Children's art travels the world through `paintbrush diplomacy'. American couple sees art as way to erode ignorance of other cultures

The walls of the main hallway at the Ibn Khuldoun National School are decorated with works of art - a collage of bright purples, a sunset, children playing. And then there are the dinosaurs. Huge, multicolored dinosaurs.

``Kids everywhere just love dinosaurs,'' says Char Pribuss, an American visitor at the elementary school. She moves from drawing to drawing with the kind of excited appreciation for children's art that parents usually reserve for their own children's creations.

Indeed, at first glance the Ibn Khuldoun display appears as any other gallery of elementary school works. But to Mrs. Pribuss and her husband, Rudy, it is much more.

Over the past 15 years Char, a former art teacher, and Rudy, a retired engineer, have traveled to hundreds of schools in more than 35 countries to encourage the exchange of school children's art works with schools in the United States. They see such exchanges as a way to broaden the horizons of students worldwide by graphically showing them how children in other lands are similar to themselves. It is seen as a first step in breaking down the ignorance of other cultures that leads to prejudice and misunderstanding.

``We are trying to leave a better world in a very small way,'' says Char.

The Pribusses call the exchange program Paintbrush Diplomacy. They say that what started as ``a lark'' in the mid-1970s has blossomed into a $100,000-a-year private, nonprofit international effort that has grown beyond their wildest expectations. As Char puts it: ``We have a tiger by the tail.''

The Pribusses' recent trip to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia was their first to the Gulf region. They hope that it will result in regular exchanges not only of art works but also of letters and photographs between students in the US and their new Arab friends in the Gulf.

``We think of it as communication through art,'' Char says. ``It is a tiny way of touching that doesn't hurt anyone. It is not political, it is not national, it is not money, it is not religion. It is just a humanitarian thing that is a tiny way of young people communicating and possibly building relationships.''

Today, some 30 other American couples - like the Pribusses - are traveling around the world to help set up art exchanges with participating schools in 10 states in the US. The Pribusses stress that each couple pays for its own trips. They receive no compensation other than the satisfaction of meeting school children in distant lands and facilitating the exchanges.

``They do it because they have heard about our experiences,'' says Rudy. ``The majority of them found that the Paintbrush Diplomacy exchange was really the most enjoyable part of the trip.''

Char adds that the art exchanges can give greater purpose to international travel and make a vacation trip more enriching than just sightseeing and souvenir shopping. ``They met the young of the world. They found what really is happening in a country instead of going into a [souvenir] store and buying a lot of cuckoo things you don't need,'' Char says.

Through all their travels the Pribusses have never stopped living their lives as an adventure. The two grandparents from San Mateo, Calif., count among their more memorable experiences being kicked off a midnight train in Czechoslovakia because they failed to secure necessary $24 in-transit visas. It was an overnight train from Krakow to Budapest and the Pribusses didn't realize they needed the visas. They had planned to sleep all the way through Czechoslovakia.

It was cold, dark, and raining. But the two military policemen were determined. The Pribusses were deposited along with their luggage and artwork on the tracks near the Polish-Czech border and forced to walk back on the tracks into Poland in the rain.

``At first I thought I'm going to cry,'' Char says. ``And then I thought you know I'm not going to let them think that American women are wimps.''

Later, they caught a plane to Budapest and still managed to make all their appointments.

Despite such harrowing tales, the most lasting impression the Pribusses carry from their travels is of the similarities of children worldwide.

``In all of these schools everywhere in the world I hold up a drawing that has Snoopy on it. It doesn't matter if they can speak a word of English. All those kids look up - like in Scandinavia - they say, `Oooh, Snooobeee.'''

The Pribusses' efforts have resulted in several formal showings in the United States of children's art from schools around the world, including at the United Nations headquarters in New York. The Pribusses say that plans are under way at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington to display children's art works from schools in the Gulf, including Bahrain.

``I think that is a great coup for all these kids to know that their art will be exposed in such a prestigious place,'' says Char, referring to the Smithsonian show. ``I feel, boy, if we work for that alone, it's good.''

Though there is no connection between Paintbrush Diplomacy and the US government, during some trips the Pribusses have received logistical help, encouragement, and advice from US diplomats.

During the recent Gulf trip, US officials in Saudi Arabia screened the art the Pribusses were carrying from the US to prevent causing any offense in the conservative Muslim state. In Saudi Arabia, for example, most women wear long black veils.

In one case, Char says she was warned about a student's painting of a girl wearing a formal prom dress with thin straps.

``I bring my traveling paints and painted the neck up. I matched the exact color and matched the sleeves down,'' says Char. ``In another one a child sent over a pencil drawing of a teen-aged girl in a mini skirt. I erased the skirt and brought it down below the knee.''

Char and Rudy say they are looking for more volunteers for Paintbrush Diplomacy. Interested persons should contact them by writing to PO BOX 336, 204 East Second Avenue, San Mateo, California, 94401.

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