crisis and, in doing so, learned a valuable lesson. Wherever there is turbulence there is transition, and transition – to be productive of the most positive results – must be anchored in an open and yielding heart.

The question presenting itself so dramatically at the time of the tsunami remains one that applies even more today when the psychology of terror has become a universal obsession. How can we keep our hearts open to one another when the world seems to be closing down in fear? An invisible tsunami threatens to sweep us away, one of suspicion and fear. The media feeds on it and    people feed on the media: bombs go off in Boston, Benghazi and Belfast. It seems to be an untieable knot. Who know where it begins or ends?

In the 13th century the great Muslim poet Rumi urged us to “move outside the tangle of fear-thinking and live in silence”: not the silence of denial, but that which opens inwardly toward wisdom and outwardly with compassion toward our fellow human beings. Maybe it’s time to heed this advice, but where do we begin?

We begin with the heart. When we join one another to paint, whether at the Monkey’s Tale Centre in Batticaloa or the Step-by-Step Studio in Colombo, or anywhere else in the world, we come home to the heart. When Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher sisters and brothers sit silently painting together, they quietly, without effort, return home to the heart of their common humanity. The stories that emerge from their Mystery Paintings represent a common scripture recognizable to all: that which enables us to make visible the invisible love that animates our world beyond the television screen, and the smoke screen, of terror and fear.

1. Moving or Being Moved: Finding Our Place in Pandemonium: For two years we worked out of a wonderful studio space on Albert Perera Mawatha in the backstreets of a quiet community in Nugegoda, Colombo. When we got the word that the building was about to be sold and that we would have to vacate when our lease expired at the end of January 2013 our little idyll ended quite abruptly. We were busy conducting sessions in Mayachitra (Mystery Painting) for wounded veterans at Mihindu Seth Medura, a rehabilitation facility run by the Sri Lankan Army and at Sri Vajira Temple Children’s Development Centre, an institution for orphaned youth who otherwise would probably have been living in the streets. We were in the midst of preparations for an exhibition and sale of paintings done by these kids to help support the program.

The exhibition called Biththara Amma (Egg Momma)   consisted of 13 paintings scaled up for sale, one painting for each child in the class and over forty original paintings, which belonged to the artist and could not be sold. In addition to the scaling operation, we performed other tasks in the Nugegoda studio: stretching canvases, prepping canvas boards, paints and brush kits for students, doing our own Mayachitra practice, as well as taking care of studio maintenance and administration, such as book keeping and reporting.

By the time the New Year rolled around we were   totally stressed out by the rapidly converging date for both the children’s exhibition (February 15) and our eviction (January 31). We ran around looking at prospective studio spaces – all inadequate or over budget – at the same time preparing to make an emergency move of studio equipment into storage if necessary, even though we had not procured a storage space. The plain truth was we did not have enough money in our bank account for either studio or storage space, both of which usually require a year’s payment in advance. Preparing an exhibition while being under such pressure took its toll.

When Paul arrived back in Sri Lanka in January he accompanied us our classes with the soldiers and the kids. We painted together, we talked and we laughed. He said, “Maybe it’s not so much a question of moving, but of someone being moved. Let’s concentrate on the show for now and see what happens.”

Like Biththara Amma, there is always a question of what comes first – the chicken, the egg, or the  enigmatic energy of the unknowable. That is the mystery and the key to the mystery is not to bolt out of fear but to stay with the uncertainty and see where it takes you. Seeing is the subtlest of the arts we study at Step-by-Step-Studio: It is a way of knowing without remembering.

After that we got lucky. Sam, one of our board members, somehow charmed the landlord into extending our lease by two months so we could concentrate on the exhibition for the kids at Sri Vajira Temple. Up to that point the landlord had never taken the slightest interest in our work. Not once had he visited us at the studio, but for some reason he took pity on us. It was he who was moved when he heard about the exhibition at the Children’s Development Centre; so we did not have to move. He generously extended our lease by two months with no increase in rent.

uring this period Janaka, one of our mentors and friends in the UK in collaboration with the Project 360, initiated a funding campaign and we received enough money from that source to look for new studio space at a more leisurely pace and make our move after the exhibition was over.

2. Exhibitions: “The Meaning of Life is Not to Hide the Meaning of Life”

There is always something mysterious about painting and the stories that come out of painting. There is a space between the painting and the story where inside and outside – imagination and expression – merge and become one. Painting is secret sort of process. All the way along you have no idea what you’re doing. You proceed in silence from a point of rest inside yourself. Telling the story of the painting afterwards, on the other hand, is a very social thing. You share it with others. That’s how we attempt to make living inside and living outside one through the Mayachitra process.

