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'You forget you are in a war zone for a little bit': How one woman's art in Afghanistan started a chain reaction

One by one, people on Bagram Air Base joined Juarez in painting housing units. Soon, the area became affectionately called Ivy Lane, after the artificial greenery strung around wiring.

YI YANG

By CAITLIN HUSON | Special To The Washington Post | Published: December 29, 2020

Seven months into her deployment in Afghanistan, Estella Juarez found out her nephew back home in Colorado had died.

Juarez, a U.S. Army civilian employee, could not travel home because of coronavirus restrictions. Feeling homesick and isolated at Bagram Air Base, she began to paint flowers and mountain scenes on the light switches and electrical boxes inside her military home, which was actually a large converted shipping container.

It was the beginning of the chain reaction transformation of drab military housing into 22 brightly colored doors leading to a standout mural of a seaside town.

Juarez started the project on her own in May, but one by one, her friends and even strangers on the base began to help, making it a huge collaborative public art project in one of the most unlikely of places.

People stationed at military bases often do not spend much time beautifying their surroundings because they know they'll only be there temporarily. The housing units, Juarez points out, are not even permanent structures.

"Somebody could even say it's a waste of time because it's only temporary," said Juarez, a procurement analyst who is deployed in Afghanistan for 14 months. "To me, that's just it. It won't be there forever, but why not? Why can't you have a little bit of beauty?"

The row is now affectionately referred to as Ivy Lane, after the artificial greenery — sent from family and friends back home — draped outside Juarez's red door.

The public art started after Juarez had fixed up as much as possible on the inside of her small living space on the base, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, which is next to the ancient city of Bagram.

She turned her sights outside, and after finding leftover paint at the hazmat yard, she painted her rust-colored metal door a cheerful red.

Satisfied, she got a big idea.

Juarez told her friend Joe Guijarro she wanted to paint all 22 doors in her row of containerized housing units. She showed him a magazine photo of a quaint street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, lined with colorful doors.

Guijarro laughed at the absurdity of it. "When Stella reached out about the door project, I was like, 'But we're in Afghanistan,'" he recalled.

For Juarez, that was all the more reason to do it. Everybody missed home, she said, and could use some cheering up.

She began showing her friends and neighbors the photo and asking if she could paint their doors.

She took color requests and mixed whatever paints she could find. Guijarro got on board and found paint brushes and paint trays on the base. As people started to hear about the project, they donated what they had — tape, buckets and towels.

"Obviously once you see one door, and then you see another, and then another, even people who initially thought you were a little bit nuts start to see the potential," Juarez said.

Because of the desert climate and the temporary nature of their housing, most of the doors needed much more than a coat of paint. In the early hours of the morning before work started at 8 and before it got unbearably hot, Juarez repaired, sanded and primed doors.

One of her neighbors, Michael Jago, recalls seeing the doors changing and wondering who was behind it all. When he finally met Juarez, she asked him what color he'd like.

"I told her beach blue," Jago said. "My door number is 30A like the highway along the Gulf Coast of Florida. Stella painted it for me and it looks great."

Jago liked it so much, he later offered to paint his friend's door, and because it was so much fun, he did a couple more doors, as well.

"There's not a lot to do here besides work. You live the same day over and over," Juarez said.

"If there's one small change, even if there's something new at the PX, people talk about it," she said, referring to the post exchange.

As word spread, people would walk by just to see the doors. People Juarez never would have met, even some of them her neighbors, gathered to chat and offer opinions and encouragement. They'd bring supplies and water. Every once in a while, someone would offer to pitch in, and Juarez recalls one day when a neighbor played his guitar for her while she painted his door.

With all 22 doors almost complete over the summer, Juarez had another idea, this time for the concrete wall at the end of the row, and she knew exactly who to ask for help — her neighbor John Ye. In addition to his role working for the U.S. Army, Ye is an illustrator and children's book author.

When Juarez saw one of his illustrations of the Greek island of Santorini in a book, she asked him to paint a mural of it at the end of the now-colorful row of housing units.

Initially, Ye was hesitant. They work seven days a week with no holidays and free time is precious. But he was soon convinced by the excitement surrounding the project, and he got to work, painting beside Juarez while she finished the doors. When the mural was complete, Juarez added gallery lighting to the mural as a surprise. She painted scrap wood and zip tied it to the T-wall, and suspended solar-powered garden lights to illuminate the painting.

"It pulls the whole thing together," said Juarez.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, what little creative outlets they had on base were cut back. No open-mic nights, no movies. The door project became an outlet and escape initially for Juarez — and eventually for other people on base, too.

Ye said he's glad he gave in and helped out.

"Looking at the finished product, the doors, the lighting, the little signs, and the mural, it really had the effect of making you forget you are in a war zone for a little bit, and that reminds you that no matter where you are, it is what you make of it," he said.

Juarez said the doors will go away eventually, and that's fine with her.

"It's like flowers," she said. "You plant them and they bloom once, and then they're gone. But do you not plant the flowers just because they won't be there forever?"

When Juarez looks at the doors, she sees all the moments people pulled together to do something special for each other in stressful circumstances, just to help ease the passing of time.

"That's what I see when I look at the doors," Juarez said. "That's why it doesn't matter that the doors won't be there someday, because they were there when it mattered."
 

Estella Juarez standing in her doorway on Ivy Lane.
YI YANG