“One of my goals is to eventually get one child’s painting from every country in the world,” said Linden Longino, a Buckhead resident who created what is now called the International Paint Pals Foundation Inc., a non-profit to provide a cross-cultural creative forum to children ages 6 to 18. “There’s been countless studies over the years showing kids that are exposed to the arts at a young age do better in school and in life in general.”
It all began right before the 1996 Olympic Games when Longino started a children’s art contest to exhibit international paintings at the Olympics.
“I had become associated with an organization in London which was trying to promote corporate social responsibility worldwide and I’d done some traveling with them, talking to people in other countries,” Longino said. “I put two and two together and involved people in countries I had visited.”
Svedlanta Konokotina of St. Petersburg, Russia, was the worldwide winner for the first exhibit.
“She now works for the State Russian Museum. She has pursued an artistic related career,” Longino said.
“We all know that Paint Pals was a highlight of Sveta’s young life,” her father Alexander Konokotin said.
Longino said participating countries grew from 10 to 75 by the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where Longino took a group of kids to meet fellow Paint Pals from China.
Cedric Brown, 21, of Stone Mountain, was part of the Beijing group and is now pursuing a major in fashion design and a minor in painting at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus in Midtown.
“Honestly, I’ve always been into the arts but International Paint Pals made me feel really confident in it, like I could really do it, … that I could really make the dreams come true,” Brown said. “A lot of people may be scared to go through with their talent and International Paint Pals made me feel like the sky is the limit.”
When he was in China, Brown said he met a lot of high school-aged Chinese children, and collaborated with them to make a mural decorated in Chinese and English prayers for earthquake victims.
Additionally, Brown said he won the Paint Pals scholarship this year for $3,000 toward his college tuition.
“International Paint Pals has opened up so many doors for me,” Brown said.
Longino said the initial inspiration for Paint Pals sparked when he was working at the Carter Center near Atlanta’s Poncey-Highland neighborhood on an anti-poverty program called the Atlanta Project started by Jimmy Carter.
“In the process of doing that, I quickly realized the risks that children were in, in those high-poverty areas,” Longino said.
He wanted to do something constructive with children because “they were into so many destructive things, like gangs and drugs and all of that,” Longino said. He encouraged them to “pick up paintbrushes instead of other things.”
Then, he moved the program to the Boys and Girls Club for 15 years.
“And as luck would have it, I had a contact at the United Nations headquarters in New York,” Longino said. “They were interested in children’s exhibits to illustrate various subjects on different conferences they held worldwide, [like] environment, human rights, racism and drug abuse. We did those exhibits both in New York and other countries.”
Unfortunately, the club was affected “pretty severely from recession,” according to Longino and art programs, including Paint Pals, were cut from the budget.
“Trying to put together programs now is very difficult. People in other countries are suffering [and] their ability to raise money is very limited,” he said. “Unfortunately, when budgets get cut in schools and organizations, art seems to be the first thing to go.”
Although Paint Pals is now a one-man show, Longino said he is hopeful for its future.
“I’ve got the people in the countries standing by. I talk to them a good bit about their abilities. … I’m talking to people in Russia about an exhibit for the Winter Olympic Games in 2014,” he said. “My hope is once the economy turns around a bit, I’ll be able to go out and raise more money.”
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