By Julia Fairclough

some people plan for their vacation by researching sites to visit or
fancy restaurants, Tova Speter lines up places to paint murals.

people in these parts know Speter, a long-time Somerville artist, for
her colorful murals that she has worked on throughout the city and
surrounding areas. So it really comes as no surprise that she would
paint while enjoying down time in some foreign city. But volunteering
her time and working with the local people in the community is
certainly something different to do while on a voyage.


"So many people were surprised and said, 'You are on vacation and you do this?'" Speter said of her recent trip to Panama.

was in Boquete, Panama, in early December with her husband, Peter
Sperber, and worked with seven non-profits and the local community to
create a colorful, nine-by-13-foot mural on the side of a building.
This will be her third "vacation mural," with the other two created in
Argentina and China. It was after the China project that Speter, who
loves to travel, decided she would work on a community mural every time
she traveled.

And the work is much more than going somewhere and
painting. Speter wants her project to be a collaboration with the local
people, a definitely unique way of engaging with others when on a
visit, she said.

Speter and her husband also mountain climbed
and went to the beach. They did not spend the entire time painting,
but, rather, a total of three days.

How Speter goes about her
vacation mural projects vary. While in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in
2007, she was with family who lives there. They helped her network with
the community to come across a hospital (Hospitale Italiano) that
welcomed a 40-by-10-foot mural. Speter worked with children from the
Ronald McDonald House, as her relative had connections with that
nonprofit. Nurses, doctors, other patients, and staff also came
together to contribute to the mural with the theme of "Vida" ("Life")
to help transform the hallway where parents and families wait for
updates regarding the treatment of their children.

The project
actually created quite a stir, and Speter and her fellow volunteers
were featured on the TV and radio. Visit Speter's Web site, http://tovaspeter.com/gallery_projects_argentina.html to see more info about the Argentina mural.

vacationed in China the next year with her parents. Since her parents
usually create an aggressive itinerary while on travel, Speter didn't
think that she could pull off a mural project while there. She would
hardly be in one place for enough time to do so. But, as it happened,
they went on a boat cruise down the Yangtze River for three days.

father told the boat operator that she was a "famous artist" who wanted
to paint a mural on the boat. The boat workers loved the idea. Speter
worked on a four-by-eight foot panel that the boat workers installed on
a main deck. The challenge for this project was that Speter and her
family did not speak Chinese, so there was much negotiation via hand

There was an American family on board the boat with
adopted Chinese girls. They were there to show their adopted children
their birth country. Both the boat crew and the family helped Speter to
create a colorful rendition as they traveled down the river. Visit http://tovaspeter.com/gallery_projects_china.html for more info about the China mural.

"It was a unique opportunity to bring everyone together," Speter said.

had no contacts in Panama, so this particular mural took some homework.
She researched non- profits doing work in Panama and sent emails asking
if anyone was looking for a mural to be created, on a volunteer basis.
A non-profit in Boquete responded, and the trip was planned from there.

has learned by now that something unexpected will inevitably arise.
This time around, the Boquete contact did not prepare as much as Speter
had expected. She arrived in Boquete, only to find out that the contact
did not secure a wall for her to create the mural. What she did show
Speter was a dilapidated building that would need a lot of prep work.
But Speter was determined.

The next day was Mother's Day-a huge
holiday in Panama-and all the stores in the small village of Boquete
were closed. Speter was prepared to dash to a larger city to get art
supplies and boarding for the old wall. At the last minute, the contact
found a wall for her to paint on, which was much smaller, but also
ideal for her time constraint.

What Speter found interesting
about Boquete was the large ex-patriot population. Five years ago,
Panama was billed by the AARP as an expensive and desirable place to
retire. So retire they did. The local infrastructure was insufficient
for the influx, so the ex-pats built gated communities tucked back into
the mountainside.

"I was taken aback because I wanted to work
with the local Panamanians," Speter said. But the non- profits were run
by these English-speaking people.

However, Speter improvised by
urging the locals to participate. She even waved down a taxi driver,
who pulled over and painted for a while.

"In broken Spanish we
gestured and invited them to join us," she said. "Different children
came by. Mothers joined us. Those were the special moments."

mural includes a large rainbow to highlight the many rainbows that
Boquete enjoys daily. A quetzal in the top left is the most known bird
in Boquete and the yellow hibiscus flower behind it also represents the
sun, Speter said.

Seven organizations make up the "community
garden" including UMMF (volunteer program), Amigos de Boquete, Animales
de Boquete, the Handicap Foundation, Loco por Leer (reading program),
Buenos Vicinos de Boquete (food program), and Real Boquete (recycling
program), she said.

Coffee is well known, grown, and enjoyed in
Boquete, so a coffee cup on the right is surrounded by the coffee
berries. The steam of the coffee transforms into birds that fly over
Volcan Baru, the waterfall, and river that make up part of Boquete's
natural beauty. The hands and the edge of the rainbow are the traced
hands of Boquete residents, representing the light and color they share
in their community, Speter said.

Called "The Spirit of Sharing,"
the mural project was essentially a bridge between the two communities,
the ex pats and the local Panamanians, which is also what the non
profits strove to do, Speter said.

"I like to think that the
mural was a way to bring the two groups of people together," she said.
"The most important part of the mural project is that it was open to

At first some locals were intimidated by art, mixed
with the trepidation that they did not belong with the ex patriot and
American tourist crowd.

"But joining helped to empower them,"
Speter said. "We never would have experienced all of this if we were
just tourists passing through."

And after the mural was complete, Speter received two different offers to come back and paint more murals.

is also busy with more local projects. Next month she will be an artist
in residence at the Joshua Eaton Elementary School in Reading, working
with over 400 students. This spring she will create a mural at the
Malden Center MBTA with local at-risk children. She has also partnered
with Casa Esperanza-a substance abuse program for Latino children-for a
mural on Dudley Street in Roxbury.


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