The Biththara Amma exhibition ran from February 15 -28. We were given a dining hall room at the temple centre, which a team of older boys from the class helped us convert into a gallery. We had to create  adequate viewing space by boarding up windows for the  duration of the show and painting the floor and walls.

Hon. Duminda Dissanayake, Minister of Education Services, opened the exhibition. We sold two paintings to a professional photographer at the opening, Mr. Cha Poon, from Korea. The children were more amazed by what they had accomplished than anyone else. They had created everything themselves – the paintings, the stories, the exhibition space. For our part we coaxed and coddled and goaded them along.

They received a real boost when soldiers and fellow Mayachitra artists from the Mihindu Seth Medura class showed up to support them. These men have been wounded in combat and it is not easy for them to get about. We thank them for making the effort coming to support the kids at the temple program. It is a tribute to their courage and compassion, and to the wisdom of their doctor, Major Deshan Dissanayake, to have arranged the visit.

Now these soldier / painters are talking about having an exhibition of their own later in the year. And we have new ideas for further exhibitions at the Children’s Development Centre. Many converts were won among  students at the centre when they saw this show. We hope some of them will join the class when we start new painting sessions on May 8th.

3. Stories within Stories

We are emphasizing narration in our classes this year: how to find a story in a painting and how to present it by   telling it to others, writing it and maybe even publishing it someday. We understand the world itself is a story made up of many interwoven stories. In this storm of stories we must find our own truth. The story is a seed. It is the seed of our own becoming, so we must tell our stories ourselves and not let others tell them for us.

Sometimes our stories are too painful to tell. Through the Mystery Painting process of Cloud Seeding, Cloud Watching and Cloud Riding we find courage in the chaos of our lives and to tell our stories, indirectly at first, in a metaphorical way. As we become more comfortable with our truth we become less fearful of telling it and accepting responsibility for it.

Here are summary examples of two stories and the paintings that inspired them the first Biththara Amma (Eggs Momma) a painting by a 14-year old girl named Jezika from Sri Vajira Temple Children’s Development Centre and the second, Kapati Kurulla (Dodgy Duck) by Susantha Dharmadasa, a Captain in the Sri Lankan army now at Mihindu Seth Medura



(Eggs Momma)eggs moma 2 I am an egg. I’m inside and outside. I’m small. I have to eat something to grow. I eat the invisible sun inside me. I’m getting bigger day by day. One day I crack and break and my inside jumps out. I can’t see a thing outside but I can hear and feel things happening around me. I’m blind and very hungry. I want to eat the world I once inhabited and move into this one.  

Someone is giving me food and protecting me but I don’t know who she is. Whenever she comes around me I see rainbow light and I feel loved. Other creatures come near and try to eat me but my protector fends them off. I know after a while that she is my mother and I love her.

Later I meet my father. I am getting bigger and beginning to see the world the way it really is. One day my father goes off to the army and never comes back. In the shadow of a tree I meet another bird like me, a chicken boy. We fall in love and before you know it I lay an egg of my own.

Dodgy Duck - Mihindu Seth Medura Dodgy Duck – or Kapati Kurulla, a painting with a story


(Dodgy Duck)

I’m a one legged duck. You may think I’m a bit of a suspicious character. When I was a kid a croc made short work of my other leg. Now when I try to swim I just paddle round in circles getting more and more frustrated and depressed. And I don’t get momentum when I dive. Bit of a shame really, because the pond I live in is full of food, fish and frogs, if I could only catch them. It’s easy to snag them if you’ve got all your equipment. That’s my problem.

I had to cut a deal with the Deva of the pond. I promised her I would never kill anyone who lived there under her protection, even if I was starving but, in exchange, I begged her mercy and asked the pond to support me if I   honored this vow. That’s when Podi Ibba, the turtle, surfaced out of the depths.

Podi is a great diver. He easily catches enough frogs to keep us both going. I thank the guardian spirit of the pond every day for having sent this gentle old soul to help me. He’s a cagey fisherman so we always have enough to eat, and I don’t have to break my promise to abstain from killing. I just eat whatever Podi Ibba offers with a clear conscience.

When I tried thanking him one evening after a particularly good feed, which included shrimp and some kind of crispy seaweed salad, he scolded me roundly.

“Never mind,” he said, “You have made me a very rich turtle, the richest in this pond.” “But how is that?” I ask, having never given him anything more than a few greens I found growing by the shore. He winked and disappeared back inside his shell. I watched him sink like a stone to the bottom of the pond. When I stuck my head under the water to see where he had settled I heard his voice echo in my head like a tinny boom box. “You’ve only got what you give away, duckie dear. Thank you for helping me to make my fortune.”

