Max is a public artist, a social entrepreneur, and a humanitarian whose work ranges across seven continents, from community building in refugee camps, abuse and addiction support, to resilience building and conflict resolution. He is the Co-Founder of Artolution and recipient of the International Crisis Award from UNICEF and the World of Children in 2018.
Art is creativity, art is expression. How can art heal people and uplift communities in crisis?
In this episode of The Founder Spirit Podcast, we are joined by Dr. Max Frieder, a public artist, a humanitarian and Co-Founder of Artolution, a global non-profit organization that seeks to strengthen communities experiencing crisis through collaborative art-making. Max shares remarkable stories from his work across traumatized communities experiencing crisis, navigating Artolution in refugee camps and his challenges with running an organization for artists and by artists.
Discover what the arts can do as the closest thing to magic that exists in the world! Tune in to this new episode.
Dr. Max Frieder is public artist, a social entrepreneur, and a humanitarian whose work ranges from community building in refugee camps, abuse and addiction support, resilience building and conflict resolution. He is the Chief Creative Officer and Co-Founder of Artolution, a global non-for-profit organization that seeks to strengthen communities experiencing crisis through collaborative art making.
A native of Denver, Colorado, he has worked with hundreds of communities in different contexts across the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Europe, North America, and Asia. His projects have taken him from refugee camps in Syria, South Sudan, Bangladesh, Palestine, Greece to conflict zones, traumatized communities, and across borders to over 26 countries. For his global work, max was awarded the International Crisis Award from UNICEF and the World of Children in 2018.
Max is also a published author, contributing to the book “Art Making with Refugees and Survivors: Transformative Response to Trauma After Natural Disasters, War, and Other Crises”, as well as publishing with Global Citizen.
He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and received his Education Doctorate from the Teachers College at Columbia University.
[00:04] Jennifer Wu: Hi everyone, thanks for listening to The Founder Spirit Podcast. I'm your host, Jennifer Wu. In this podcast series, I'll be interviewing exceptional individuals from all over the world with the founder spirit, ranging from social entrepreneurs, tech founders, to philanthropists, elite athletes, and more. Together, we'll uncover not only how they manage to succeed in face of multiple challenges, but also who they are as people and their human story.
Our guest today is Dr. Max Frieder, who is the Chief Creative Officer and Co-Founder of Artolution, a global non-for-profit organization that seeks to strengthen communities experiencing crisis through collaborative art making. Max is a public artist, a social entrepreneur, and a humanitarian whose work ranges from community building in refugee camps, abuse and addiction support, resilience building, and conflict resolution.
A native of Denver, Colorado, he has worked with hundreds of communities in different contexts across the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Europe, North America, and Asia. His projects have taken him from refugee camps in Syria, South Sudan, Bangladesh, Palestine, Greece to conflict zones, traumatized communities, and across borders to over 26 countries. For his global work, max was awarded the International Crisis Award from UNICEF and the World of Children in 2018.
Max is also a published author, contributing to the book “Art Making with Refugees and Survivors: Transformative Response to Trauma After Natural Disasters, War, and Other Crises”, as well as publishing with Global Citizen. He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and received his Education Doctorate from the Teachers College at Columbia University.
Thank you, Max, welcome to the show! I'm so excited to have you with us today.
[02:03] Max Frieder: Thank you so much, Jennifer.
[02:05] Jennifer: Max, your work is very unique. As I understand, by using art as an empowerment tool, you're essentially uplifting trauma and restoring dignity in people. Your work also has a very wide reach, it spans across six continents. I think the only continent where you haven't worked is Antarctica.
So in order to give audience a good idea of what you do and the positive impact that you have on local communities, can you start today's episode with a story about a woman named Dildar?
[02:31] Max: I would love to, Dildar is one of my greatest inspirations in life, and Dildar is an incredible woman who was living in Rakhine State in Myanmar. Back in 2017, her whole village was attacked by the military junta, and she had a series of compounding traumas that all happened at one time, where her father was killed in front of her, her best friend was raped and then killed, her husband was then tortured and captured, where she still doesn't know if he's alive till this day.
When she fled with her special needs brother, her sister, her grandmother, and her mother, when they fled their small village, they used to have to actually dig holes in the ground during the daytime and cover themselves with dirt and with leaves and with sticks to be able to hide from the military junta. And then, at nighttime, they would run. For two weeks, they used to do this every day to get over the mountains near their village, to be able to actually get to the border of the Naf River.
When they arrived, they actually hand wove a raft out of bamboo to be able to get across the river. They actually got trapped between the river and the border, where for three days, they didn't have food or water and barely survived, and were able to get across with the other 750,000 people that crossed in under a month, where they actually came into what became the largest refugee camp in human history to have ever existed, called the Balukhali and Kutupalong refugee camps.
When she arrived, she had what we call shock-based mutism. She didn't speak for nine months because of the trauma that she had faced. By having this experience, she didn't know what was going to happen next in her life or if she would have a life. She came and participated in an Artolution program, where she came and painted for the first time ever in her life, painting.
When she made that first mark across the wall, her first words were that I forgot what it felt like to be alive. That I, for the first time, in remembering what it felt like to be alive, and that this feeling of breaking my silence, that this is the greatest gift that I've ever been able to receive. This is the gift that I want to share with others who have also been through this silence, and that whether it be women or children or girls, to be able for them to tell their stories. This is what I want to keep continuing every single day. Now, four years later, she is our lead teaching artist trainer, where she is teaching other artists to lead their own programs.
I just recently returned from the Rohingya refugee camps, and I met a woman named Samira. Samira is one of the next generations of artists that Dildar has been training. Samira, when she had started, she had never actually left her home before - she had been locked inside of her home. When she came and started working with Artolution, she started drawing and started painting. She had this unbelievably innate talent for being able to create art. What she did is she drew a girl, a beautiful painting of a girl with a very ornate wrapping around her head.
