Painting a path to Cambodia

Art therapists raise funds, awareness on sex trafficking

The 2012 48-Hour Marathon
Photo courtesy of NCAS-I

For 48 hours straight, a paintbrush will be on canvas at the Naropa Community Art Studio. The two-day painting marathon, which begins at 6 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 8, is to raise money to support the Naropa Community Art Studio-International in its third annual trip to Cambodia to practice art therapy with survivors of sex trafficking.

Art therapy students and their supporters will paint on three canvases, one for each of three teams, earning pledges for every hour they paint. At the end of the event, they should have completed three paintings of mandalas, a Sanskirt term for “sacred circle” used to describe a meditation aid used by Buddhists and Hindus across Asia, to be auctioned.

The event’s aim is to both raise funds to support that trip and build community awareness on the ongoing issue of sex trafficking.

In May 2014, Sue Wallingford, assistant professor at Naropa University’s art therapy program and faculty advisor of the Naropa Community Art Studio- International, and a group of art therapy students — some of whom applied to the university’s art therapy master’s degree with an eye on this program — will travel to Cambodia to volunteer with nongovernmental organizations that serve survivors of sex trafficking and domestic violence.

The trip is an opportunity to bring sex trafficking survivors and the local staff working with them, the art therapy techniques that can teach the kind of skills often stripped through trauma, skills like confidence, problem solving and self-care. But it’s also a chance for art therapy students to put themselves to the test.

“This is truly a service learning project — there’s equal weight given to both,” Wallingford says. “It’s equally important that the students learn so much about the culture, how to treat people of a different culture, but first and foremost, how they show up for something like that.”

Art therapy master’s student Michelle Bosco noticed the Cambodia program when she was applying to Naropa, and has attended symposiums on sex trafficking and focused her academic work on survivors of trauma to prepare. She’s even participated in previous painting marathons. This year, she’ll be painting for her own way to Cambodia.

“I feel like I’m just really, fully into this project,” says Bosco. “I really just believe in it and what it’s done after hearing stories from Sue and other students on what art can do and how it can heal.”

“I think to go somewhere and really just be there, be in this discomfort,” Bosco says. “Even though it will be extremely challenging … I’d like to take the risk and see what’s there.”

The chance to go to Cambodia will force these students to dig into the fundamental abilities of being present to support someone on his or her journey, whether you can speak the same language or really comprehend that person’s experience of violence and poverty.

“We’ll be learning not just to be better therapists, but better people,” says Kelsey Butler, also an art therapy student at Naropa.

Like so many things in the hands of a community of people, perhaps particularly therapists, the canvases are expected to transform radically over the course of the 48-hour painting marathon.

“Trust the process,” says Wallingford, who has watched over the course of two previous painting marathons how canvases can go from chaos to form to chaos and back to form again.

“Everybody’s mark is still there, even though it might be underneath other marks,” she says. “It’s trusting that we will be able to offer something useful … and that the relationship between human beings is powerful enough we can create something.”

The NCAS-I 48-Hour Painting Marathon beings at 6 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 8, and runs until 6 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 10 at the Nalanda Campus, 6287 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder. The public is welcome between 8 a.m. and midnight each day. Shifts are still open and can be signed up for by email at Donations can be made at