4. Mayachitra (Mystery Painting) Manifest: What Painters Say About The Mystery Painting Practice

Major Deshan Dissanayake is a practitioner of Mystery Painting and the physician in charge of wounded soldiers in rehabilitation at the army’s Mihindu Seth Medura facility in Colombo.  This is what he has to say about the healing effects of this practice on his men. Mayachitra (Mystery Painting) is a kind of yoga which, if practiced regularly calms the mind and opens the imagination to creative inspiration and healing. Our soldiers, many of them disabled for life, experience improvements both psychologically and physically through practicing this art in weekly three hour sessions under the guidance of two artist / teachers from the Step-by-Step Studio, Chaminda Pushpakumara and Nalaka Ranasinghe… In a matter of six months I have noticed a lessening in tremoring and spasticity among some seriously wounded soldiers as well as a general improvement in muscle tone, co-ordination and strength. With the diminishment in depression the men’s spirits lift and self-confidence returns. The narratives that accompany their paintings demonstrate wit, resilience and wisdom in mediating the adverse effects of severe disability. I experience more social cohesion, camaraderie and community spirit within the group.

Captain Susantha Dharmadasa, whose story Kapati Kurulla is summarized above, has become an enthusiastic painter and exponent of the art form. In six months he has completed sixteen paintings. This is what he had to say about the Mystery Painting practice.

“I had absolutely no interest or aptitude for art before I was wounded and when I was young. But with Mayachitra I found out I could manage the bad feelings – the anger and depression – I suffered with my injury in a more contemplative spirit. I feel that other kinds of therapeutic programs offered here (at Mihindu Seth Medura) in arts and crafts did not go very far in alleviating our misery. But this painting and the stories that accompany it go deep and bring a positive change in our perceptions and attitudes.” 

Without exception, the young people at the Sri Vajira Children’s Development Centre were astonished that they could make images, that they could dream up stories, that very beautiful paintings could be scaled up based on their originals, and that two of these scaled-up paintings sold for an remarkable amount of money in their books; that is, Rs. 25,000 or about US $200 each.  But it wasn’t all a bed of roses. Here is what two of them had to say about the experience.

Udesika, without ever having heard about the Pink Panther, produced an unlikely facsimile of this world famous icon. When the children were invited to attend these classes she was fearful and convinced she could never do it. In spite of her nervousness she decided to give it a try. It was hard for me to find anything in my breath lines and almost impossible to clear them so that some kind of recognizable image emerged. However, I learned to sit in one place and concentrate and when I did so time seemed to pass very quickly. Suddenly there he was, the big cat. After that it didn’t get any easier. I found color balancing a big challenge. Most difficult of all though was making the story because it seemed like telling a lie. I told a small fib about my cat, which I think he must have enjoyed, because after that the whole story fell in place. At the exhibition people asked me how I did it. I just told them the truth: Meditation, silence, following breath with brush and paint. It was all right there from the beginning.”  

The older boys in the group were indispensible in organizing classes and setting up the exhibition. It was a steep learning curve for them but they were loyal to group and to the painting class and made sure everything worked out for the exhibition. Srimal is an outstanding leader. Here is what he had to say. “I was hooked from the beginning by the breathline exercise. It gave me a thrill to see the shapes that come out of those lines try to communicate with me. It got harder after that with color balancing while having different shapes in the painting compete for my attention. By listening to other kids tell their stories I got the hang of it. But it was the exhibition that excited me most. Chaminda and Nalaka put a lot of trust in me and I worked hard to make the exhibition happen according to their directions. When one of my own paintings, Egg Baby, sold to a man from Korea, I could hardly believe it, nor could I believe what he paid for it. I am very proud that this money will contribute to more classes in the future. It was a great learning experience from beginning to end.”

New Premises



Filed under communal relations, performance, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, tolerance, trauma, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy

2 responses to “Step-by-Step moves forward creatively in Sri Lanka rebuilding shattered lives across the board

  1. We are an Organization promoting reconciliation and harmony and we are using the language of different forms of art to communicate these very important beliefs, Our latest project is an exhibition that were are opening out island wide together with my art school in Colombo. . And also a founder of Unity Mission Trust . , that work hand in hand on national reconciliation programmes. Please let me know of anyone who maybe interested in funding our projects and joining us in the work that we do.

  2. Pingback: One musical step across the ethnic divide with tanya Ekanayake of Edinburgh | Thuppahi's Blog

Leave a Reply