We asked Samira, who is this girl that you painted? And she said this is my sister. I have not seen her in five years, I do not know if she is alive, and I haven't seen her face, I forgot what her face looked like. This is the first time I'm getting to see her face in five years. This is what the gift of art can give. It is giving me my life back and my memories back for the person I love, my sister.
We took this painting, and we put it inside of a national exhibition. The first exhibition ever in the history of Bangladesh of Rohingya-made paintings, which then showcased Samira's work and Dildar's work as a way of saying, you matter, your voice matters, who you are and your identity and your culture matter, after having fled a genocide.
And when we look at what's possible, we see that the arts are able to give life meaning. It's able to have us connect to ourselves, to each other, to the world. It's able to give life a reason to wake up in the morning in some of the most difficult contexts you could imagine and saying that we need a reason to have light in a place that may feel that it's full of darkness. But actually, these are some of the most talented, brilliant sages that we need to learn from every day.
[07:37] Jennifer: In 2020, the World Health Organization published a study that underscored the benefits of arts to mental and physical health. But it seems like you already uncovered that much earlier before this study, how did you first discover that art had the ability to heal people and uplift communities?
[07:58] Max: One of the first times that I started doing this work, I was working in New Zealand, working in Maori indigenous communities. I was very lucky to be invited to work, doing a tour of murals, across the whole North Island, very small town called Ōpōtiki, which is a Maori town. We were working with children and youth who had been incarcerated, children who had been arrested for stabbings, mostly the children of gang members. These were kids who had been through many different types of traumas, and they had their own inter-generational traumas that they were working through.
When they first arrived, they're like, who is this foreigner coming in doing this work? And we don't care. Over days of working with them, they really opened up. I remember there was one boy named Rylan who were working with, and he was the first one to say we should paint, everyone else is refusing, we should paint. Once Rylan started, all of the other kids came in, right? We started painting, and they decided they wanted to paint an image of a Maori warrior and all of the inspiring memories that they were taught by their families.
We painted this giant canvas of a Maori warrior, and then we took it, and I was able to get permission to actually hang it in the main central entrance of the police station. We actually went to the police station, and we brought all of these youths there. Instead of being arrested, this is the same police station where they had all been arrested. Instead, they were being cheered; they were being applauded, and being said your voice matters, this is inspiring, look at what's possible.
What we found is then actually later on, Rylan was able to get back into school and then was able actually to graduate from high school, and then went to college to study art education, to become an art teacher. We found this years later, staying in contact with the community there. I saw this and thought, oh man, this is maybe an evolution, this is maybe a solution to some of these problems or a resolution to conflicts, or a revolution in what the arts and education can be. It's the Artolution, it's the Artolution.
So I actually bought the domain name Artolution.org that night. And it wasn't an organization, it was me going around the world doing this work. Then over the years, I started working with my co-founder, Joel Bergner, and we started coming together and saying we need to support local artists to do this. There are so many remarkably talented, driven, passionate local artists who just happened to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We had experiences in the Syrian refugee camps working together, we worked across Latin America, we worked extensively during the first and second Gaza wars and had work where the number one thing I kept being asked was, when are you coming back? And I realized that's the wrong question. The right question is, how do we do this for ourselves? What do we need to do this independently on our own?
That initial seed that was planted in the tiny little town of Ōpōtiki many years later has now spread across the world into six major continents, and we have worked in Antarctica, with an Australian innovation think tank on a mural displayed on the Antarctic archipelago actually. For us, we now have regional hubs in five different continents around the world as a primary focus, starting with that one little seed that's now grown into their own forests all over the globe.
[11:25] Jennifer: That's a beautiful story. I stand corrected, you have worked on all seven continents.
So I want to come back a little bit to earlier. I'm guessing you were born with this innate passion and talent to paint and create since a very young age, maybe when you were even inside your mother. You also went to RISD, which is short for Rhode Island School of Design. It's one of the best art schools in the world. How did you first become interested in public art? Was it because you had that experience with the Maori people?
[12:01] Max: Actually, with the Maori community as my study abroad when I was at RISD. Initially before that happened, I had the experience of being the creative director at an arts camp in upstate New York in the Adirondacks, where I had the impossible opportunity of having 25 staff members that I was working with. I had an unlimited budget, I had incredibly talented and driven kids, and started doing all kinds of crazy projects. We started taking trash and painting all over it, we started being able to do ziplining painting, or painting on horseback, or being able to do giant pieces on wood, and we started experimenting with this.
What was interesting is because I was still making paintings, I'm an artist and an educator myself, and so I had been making lots of paintings, but I never felt fully fulfilled of just taking paintings and just putting them on a wall to sell by myself. I always felt like the possibility of what the arts can do is the closest thing to magic that exists in the world. When you see what happens with kids who never had that experience before, and you look at the look in their eyes, it's unlike anything else that can exist. It is being able to harness the soul of the universe in many ways.
I started having the opportunity when I was at RISD to start advocating for this. I was lucky enough to start to actually build giant interactive musical sculptures out of trash and recycled materials called our “Foundstrument Soundstrument” project. And that came from my time at RISD, where I decided, okay, what happens if we get a whole bunch of kids to just bang on a whole bunch of trash and to let out their emotions, to take the frustrations or the happiness that they feel and to put it out into the world? What happens when you create a situation like this?
So I was lucky enough while I was there to do a series of very eccentric projects, let's say, and one of those was actually taking a giant sculpture I'd built called the Foundstrument Soundstrument that could attach to the back of a bicycle, and I actually bicycled it from RISD to the Providence Children's Museum. I got children to come and play it, to bang all over this, and then we donated it to the Rhode Island Recycling Center.
