It takes a special kind of vision to see what’s not there. Whether you choose to call it imagination, suspension of disbelief, or just plain crazy, it’s not easy to look at a thing and see past what’s there to what could be. It is one of the things, however, at which artists excel.

by Liz Georges

Which explains why it took an artist, namely WPA artist member Gert Barkovic, to see the necessity of the Sonreir Project (“sonreir” means “to smile” in Spanish). Upon hearing from a maxillofacial surgeon friend (the man who later became her husband) about the medical missions he’d been doing in the Mountains of Honduras through the Barnabas House working with children with cleft palate and other maladies, Barkovic’s curiosity was piqued.

“I had heard about all the children they were able to affect, and I was looking at the before and after which is just so amazing,” she says. “I felt like there was something missing. The parents really had no contact between the medical team and what was going on with their children, and there’s a language barrier, and a lot of the families have never come in contact with a doctor, or a hospital. And the parents are terrified, absolutely terrified because here are these people in white coats from America coming and taking their kids behind this screen, and they hear them crying and it’s just hard.”

No longer merely curious, and seeing a need that she could help meet, Barkovic talked her way onto a medical mission team going to Honduras. “I asked to travel with one of their teams and bring all the loot from my studio that I hadn’t touched or used in years. Just packed them in big midshipman duffles and brought them down.”

The first mission wasn’t easy. The medical staff didn’t understand what she was doing. She was given the recovery and waiting area to set up – a tiny hallway where parents and children wait nervously to have surgery and afterwards to recuperate. It was cramped, the windows were closed and the shades were drawn. The hospital staff recoiled when Barkovic threw open the shades to let in light. The parents were shy, unsure of what Barkovic really wanted from them with her paints, feathers, pipe cleaners and other supplies. She coaxed the parents into coming to the table, and creating while they waited for their children.

Her instincts ultimately paid off. “By the end of the week we determined that it was so beneficial to the parents there,” she says. “It totally changed the realm that they were in, and it became more of a community. A lot of parents in previous missions, they went in and they would stay away from one another, and through this we’ve developed a community.”

Now Barkovic’s art therapy is considered a necessary companion to the work done by the surgeons. Families will come to Barnabas House prior to surgery and create using the donated art supplies Barkovic brings with her, or will participate in sing-a-longs. Families that under other circumstances would be paralyzed with anxiety and anticipation loosen up and begin to form a community. “It’s such a comfort, and it’s not forced upon them. It’s really just out of curiosity. It’s definitely a diversion from the worry, and the stress,” says Barkovic. “We had a young couple, they were 23 years old, and they had three children there in surgery and they were just beside themselves. I think it just provides the ability to create community between the medical team but also between the parents and the mothers, they just became really supportive of one another. ”

Doctors usually known for their detachment from their patients have come to see the value in Barkovic’s work. “The coolest thing is that now the doctors are doing it!” Barkovic exclaims. “They come in so it’s totally wrecked the old system. They’re hanging out with the moms and the dads so there’s this whole other relationship going on that’s totally awesome and they are walking around with the goofy eyeglasses and the noses.”

Art becomes for the parents and the children not merely a means to divert stress, but a means to communicate about themselves. “What’s important to them is the first thing that they create. The first thing is always the church, the Iglesias. They’re a really devout country and that’s pretty prominent. And the other thing is where they live. There’s a level of pride of being able to communicate where their home is, what they love,” says Barkovic. “A lot of the moms will draw pictures of their children and say, ‘my beautiful baby’ and ‘my beautiful son.’”

Barkovic finds inspiration for her own artistic practice in her interactions with the people in Honduras, like the cobbler Marco, one of the parents she met on a recent mission. “I thought he was ungodly talented. I mean the things he was able to create with his hands made me so humble as a maker,” she says. “He was teaching me how to weave, and that was something his village just does because they need a container and it took him no time at all – just to watch his fingers create.” Other artists who have joined Barkovic on her mission – photographer Alisia Packard and conversation artist Chanan Delivuk – have likewise discovered that there is much to be gained from the project, even more than just the satisfaction of helping others.

As the medical mission itself becomes more successful – the doctors now have a permanent hospital facility to work in – Barkovic has plans to grow Sonreir. “I save up and pay a lot of it out of pocket. Some of the medical fraternities at local medical colleges have been very generous. Virginia Tech, exceptional. George Mason has just started donating for the first time this year with their medical fraternity…. Ideally I’d like to make it so that it’s not just me going, but even more artists going, too. We have so many talented people here that have such an intellect and a giving spirit. Ultimately that is my hope.”

Gert will be returning to Honduras in February on another mission and is setting up Sonreir as a nonprofit corporation that will be able to take direct donations soon. Individuals who want to donate supplies or wish to get involved can find out more at


December 15, 2011