An Artist’s Journey Through India

Written by Star Sosa | Photography by Todd Carignan

 

To survive these days, a professional artist is faced with many challenges. The least of which is how to make a living and support a growing family while developing one’s skills and reputation as an artist. In times past, patronage was crucial to an artist’s success. Having the support of a patron allowed the artist freedom to explore and create without the worry of handling the day-to-day details of life. Wilmington artist, Todd Carignan, was able to experience a small taste of that when he accepted a commission to travel to India for five and a half weeks for the purpose of documenting and raising an awareness of the Homes of Hope Girls’ Orphanages.  

While the circumstances weren’t necessarily luxurious, the idea of being sponsored for a few weeks with his only responsibilities being to create art and learn about the people, was simply too good to pass up. Despite the sacrifice of being away from his wife and children for longer than ever before, Carignan accepted the invitation of Paul Wilkes, Founder and Executive Director, to visit 3 of the 11 Homes of Hope Girls’ Orphanages.

Attracted to Carignan’s skill with portraiture and plein air landscapes after seeing a collection of his works from an earlier trip to Vietnam, Wilkes thought he would be a great advocate for his projects in India, capturing the beauty of the country and the soul of its people. The experience culminated in an exhibition of the paintings, a fundraiser and an awareness campaign celebrating the good works being accomplished and promoting that much more remains to be done.

Paul Wilkes started Homes of Hope India for the express purpose of rescuing abandoned and impoverished children who have almost no options and are subject to unspeakable conditions. Wilkes was inspired to start Homes of Hope after he met Reena, a bright smiling child who had been intentionally blinded in one eye with a needle, to render her a more effective beggar. Fortunately, she made it into a proper orphanage, escaping the street life and is receiving an education. Now Reena is a lovely girl who is about to complete high school.      

The goal of Homes of Hope is to rescue and educate as many of the over 500,000 vulnerable, abandoned, and orphaned girls from the streets of India as possible. They provide safe shelter, a loving community in which to live, and a good education. They strive to enhance the girl’s education, end the cycle of poverty and uplift the community. A great measure of success is when the girls reach out after leaving the orphanage to report that they are now college students, nurses, teachers, accountants and more.    

The trip took place in October and November of 2017, where Carignan spent a week and a half at each location. His days consisted of sketching the surroundings, painting portraits and taking lots of photos for future works. The journey spanned the length of India, beginning in Kochi in southern India, along the west coast and the site of Homes of Hope’s first orphanage. An urban location in the tropics, Carignan quickly tuned into the daily routine, scheduling a portrait sitting between the girl’s daily chores and studying. Generally, he could rough out a portrait in a thirty-minute session – timing was critical because electricity was unreliable which made painting and drawing after dark impossible.

After leaving Kochi, Todd was taken by car to Mysore where he visited the elegantly illuminated Mysore Palace, an elephant camp and the Buddhist Golden Temple among other places. The next orphanage was located in Hassan, amidst a farming community where his stay coincided with the corn harvest. Carignan had purchased cows for the orphanage to supply fresh milk and the girls collected discarded cornhusks to feed the cows. The next stop was Varanasi, one of oldest cities in the world, dating back to the 11th century B.C. The birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, Varanasi is located midway along the Ganges River – one the holiest rivers in the world. Arriving in time for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, it was a lively, colorful and chaotic scene with Hindu monks practicing their rites to the backdrop of loudspeakers blaring, house dance music and exuberant crowds celebrating.  

A short flight took him to Agra, home to the iconic Taj Mahal, where his goal of painting plein air (outdoors) at the famous site was not to be – no paints were allowed onto the estate of the 365-year-old white marble mausoleum. He did, however; find a great vantage point across the river and away from the crowds where he could paint.

The final orphanage in Dimapur was located in the far northeast of the country. This is Home of Hopes most recent orphanage and it serves girls who have been orphaned by HIV and Aids, which is a critical issue in this region. Dimapur proved to be a very interesting part of India where the culture and people were quite different. It is located closer to Myanmar than central India, with mountainous terrain and a culture of many tribal varieties including farmers and headhunters. Dimapur was Carignan’s favorite spot of the trip, and it served as a home base for trips into the mountains, scenic villages overlooking terraced rice fields and a visit to Assam, the world’s largest producers of tea.  

As for his experiences of girls at the orphanages, Carignan reported that upon his arrival at each orphanage they would be outside waiting to greet him with songs and celebrations. When not actually in school or studying they would be practicing dancing or singing-performing music and dance seemed to be ingrained into the culture. ”Unfortunately they wanted me to respond by singing a song back which is definitely not one of my talents. I managed to beg off for the most part but I would participate in the dances in my own awkward western way,” said Carignan. The girls at all the orphanages called him ‘uncle’. “Because I’m married. A single man would be called ‘brother’.” They were all very interested in when he would return with his wife, or ‘auntie’.    

At the Dimapur location, the only other white people these girls had ever seen were Paul and Tracey Wilkes. The girls always had questions about life in America and they wanted to know if Carignan’s marriage was a ‘love’ marriage or an arranged one. From Dimapur, Carignan flew home to America, over 44 hours of travel going to Kolkata, Dubai, JFK, and finally Raleigh.

Since returning, the artist has been avidly working in his studio on new larger paintings from his reference photos in preparation for his upcoming August show. By necessity, the paintings produced on the trip were limited to 8×10” panels. He made a lap easel out of a cigar box to be as portable as possible and he completed 16 oil paintings, 4 watercolors, and 6 pencil portraits while in India. One of the challenges was taking oil paints through airport security. He carried the manufacturer’s safety data sheet verifying the non-flammability of the paints (referred to as “colors” in India) but that didn’t prevent him from being pulled from security lines for questioning and further inspections in several locations.

When asked if he would return to India Carignan replied, “In a heartbeat!” So, should Homes of Hope ever request an encore visit from their artistic documentarian, he is ready to go. For readers who would like to learn more about the efforts of Homes of Hope India should visit their website: www.homeofhopeindia.org. They are currently raising funds for their 11th orphanage. To see more of Todd’s artworks visit: www.ToddCarignan.com.

Todd’s paintings will be on display at the MC Erny gallery in the WHQR radio station, located at 254 N. Front Street. A portion of all proceeds from the sale of the artwork will go to Homes of Hope India to further their mission. The show will open with a reception on Friday, August 24, 2018, during the 4th Friday Gallery Walk in downtown Wilmington and will run for approximately eight weeks.