What was amazing about this experience was seeing that so much of the time, kids are told to be quiet, to sit still, to be fitting these very specific parameters and structures. If we create a safe space that can turn into a brave space, and that by doing that, then we can bang on that, and we can sing, and we can dance, and we can transform trash into joy.
Seeing that, then how do we do that with paint? How do we do that with sculpture? How can we do that with collage or any materiality? Saying that this is actually something that has immense potential both for people in the art world and beyond, people who may have never had experiences in the art world. Being able to then find encouragement with especially a certain number of mentors and colleagues, that really transformed my perspective.
[14:47] Jennifer: So I was told one of your earlier attempts of working with marginalized communities was while studying at RISD, you became friends with a bunch of homeless people, and much to the dismay of your classmates and certain faculty member, you brought them on campus to visit art studios and museums. Can you tell us what were you trying to do there? What were you trying to experiment, Max?
[15:13] Max: So I did a project that was called Occupy the Artolution, it was in the early days of Artolution. And what we did is during the Occupy Wall Street movement, there was actually across America, people made encampments in parks.
I was invited to come and do a project in the central area where it was all homeless folks and said, can you come and make art with the community here? I said, great, I would love to do that, let me teach you how to dumpster dive for materials that were being thrown away by the RISD art store. I knew that at a certain time of day on certain days of the week, art materials that were, quote-unquote, expired were going to be thrown away. I started to teach a group of homeless folks who were living in the park how to dumpster dive for free art materials.
What we started to do is we started to actually wrap canvas that was being thrown away and especially print-making fabric that was behind paper. We started actually stretching it between trees and getting people to come paint. These are folks who were suffering from addiction or people who had lost their homes. And they had this joy, this unbelievable joy when they were all getting to paint together. I said, what if I made them all alter egos? I actually started hand-sewing costumes for these folks, and actually, we agreed communally on superhero names for the people.
[16:38] Jennifer: It sounds just like a Max Frieder story.
[16:41] Max: It was wild, we had people named like Spyro Rad and BB Bear and Samurai Mates, and these names that we came up with. We became this group of people that would go around and try to find art materials being thrown away, making art with the community on a purely grassroots level.
For me, I really felt that these folks deserved access to the world. I brought them into my studio, we did photoshoots, I tried to bring them into the museum.
[17:10] Jennifer: with their costumes, of course.
[17:12] Max: with the costumes, and we're talking like full face paint, like capes, crazy hats that we hand-sewed. We made this entire experience that really gave meaning to these people being, and rather than just sitting around as a protest, we actually were doing these amazing actions. They actually donated an art tent to what we called Occupy the Artolution, and the Occu crew is what we called it.
What was really interesting as a result of that is I faced a lot of people who weren't very encouraging of that, who didn't believe in bringing these worlds together, especially to do it in such a grassroots way. I found other folks who were really supportive of it and said, this is exactly what we need to switch up the norm. We need to bring these worlds together to build bridges between the homeless folks that only are five minutes away or ten minutes away, who never have had access or have never been to a museum or inside of an art studio or been able to paint something that could then actually be valued.
What was really remarkable in the end about doing this is it really proved that this could happen. It planted the seeds of saying, what happens if we start to try to build bridges? Of course, there will be adversarial relationships, that's part of the territory. Also, how do we heal those divides, and how can the arts be that catalyst? I think that seeing that in that environment with the Occu crew, it ended up really bonding me to certain colleagues for life who were hugely encouraging.
I had one professor who actually came down to the Occupy Providence, the little township, if you will, and sat with all the homeless folks, with us and made art together. This professor has now, to this day, been my mentor named Mike Fink, and it was something that made an indelible impact on his life and mine as well. When we look at what's possible, I think this is one little seedling of the types of possibilities that the arts can create.
[18:55] Jennifer: Much of your work since then is now with people at refugee camps. Do you recall your first experience at a refugee camp? Can you tell us what it was like for you? I know it was probably at an early age, right?
[19:09] Max: Relatively early, it was my first global crisis context where I was working with a refugee camp. Actually, it was my first time working with what has now become my co-founder, Joel Bergner.
I was working in the Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank in Palestine, and then working on the border of Syria in Jordan - a clear memory of going to both environments, which were very different from one another, as you can imagine.
I remember when I went to Zaatari refugee camp, which at the time was the largest refugee camp for the Syrian conflict, and seeing thousands of people coming in, especially children, walking alone in the most desolate desert. I had one very specific memory where I remember there was a riot, and we were in lockdown when we were doing this big mural painting project, and they ended up locking the space. And they said, okay, you have to be evacuated in three minutes, you have to have all your stuff ready to go in three minutes. Three minutes went by, and they said, there's not enough time to evacuate you, your compound needs to be locked down, just hope that the riot doesn't spread and just stay indoors, stay inside of the tents and just wait.
We ended up spending about 3 hours waiting. I remember there was a man that I was standing with whose name was Mufflei and were painting together, right? We were just painting together. Mufflei told me, he said, and I've stayed in contact with him until this day, and he said, I fled because I didn't want to join the military, I didn't want to join the Syrian military, and they were going to force me to join. When I was leaving, I arrived here, and I actually just got a message from my brother, and I called him, and he actually had audio recorded the phone message and showed it to me. And this is my conversation - they're talking back and forth, and then the brother starts to yell, and all of a sudden, you hear shoot, you hear shoot. He said this is my last conversation, and then he was killed in Aleppo. This was actually only two days ago, this happened.
He said, when I think about what's possible, I want to think about anything else but that. Just being able to hold a paintbrush and paint allows me to be able to escape my constant thinking about the loss of my brother. I developed this amazing relationship with Mufflei, and Joel as well, we were all part of this experience.
