ArtBeat: Local artist connects with those in difficult circumstances

  • Robert Markey and muralist Benjamin Swatez worked with five indigenous tribal artists who paint in the Pithora tradition of India to create these bold murals at the cultural center in Vadodara, Gugarat. Contributed photo/Robert Markey

  • Children sit atop the wall of a courtyard of their school in Surat, India, where Ashfield artist Robert Markey and muralist Benjamin Swatez helped them to create murals. Contributed photo/Robert Markey

  • Children work on the preliminary stages of mosaic-making in Surat, India. Contributed photo/Robert Markey

  • One of the Syrian refugees Robert Markey worked with in Greece stands beside an unusual mosaic he created to express the ultimate healing of his leg, which had been wounded in a bombing. Contributed photo/Robert Markey

  • Robert Markey stands with one of the refugees he worked with at a center in Ioannina, Greece. Contributed photo/Robert Markey

  • Fatma, a Syrian refugee, poses with a mosaic she created at center that worked with refugees in Athens. Contributed photo/Robert Markey

  • Trish Crapo

For The Recorder
Published: 3/1/2017 11:28:50 AM

Ashfield painter, sculptor and mosaic artist Robert Markey has long felt driven to bring art to people in difficult circumstances. And it’s not just the experience of viewing art that he wants to give access to — Markey is committed to teaching others to create their own.

Markey has traveled to Brazil, Cambodia, Nepal and India to teach others how to create mosaic murals on public buildings and courtyard walls. He’s worked with veterans, people struggling to overcome drug addiction, kids in orphanages, at schools for the disabled, and in programs that are helping to free them from human trafficking.

In December 2016, Markey went to Greece to work with Syrian, Afghani and Iranian refugees in camps in Athens, Ioannina and Lesvos. For the month of January, he continued on to India, where he worked with schoolchildren in Surat, and with indigenous Pithora artists to create bold, 6-story murals on a cultural center building in Vadodara, the cultural capital of Gujarat.

Because the lives of refugees are constantly disrupted, many of the projects in Greece took place only over three or four days, which Markey described with good humor as “pretty chaotic” compared to the two-week programs he prefers.

Using broken tiles that Markey says are usually donated, participants worked on individual mosaic subjects such as fish or animals that became part of a larger scene, in some instances united by background painting coordinated by muralist Benjamin Swatez, who worked with Markey both in Greece and in India.

Markey likes to start a mosaic project out with a subject that is relatively simple to execute, such as a fish, in order install confidence and to get the ball rolling quickly. From there, participants might suggest a more complicated subject — a horse or a unicorn. Markey is less interested in the final aesthetic outcome of the project than in encouraging his participants to create. Allowing them to come up with their own subject matter can make for some interesting surprises, Markey says.

One Syrian refugee created an unlikely mosaic of a human leg with a palm tree growing from it. Through a translator, Markey learned that the man’s leg had been injured in a bombing.

“The palm tree represented the new growth,” Markey said. “It represented that the leg was going to be okay.”

Markey’s sense was that many of the people he worked with were not used to making art, and certainly not on the scale of public art, where their work would become part of a highly visible building or courtyard. The chance to make art gave the refugees a break from their chaotic, uncertain existence in the camps.

“My sense was these people have good hearts,” Markey said. “They have some wonderful talents.”

He was dismayed to come back to the United States at the end of January to find, “There’s all this hate,” Markey says.

He asks, “These wonderful people that I met, how can you hate them?”

“They have nowhere to go,” Markey says quietly but emphatically. “Greece is not where they’re going to stay; they can’t stay there. So they have to stay in the camps until they are allowed to go somewhere else. Well, they’re not allowed to go anywhere else.”

When I asked Markey why he has been drawn to bringing art to people in such difficult situations, he answered quickly, “That’s what I do.”

He has always been involved in political work, back to when he was in high school, he says, when he took part in civil disobedience actions during the mid-sixties. He has gone on to use art in very political ways, he adds, including creating work that draws attention to problems of domestic violence and child trafficking.

About 15 years ago, Markey says, he went to Brazil to volunteer to do some art with children. “And I realized that, in the ’60s we were going to change the world, make it a better place. We didn’t do that. But if I could make kids happy for a week, give them some joy for a short while. I’m thinking smaller lately,” Markey said.

It moved him to see the children he worked with beaming with pride for their mosaics.

“It really had an effect on these kids,” Markey says.

“And realistically, I’m getting so much out of this. It’s been such an amazing thing for me to live in communities, doing this work. I don’t know how to be a tourist any more ... It’s an incredible thing for me. I’m not sacrificing and giving up anything to do this. I’m getting so many benefits.”

After a brief pause, Markey hammers the last nail down: “I have to do it.”

On the local front, Markey says he is pursuing a mosaic project in Greenfield that he’s gotten almost all the go-ahead to do. We can look forward to that.

In the meantime, find out more about Markey’s work at: or find him on Facebook, where you’ll find more photos of his work and links to stories about his recent projects by The Times of India and other publications.


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