Through a summer art apprenticeship, three young Sonoma County women learned about the suffering of their families in the Killing Fields of Cambodia more than three decades ago.
On Sunday, the young women unveiled a mural they painted to honor their families and the others who endured the genocide practiced by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. The artwork was applauded by more than 80 people who gathered at a youth arts organization in Santa Rosa.
The mural will be sent to the Vista Family Health Center, 3569 Round Barn Circle, where it will be displayed for a year.
"We learned how dark it was," said Vichaka Meas, 18, a Santa Rosa Junior College student and one of the artists. Before the project, she knew little about the genocide that took the lives of nearly 2 million Cambodians.
Her sister, Matilda Meas, 16, a Santa Rosa High School student, said their parents talked about brothers and sisters they lost in the suffering and killing.
"We actually got to hear about the family we never had," she said.
But the three emphasized that they wanted their art to convey not only the darkness of that tragedy but also the resiliency of those who survived.
"They didn't give up," said Amy Kouch, 15, a Rancho Cotate High School student. "They did it for this generation."
Last summer, the three worked with a team of artists at ArtStart, a nonprofit group that mentors young artists and provides paid apprenticeships. ArtStart raised nearly $3,800 for the project on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo.com.
Chandra Woodworth, ArtStart's creative director, called the mural remarkable, saying it was the first by the three teenagers and took them about eight weeks to create.
They were passionate about telling their story, Woodworth said. "This is the boldest and most unique way of doing it."
The mural, 8 feet tall and 16 feet wide, includes such images as Angkor Wat, the iconic temple depicted on Cambodia's national flag, and Choeung Ek, a memorial to those lost in the genocide. Near the center are three dancers in white, representing angels. In the lower half are images of the three artists in dance poses.
Also shown are skulls, a broken vase and a tipped basket of rice, along with a white lotus flower, the sign of hope in the midst of darkness.
The young women had to use three layers of paint to get the proper tones of greens, yellows, blues and browns. They also had to learn brush strokes and other techniques.
Sunday's unveiling included a Buddhist blessing, traditional dances and Cambodian foods, including spring rolls, fried rice and jackfruit.
The three artists said their apprenticeships grew out of an art project by adult relatives sharing their own stories of suffering in Cambodia.
Kouch said the art project provided a way for her parents to share their stories. "They didn't think we were ready to hear it," she said. "But doing the mural really made them open up."
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or firstname.lastname@example.org.