The riot ended up getting dispersed, and the children came back to the community about 2 or 3 hours later. And we were all painting, you could tell these kids were just so thirsty to want to have joy. They're dealing with riots; they're dealing with insecurity; they don't know what's going to happen tomorrow; they may have been separated from their families. You could tell they were so thirsty.
I had a little harmonica that I always carry, and I started just playing the harmonica. The minute that I started playing the harmonica, the kids start dancing, like wildly dancing, as though it was the most amazing music they'd ever heard, with me and my little harmonica. So I start dancing with them, and Mufflei starts dancing, and we all start dancing with the kids. All of a sudden, this dancing bursts out of the tent into the barbed wire-surrounded desert.
Just with this little harmonica, just playing a couple of notes, these kids are dancing like they've never danced in their whole life. We make a giant circle, and we're dancing, and it's like this huge mosh pit of everyone laughing and being silly. You could tell that element of having joy; there's nothing more sacred, there's nothing more special than that. It gets to the core of humanity, which is that what makes us human. It is creativity, it’s expression; it's the want to be able to tap into what makes us ourselves, which is play. And that element of play as a form of healing that it's essential, whether we look at the cognitive implications of this, or the emotional implications and the social implications, that one moment really showed me, even in the darkest of environments, that's where the most light can exist.
And that idea, at its core, is that as humans, we need to look at what the best of humanity is and then use that to amplify the messages about humanization, and that can then be applied around public health, mental health, protection, livelihoods, around what really matters, and using the arts to catalyze that.
[23:14] Jennifer: That's a really powerful message, thank you for sharing. I wanted to ask you, how did you get started at these refugee camps? Now, I know that you've had your first experience in a Palestinian camp, I don't imagine that you get calls from heads of refugee camps. So for example, how did you get started at the Rohingya refugee camp?
[23:39] Max: That is an excellent question, each one has its own remarkable story. I think the Rohingya camp is an extraordinary example of what's possible. In certain cases, like the story I just told in the Syrian camps, we were invited through a local organization to come work with them. When we were working in the Palestinian refugee camps, we were working with the US State Department and with UNRA (UN Refugee Agency), who got us permissions within the public diplomacy sector.
Now in the Rohingya camps, it was a bit of a different situation. The Rohingya camps, for those who don't know, has become the largest refugee camp in human history to have ever existed. When the influx happened, it was a relatively uncoordinated, there was a lot of things happening. I think the large INGOs and the large UN organizations were trying and doing their best to be able to coordinate, but there was so much happening at one time, that it was very difficult to be able to know what was really there to be done.
There was this guy, a very random guy, who was bicycling across Asia and had biked into Bangladesh totally randomly and happened to have been there during the main influx. His name was Adam Osta, this guy basically decided his own volition to raise of money and wanted to build clean water wells - that was his main focus. The main thing he saw was the high level of shock and trauma amongst the children in the community. What he did, his name is Adam Osta, still a very dear friend of mine, he started looking online. He said, who works with arts and trauma with kids? Who does this? Is this something that people do? Who does this? He found our work, he found Artolution, and he sent a quick email saying, I don't know if this is possible, I don't know if you're available or if you could come, but this is what's happening here.
For me, I had known about the Rohingya conflict, and I had known about the influx and had really wanted to go, to be able to start a program there based on our model that we've been working with around the world. So two came together, of me wanting to go there and him sayin this is really needed. I knew that the need was there, I was able to go there and we were able to make about $1,000 budget last for 2.5 months, which was amazing.
What we did is, when I initially went there, he thought that I was coming just to work with kids who've been through trauma. That was his focus; for me, that was not my focus. My focus was to find local artists, teach them how to be able to work with children so that they would be able to do it in their own community for the long run.
A lot of people said I was crazy. I got there, and people said, you're never going to find any artists, that doesn't exist here. And I said that's not possible, there are artists, there are creative people in every culture in the entire world. What happened is I started going house to house, and I started asking, do you know any artists? People said, there are no artists here, artists would get killed in Myanmar. I said okay, but that doesn't mean there aren't artists, it just means maybe they didn't have an opportunity to express themselves, but we need to find (them). And I literally spent two weeks knocking on doors.
We were doing projects, and in between, I would just go and knock on doors and say, do you know any artists? Now, if I had asked for craftsmen, if I had asked for seamstresses, I would have found people very quickly. I wasn't, I was asking for artists, people who identified as artists, and people did not identify. I was doing a project, I remember, with Camp 18 in Balukhali, and these two guys come up, Mohammed Hassan and Mohammed Nur. They come up to me, and they say, we hear that you're this crazy fatai, the crazy foreigner who's looking for artists. I said, yes, I'm looking for artists.
They said, well, we're not sure if we're artists, but we've always dreamed of being artists. One Muhammad Hasan said, I was illegally in university, and I snuck in and said I wasn't Rohingya. And I always loved making diagrams about zoology, it was my favorite thing I love to do, right? So does that make me an artist? Mohammed Nur said I told my mother my big dream in life was to become an artist. She said, Muhammad Nur if I ever catch you making art, I'm going to burn your art because if you get caught by the government, you'll be killed. He tells me this story when I meet him. He used to take charcoal from the fires and make art on pieces of trash, on pieces of garbage. He would take these drawings, and he would bury them in the ground so that nobody could find them. He would do that every day, and he's telling me this story.
So I started working with these two guys, Muhammad Nur, Muhammad Hasan, and they were incredibly talented, so good with the kids, really passionate. I said, let's find a couple more guys like you, let's find a couple of men and people who we can find. So they found Unsar Ula, this guy had gotten an illegal SIM card and had taught himself how to break dance from downloading illegal Bollywood movies, and actually in the hiding of his home, used to break dance alone and was this amazing dancer. We called him Dansar Ula. And then we had Mohammed Amin, Mohammed Amin always dreamed of being a photographer and a videographer.
