When local gallery owner and humanitarian Sandra Renteria does something charitable, she does it on her own terms. Already in the do-good business as founder of the Art Creation Foundation for Children, an organization that puts art supplies into the hands of children in troubled Jacmel, Haiti, Renteria took off for post-tsunami Thailand on a similar mission. She traveled with her two-year-old daughter, an altruistic heart and 400 pounds of art supplies in tow. Art, she feels, is a great ice-breaker for people living in dire conditions.
Now back home, Renteria will host a month-long exhibit, A Life By and of the Sea, that opens Friday, March 3, at her Indigena Gallery in northwest Denver. The show features works by children of the Moken tribe in the Surin Islands, a remote group made famous by their innate knowledge of how to survive the relentless tsunami waves. Renteria's initial goal is to help the tribe's 51 families reclaim their livelihood as fishermen by raising funds to replace lost fishing boats and underwater spears. But she also hopes to build a cultural arts center on land already offered to the cause by a group of Buddhist monks in the devastated Bansak area of Khao Lak, where she spent many days bonding with refugee villagers in tent cities.
"The Buddhist monks were the biggest cheerleaders in the world," Renteria says of the holy men who wandered the crowded camps. "It was a much-needed influence in the makeshift villages, places largely ignored by the international press, where regular funding, supplies and aid are iffy. "Some camps have thousands of people living in a tiny space," Renteria notes. "There's no privacy, and rude tourists have turned them into another tourist sight. There are actually Phuket shuttle buses bringing them in to take pictures."
It was there that she met Penn, a widow who'd lost her nine-year-old daughter and a sister to the tsunami. Penn herself was spared by fate: A hotel receptionist, she saw everything happen from the third floor (her twelve-year-old son also survived). But her life changed profoundly in a few short hours. Like nearly everyone in the camps, her focus has turned to macabre realities.
"In Thailand, people can't get aid unless a body is found," Renteria explains. "Every day, Penn must put on a mask and look at body parts to see if any are her sister or daughter." But the likelihood of finding them is slim and growing slimmer. "The majority of these people are going through the same thing. Every day, they'll hear the dogs barking and know that more body parts have been found. They'll stop and run to see. But they lived in fishing villages, right on the beach, and many of the bodies were simply swept away to sea."
Though the hotel offered Penn her old job with a pay cut, she, like many others, chose not to return to her professional life, Renteria says. "Now she weaves baskets with other women in a free-trade co-op. She can stay home with her son. The scab gets reopened every day, and they have to heal." Renteria will have a selection of the co-op's wares for sale at Indigena.
Traveling to find the Moken was an experience in itself, far removed from the squalor of the tent villages. Yet the people, considered mythical by some folks in Thailand, also live day to day without aid, on little more than a handful of rice and minnows. The tribe's been given big boats that require fuel and electric rice cookers, both useless to them without energy resources. "It's as if they've been disowned," Renteria says. Ironically, she notes, the Mokens' celebrated survival skills have left them in a catch-22 situation, without the bodies required to qualify for help. True to her questing spirit, Renteria is using her foundation to help them first. The rest, she hopes, will fall into place.