In a ceremony at the United Nations in New York on May 12, painter Ross Bleckner is to be named UN Goodwill Ambassador, the first visual artist to be so honored. The recognition stems from his work earlier this year with traumatized children in a refugee camp in Gulu, Uganda. Most of the camp’s children are orphaned; many had been abducted by rebels and used as child soldiers; others have been wounded, sexually abused, drug addicted or in some other way victimized by the ongoing violence along the Sudanese border.

Bleckner told A.i.A. that his involvement with the project resulted from a chance meeting with a UN official in 2007 at an exhibition opening at UN headquarters. They were attending a show of photos by Howard G. Buffet, who exhibited images related to his philanthropic work with victims of human trafficking in Latin America. The head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Simone Monasebian, asked Bleckner if he could develop a project to work with children in Uganda. On a 10-day trip to the area in January, Bleckner, who had never traveled to sub-Saharan Africa before, was appalled by the squalid living conditions and the children’s stories of horrific abuse. Apprehensive at first, he set up a studio with art supplies to help the children convey through painting not only the traumas they’d sustained but also their more hopeful imaginings. For teacher and pupils alike, the experience was cathartic.  

Bleckner traveled in Uganda with a translator, driver and bodyguard, and set up the studio at a UN depot in an abandoned convent. Working with a group of 24 children, he was astonished at their transformation over a short period of time. At first, the children produced almost exclusively depictions of the pain and suffering they knew firsthand. Bleckner then asked them to think of something beautiful, something that they would like to be, or what they hoped for their country’s future. “What happened with these kids is nothing short of amazing,” Bleckner says. “They were just waiting for permission to explode with joy and color. The work speaks for itself.” A number of paintings by the children will be on view on May 12 at the UN to coincide with the ceremony honoring Bleckner. Sales of the works will be used to finance various UNODC projects. —David Ebony 

Above: Artist and UN Goodwill Ambassador Ross Bleckner teaching former child soldiers in Uganda.