What ended up happening is this small group, these four guys, I started training them and teaching them - this is how we work with kids, this is how we do breathing workshops, this is how we lay a background, this is how we bring drawings together, All of our methodology, all of our curriculum that I was able to share with them in our first phase of certification for these four artists.
Now, I left and I said, guys, you need to find female artists, we need to find the same number of female artists that we have of male artists. They said, well Max, that's not possible; there are no female artists - women, in many case, are not even allowed to leave the home, let alone to become artists. I said, look and you will find, everywhere that there are talented male artists; there are an equal number of talented female artists - look, and you will find.
And after 3.5 months of looking, they found Rishmi, Rifa, Hasina, and Anwara, our first four female artists. These amazing four women, they started working with us. What was remarkable is when we started doing training with them, that when I came back, they were so surprised that I actually came back because so much of the time, people come, they do one flashy program, and they leave. When we did the second time coming, it was like the biggest deal you could ever imagine coming back. It was like tears, it was really emotional - we started doing a training.
And these women were so inspiring for girls to see that a woman could be an artist, that a woman could be a local leader in this way. What was amazing is that team of the original 8 members now has grown to over 40 Rohingya refugee artists over the last four years. What's been remarkable is that first team that ended up teaching Dildar, who then ended up teaching Samira, and this is all happening, especially myself and my co-founder and our teams are not there. The whole point is that it is fully localized, fully led by Rohingya and Bangladeshi artists, our coordination staff, our country manager, and our field coordinators, who are all local. That is what you need to make an indelible impact into the lives of a local community.
[30:42] Jennifer: I find it remarkable that you remember everybody's name along the way. that's very impressive. One thing that I want to ask you is that these refugee camps tend to be very political, highly sensitive places. I think a lot of people don't know that. How do you navigate in these situations?
[31:01] Max: It's all about localization. If me, as a foreigner, coming in and trying to negotiate with a local imam, even though I do speak basic Arabic, that in itself is not enough. What you have to have is you have to have local leaders who are advocating for this in their own cultural expressive methodologies. So what we were able to do is then you contextualize it to the needs of the local community, I think that's essential.
You also need to build a bridge between who controls the camp like UNHCR. For us, that's a lot of times what my role or my co-founder's role will be, is to go in and say, okay, we need to make sure from the top levels we're getting support to be operating in the country. From that one refugee-led organization or community-based organization or local initiative, that we have to be the bridge between those two different sectors.
We have signed a global memorandum of understanding, a global contract with UNHCR saying that our methodology, that we want to scale this all over the world, that we want this to be the next phase in the history of the arts and education being registered within mental health and psychosocial support, community-based protection, child protection, and also a focus on livelihoods and education.
Now, what's interesting is you look at any of the stories that I just shared that's really localized very grassroots needs. But we need to make sure that at the top level, this is being supported. You have a bottom-up approach and a top-down approach, and you're able to simultaneously put this in congruence so that you make sure that the synergies are able to be supported.
Because in the end, people in their communities know what they need, and they know how to talk about it with their own communities, far better than anybody from the outside could ever know. So what we have to do as folks who are foreigners, who are trying to build these bridges, we need to be able to facilitate communities to do this for themselves in their own way and to say, actually we need to learn from them.
They need to be our greatest sages - that was actually my first line of my doctorate, which I highly recommend reading, if you can, called the Rohingya Artolution, open source online. It says that these are our greatest sages and that we need to learn from them every single day. I believe that is a daily mantra within my life.
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[34:49] Jennifer: You recently exhibited a large canvas mural called The Color of Resilience. It's made of four panels, each from a specific refugee camp. Can you tell us what it represents and the story behind it?
[35:07] Max: The Color of Resilience was (an) astounding opportunity that has never really happened in its way of ever functioning before. I have to give a lot of credit to Joseph Fowler, the head of arts and culture (at the World Economic Forum) who made this happen. What we were able to do collaboratively is were able to get communities in four different refugee camps and crisis-affected communities to tell their story of where they came from, how they got to where they are, and what are their dreams for the future.
They were all of these amazing narratives going from left to right like a book, an English book. What we found was that we did it in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, in the South Sudanese refugee camps, also with a Congolese artist and Ugandan artist working all together. We brought together Venezuelan-displaced communities as well as internally displaced communities in Colombia, and we worked extensively with Syrian refugees and local Jordanians and Palestinians together within Jordan.
Each of these four chapters of a single story were all able to tell the same narrative, looking at it through lenses from across the world. These were, each of you can imagine, different bands of a single giant tapestry. When you look across them, they have these remarkable stories where we had over 500 kids who were participating with all of our teaching artists, and that what we're able to do is have them then also to tell their stories about each one has its own title.
We actually got them shipped to Davos, to Switzerland, and then we stretched them. We were able to actually put a lacquer on to get them really beautifully professionally framed and then actually hung at the World Economic Forum in the central atrium.
What was remarkable about this is this has actually been the first time that there had been collaborative refugee-made paintings that were ever on the walls at Davos. Really saying, how do we get these people's voices to be heard at the highest levels with the most influential change-makers, policymakers, global leaders, to be able to actually have these artifacts that were going to then actually be able to be shown in this type of a scale?
We actually developed a website, and the website goes through each region, where you can hear the stories of each of the different participating children and the artists. You can actually explore each individual section and read their stories as this online piece of the work that we do that is open source and accessible to the world. When we were able to video call our teams from the different refugee camps in, what was astounding was just how emotional it was, to say people care, people acknowledge that we exist, that we matter at this very high level.
Now we're going to be taking the Color of Resilience and touring it around the world to different major locations to be able to bring this story and to be able to garner support for people like Dildar or Samira or Mohammed Nur, and that they're the ones who matter the most. I feel like I've learned more from folks who may not even have literacy on their side, may not be able to read or write, but that they have lessons that we truly need to learn from at every stage of the game.
