Seeing the other side: Funeral director turned artist creates Umbrellas for Peace

I read obituaries because I love people and I love stories. I’m often left with regret that I never crossed paths with the fascinating person who just died, so sometimes I keep a copy of the obit out of respect.  Take Matt Lamb, who died in 2012, whose name I recognized as a funeral director in my old South Side neighborhood.

In midlife, diagnosed – as it turned out misdiagnosed – with a life-threatening condition, he switched sides. He left his profession and opened his first painting studio, with the mission of using his art to make the world a  better place. More studios followed, in the States and later in Europe.

His intent: to use the rest of his time to share “a message of peace, tolerance, and hope.” Luckily, he had many more years to carry out that mission than he thought, so he was still with us in 2001. Asked how he could help 38 children affected by 9/11, he created his Umbrellas for Peace project.

In an ordinary umbrella, the top is the part that we expect to see, so he gave each child a blank umbrella as a canvas, and asked them to paint their hopes and dreams for the future on the top. Each child, after surviving the trauma of 9/11, got encouragement to imagine a positive future.

But these were no ordinary umbrellas. Though we normally don’t study the hidden underside of our umbrellas, he asked these children to decorate theirs with pictures of their fears and worries. Each child received permission to express and share this other side – their concerns and fears.

At the end, there was an impromptu parade with each child hoisting his or her umbrella. I wish I could have seen that, I thought to myself, until I remembered about YouTube. Take a look at the project in action.

Since its start, Lamb and his compatriots carried out similar events in 29 countries, reportedly involving 2 million people in what has become a global art project for peace. The method has been applied to many kinds of healing – from gang violence, domestic violence, war. It continues, a lasting legacy from a guy from the neighborhood who I wish I’d known. And a tip of the hat to obit writer Graydon Megan, for choosing this story to tell.


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