[38:09] Jennifer: For some of the audience who have not seen your murals, do check them out on the Internet, and I'll include them also in the show notes afterward. They're stunningly beautiful, they’re very colorful, and they convey a deep sense of hope and optimism, because a lot of times in these refugee camps, it's very drab, there's not a lot of colors. Just by painting them on the walls and people get the chance to walk by them every day and seeing those colors, I would imagine it be very uplifting for their souls.
We know now how big of a difference that you make in the lives of these refugees that you work with. But what difference do you think it makes vis-a-vis how the world perceives these refugees through your art?
[39:14] Max: I think the word refugee can be very stigmatizing, there's a lot of xenophobia, you're coming to take our jobs. Nobody wants to be a refugee, bobody wants to leave their home. They do it because they won't be able to live if they don't. They're in horrifically compounding, traumatic situations that are making some of the hardest decisions of their lives to leave the home that they know, and to leave everything that they've worked for, that imagine everything you've ever had in your life disappears in one day. That's an impossible thing to fathom for most people.
One of the things that we've been working really hard to do is this image that many people have in their eyes of imagining a child in poverty with flies in their eyes, who are going through starvation, who are experiencing trauma. We have this very specific idea, and I say we within the quote-unquote developed or the Western or the Global North.
How do we change that paradigm? How do we look at a child who instead is covered in paint, is painting and has a huge smile on their face and saying, okay, that is the best of what is possible in humanity. One of the things that we believe is that arts bring out the best at the worst time in people's lives.
We know that the situation is horrifically difficult. Even more, we know there's more trauma to come. I say that not in a depressing way, but in a way of saying we need to prepare for the trauma to come. Whether it be about climate change and climate action and preparing for refugees that are having to flee their homes, whether it's man-made crises and disasters, that we're at over 103 million displaced people in the world today. That number 103 million, it's unfathomable, right? That's impossible to try to imagine.
And yet when we think about just Dildar or just Samira, and we just think about their one story, it gives us a little insight into what's possible. What I think we really need to do is to resculpt and recraft the narrative around refugees and say, actually, because they have been through this experience, they are the ones who need to teach us about how to deal with these experiences and that we need to shift that paradigm of saying that we're here to help. We are not here to help, we are here to share. We share whatever we can, and we learn sometimes way more than we could ever give.
And I think if we can use the best of culture, which is the arts and creativity and cultural expression, that is what I think can change the paradigm of saying, actually we need to look at these folks as a strength rather than as something that might be viewed as negative or a weakness.
I think that shift is not easy, it's not easy. It's a lot easier to talk about it than it is to do it, and it’s far more easy to be cynical than it is to actually find solutions. It seems overwhelmingly giant when you look at the global migration crisis.
What's much harder to say is, listen, we know we are fighting for a droplet of healing in a sea of pain, we know that. That one colorful droplet can create ripples. And if there's enough droplets and then there’s enough ripples, we can change the trajectory of how the global migration crisis is being viewed, and how we can get institutions like the World Economic Forum, UNHCR, the US State Department, the European Union. How can we get them to support this and change their policies to say when we're trying to give quote-unquote aid or assistance or development support, how do we make sure that the preexisting strength of those communities is put at the front?
So that when it's happening, it's not being done, instead it's doing to catalyze. It's being implemented to be a vehicle of transformation. That's the shift that we're really fighting for. The reality is it comes through resources and through funding, it also comes through local wisdom. You need that local wisdom to be able to support every step of the process.
[42:51] Jennifer: Well, you're really using art and collaborative art-making as a catalyzer. And I think by providing meaning in their lives, you're also giving meaning to your life.
We're going to shift now and talk about Max, the social entrepreneur, and you're an incredible storyteller, but now we're going to talk about the story of Artolution. As you mentioned, you actually bought the domain name a lot earlier, Artolution, before you founded the organization, how did you decide to start Artolution as the non-for-profit versus just keep on going as a public artist?
[43:35] Max: A good analogy to discuss that with is if you imagine this orb of light, all those stories I just shared, all of these emotions, all the stuff that really makes this worth doing. The only way that it'll continue is if you build a scaffolding around it, and that scaffolding needs to be flexible, it needs to be adaptive. But that idea of a scaffolded framework is the only way that orb of light continues to live, and that it is governance, and it is fiduciary responsibility, funding cycles, fundraising, development. That orb of light cannot exist without all of that support.
Initially, when I started doing this work, it was just me independently. Artolution was my moniker. It was my name, right? I would sign every mural as Artolution, like me as an individual Max Frieder. And then as time started to go on, the biggest thing that I realized is it can't be that, it can't be me. There's no way that's able to, number one, make an actual long-term and profound impact into communities. And number two, it shouldn't be. It needs to be something that's shared. So when I started working with Joel Bergner, with my co-founder, both of us came to the same conclusion, which was we need to support local artists to do this. That's what matters the most, far more than us.
One thing that happened through a very bizarre series of events, which I mentioned earlier, I got invited to be the creative visualizer on an Australian innovation think tank on an expedition in Antarctica. When I was there, a really interesting thing that happened is three guys came over and said, we think that everything else happening here doesn't matter compared to what you're doing, we think being able to bring arts into crisis context is the most important thing that's happening here, and we want to create anonymous donor platform for this work. So they actually opened up an account and started with the first small amount of funding that they had. It was $25,000, which then, at the time, felt really huge. We made it last for two years by getting all of the money matched or doubled, or tripled by other partners like the State Department, the European Union, the UN.
And then what we did is then, of those three, one of them became one of our first board members. That idea of building a board and really being able to build a governance structure became a huge priority for us, being able to register in the US as a 501c)3 tax deductible organization. So we did this, we started in 2015. Now realized that was like five years, almost more than five years from what Artolution started, it actually became an entity, became something outside of ourselves, right? It became its own person sitting in the room, it continues to grow and evolve and change. We've had to be a very agile, very versatile type of an organization.
And one that makes us very unique in what we do is that we are an organization for artists, by artists, run with art at the core. Many times an organization for the arts is not run by artists, many artists do not have the patience and willpower. And don't get me wrong; it drives us crazy in our own ways. But in other way, what we found is that keeping that integrity at the core has been really important to maintaining the work we do.
And that building a culture of care is essential. We care for ourselves; we care for each other; we care for our community; we care for the world. That by building a culture of care that is owned in each location by the community, that's what's going to be the most inspiring thing to work so hard. And our artists work so hard, I've seen it so many times, I am astounded by how incredibly hard they work, what they do, and why. Because if you do what you love, you won't work a day in your life, and you'll work harder than anyone who does it. My dad told me this when I was young, and I've seen it in our teams.
[47:00] Jennifer: As an artist, what’s fundraising like for you?
[47:03] Max: The reality is a lot of the time of myself and my co-founder has spent fundraising. It’s trying to figure out how can we make sure that Dildar has food on her table a year from now. That is a big thing to have to do, especially because myself and my co-founder, we are both community artists. One thing that I've noticed is that I still have to keep a balance in my own psychosocial well-being, I can't spend all my time looking for funding. Otherwise, my soul starts to get a little dampened.
The most hard thing of all the work that we do, people say it must be so hard to work in crisis context when people with trauma, by far the hardest thing we do is fundraising. That is, by far, the hardest part of our entire job by a landslide, which sounds impossible. But the reality is you can find very active and very applicable methodologies to working through trauma, working with the arts, working through education, that there are ways that we can deal with this in a proactive setting. What's really hard is being able to make sure that it's all supported and that it's all funded. So that's been the balance.
[48:17] Jennifer: Coming from a finance person having raised money for startups, I would also say that fundraising is an art.
[48:25] Max: Absolutely.
[48:26] Jennifer: It is much more of an art than science. It's all about communicating, and it's about connecting with people, your investors, your funders; and it's the same thing with sales. It's about connecting with the other person sitting across the room from you, whether you're asking for a sales contract or you're asking for their financial support, in this case.
[48:43] Max: When you're working in arts and culture, I think having really realistic expectations is essential. That if you can have four offers, you can expect that three of those people who say that they love your work and they're super enthusiastic aren't going to come through. If you're getting one out of every four offers, that's 25%, you're doing really good.
When you get that 25%, you have to make it 100% of the time successful. There isn't a margin for error as there is in particularly other sectors. Arts and culture is so underfunded, so under-supported, especially when you're looking in the crisis context or it's not even part of the conversation most of the time.
I think for a lot of people, that's very frustrating, it's very disappointing, it can be very soul-crushing for a lot of people. If you go into it knowing that before you start and preparing yourself for that kind of endurance, it is an endurance test. And I say that any social entrepreneur who's curious about the arts and culture and the non-for-profit sector is that it is tough.
True resilience comes from saying, you know what, I'm going to wake up in the morning, and I'm still going to push for it, right? I'm still going to do everything I can to make sure that Dildar has that food on her table and that Dildar is able to teach Samira, who's been able to teach the children in her community. I think for myself, and I think for our teams, keeping that at the core helps you get through some of that diligence, some of that really hard work that can feel insurmountable, it feels too difficult. I think that to me is key.
[50:10] Jennifer: I learned earlier on as the CFO of a startup, that I used to get very discouraged when people rejected me when they said, oh, sounds like an interesting project, but we're not really interested. I used to get really down, and then my CEO, he said something that puts everything in perspective, and it's very similar to what you said.
He's like, look, it's a numbers game - you're going to meet 100 people, only five is going to be interested, and eventually, two will actually invest. What that means is somebody said no to my project or to my startup, then I couldn't let that one rejection take me down, so I had to get up and go look for another 99 potential investors.
[50:55] Max: And to sometimes have to tell yourself, I actually need to have those people who either make false promises, or who don't ever follow up, or the people who straight out reject you, that you need to have those to get to the good ones. If you don't have the 99 rejections, then you won't get the one success, so you have to have it. That numbers game is not a choice, and it's a journey that you can't be disappointed when it happens because you wouldn't get into this in the first place otherwise.
[51:24] Jennifer: Speaking of you wouldn’t get into this in the first place, I’m curious, how do you prepare yourself going into a refugee camp?
[51:31] Max: When you go in, you need to know you're going to be dealing with some really hard stuff. You're not surprised when you have people telling you horrific stories and crying and these very difficult experiences, and you go into it knowing that.
You have to have your own psychosocial support mechanisms internally; where I, for example, will take a week before I start a project, and I will reflect on myself, I will prepare. When I'm in the field, I'll be doing all have my own journal, I'll be doing a sketchbook, I'll be trying to find ways to meditate or ways to be able to have music and dance and things that I need to release what I'm feeling. And then afterward, I have a week of reflection. I have time that I'm reflecting on what I experienced, and sitting and holding space for the things that I just experienced.
You have to do the same thing for fundraising, it’s like preparing yourself - I know that I'm going to get rejected a lot of the times. You go through it, you get rejected a lot of the times, but you do get success, hopefully enough to be able to continue. When that happens, then you reflect on why it was as successful, when did it work, and why.
Our initial seed funding came from the Chime for Change Foundation, through Gucci, and it was like capturing lightning in a bottle. They ended up giving our seed funding to be able to scale across the world to five major contexts, and then we're able to then kind of continue independently. But we've tried to replicate that, and you may never be able to replicate it, and that's okay. It played its role within the story of your life.
I think that mentality it's not easy. It is an unnatural feeling to embrace rejection or to embrace people telling you that you're worthless and that everything you're doing is pointless, which are things that I have been told more than once. And for anyone who listens to this, who's going through the rejection process, it's part of the journey, and it's not easy.
[53:24] Jennifer: It is part of the journey. As an artist starting a non-for-profit organization, you probably get a lot of unsolicited business advice, especially in the early days. Is there one piece of business advice that you received early on that you like to share with the audience?
[53:41] Max: Mike Fink, my mentor, he told me something really good that really helped me out a lot. He said when you're doing anything in life, that realize that when you're in the beginning, you are in the beginning; when you are in the middle, you're in the middle; only when you're at the end, then you're at the end; and never get those three steps mixed up.
That's been really helpful for me, because there are times where you start, and you want to be at the end. You want to have full financial sustainability, you want to have all the funds raised. But you’re not there. That's one way that I view Artolution is that we're still going through these ups and downs of financial sustainability, and we may always go through this.
The dream is that we need to look at this over the next decades, because the global migration crisis is not going to stop. It is going to be larger, it is going to be more compounded, it is going to cascade, and we need to come up with resilient and durable responses before that happens.
[54:29] Jennifer: So we're soon coming to the end, I have two questions for you. Where can people find Max Frieder and Artolution?
[54:36] Max: On all the kinds of social media platforms that exist, you can check us out. It’s Artolution.org is our website, and Artolution on Instagram, Facebook; if you look at our work, also LinkedIn; if you see my work, it's Max Frieder, you can look at it as well on Instagram and on social media, please be in contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would also say that for us, a lot of times when you think about funding, we think about these huge numbers. For us, even a single dollar matters a lot to the communities that we're working in. That's one thing that a lot of people say, well, if I give a little, it's not worth giving it all. That's not true at all.
Comparatively with what we can do with relatively small numbers, compared to very large INGOs, we have very high-impact programming where we're tracking major shifts in self-esteem, social connectivity, being able to look at how people transformed their lives. What we found is that we've seen a lot of shifts from pre- to post-evaluations.
We also, of course, are always looking for new partnerships and collaborations with new types of institutions bringing into the work that we do, which means the world to us. Again, I cannot thank you enough, Jennifer, for inviting me to be on this. It means more to me and to our communities than I could ever say.
[55:33] Jennifer: Thank you. Max, you embody the Founder Spirit. So, my last question is, what does the Founder Spirit mean to you?
[55:41] Max: I love this idea of spirit and this idea that we stand on the shoulders of giants. For me, the giants that we're standing on the shoulders of is Dildar and Samira and Mohammed Nur and Mohammed Hasan and Mohammed Ibrahim and Samir. And these are our sages, these are the shoulders that I am lucky enough to try to perch myself on top of. And they are standing on our shoulders, right? We stand on each other's shoulders.
I think if I look at what the founder's spirit is, it's always, every day, reminding yourself, why am I alive? What makes me human? What makes me connect to others? And I was lucky enough to get to bicycle from San Francisco to Rhode Island, to bike across America. I met a guy who was serving in Bosnia during the war with the UN peacekeeping forces. He drew on the back of my shirt, and he wrote this phrase that became, in many ways, the mantra of my life. “Live to ride, ride to live; when falling, dive.” I'll repeat that - “live to ride, ride to live; when falling, dive.”
That we do this because our life wouldn't be fulfilled if we didn't do it and vice versa. When you are falling, dive - put intention and being able to pick your line and to roll with it, as you say in snowboarding. To choose your path and to give it everything you've got, even if you know that out of the 100 times you do it, only one time, it's going to come through, it's still worth doing.
The Founder Spirit is this idea of resilience. Resilience is knowing that you are going to, many of the times, not be able to succeed, and embracing that. And saying through embracing that, I'm able to find a truest version of myself. I'm able to get that core orb of light that is right deep inside of my soul, and then I can scream with every ounce I got, “akashuka pada pada” (art, community art); “Rongar Manush” (we are the colorful people), “Faribar” (we are the colorful people who are a family). You look at that, and I think if we can, as founders and co-founders, do this, then it keeps us true to ourselves and to the people that we seek to serve and, maybe most importantly, to our role in history.
The final note I will say is we really believe that Artolution is the next phase in the history of the arts and education and crisis contexts and that this is something that needs to spread to every crisis context in the world for the future of time.
I cannot thank you enough, Jennifer, for amplifying this message, and for amplifying the voices of Dildar, Samira, Muhammad Nur, Mohammed Hasan, Samir, all of our community. You are standing right here with them, eye to eye, face to face, and I cannot thank you enough for being able to share their message with the world.
[58:40] Jennifer: Thank you so much. We're now coming to the end of our interview, as we end every episode with a quote. For this episode, we have a quote from Salvador Dali, the famous Spanish surrealist artist.
“A true artist is not one who is inspired, but one who inspires others.”
Max, I want to thank you so much today for joining us and inspiring us with stories from your journey. Thank you!
[59:05] Max: Thank you, Jennifer, I cannot appreciate you enough.
[59:12] END OF AUDIO
(02:35) A Woman Named Dildar
(07:52) Max's Discovery of Art’s Ability to Heal People and Uplift Communities
(11:58) How Did Max Become Interested in Public Art?
(21:19) The Elements That Arts Can Give to People
(23:43) The Remarkable Story in the Rohingya Refugee Camp
(30:53) Navigating Artolution at Refugee Camps
(35:01) “The Color of Resilience” Mural
(39:00) How Does the World Perceive Refugees Through His Art?
(43:26) Max’s Motivation to Start Artolution as a Non-Profit Organization
(47:07) “The Hardest Thing” - Fundraising
(53:25) Business Advice Max Received While Starting His Cause
(55:36) What Does the Founder Spirit Mean to Max?
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