This week marks two years since the onset of the first protests in Syria , and the ensuing conflict shows no signs of abating. Amid the chaos, Syria’s artists have struggled to keep working.
Some have joined the wave of refugees forced to flee to neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Others remain, surrounded by escalating violence. 
Lebanon’s Aley , a village that has a distinguished history of hosting cultural projects – among them the annual International Symposium of Sculpture and Painting – and whose streets and parks are filled with artwork, once again finds itself serving as a haven for art.
Raghad Mardini has long been fascinated by watching artists work. A civil engineer, she loved spending time in artists’ studios in her native Syria, where she worked restoring historic buildings in Damascus, before moving to Lebanon in 2008.
In 2011, soon after the Syrian uprising began, Mardini met Lebanese calligrapher Ziad Talhouk, who asked her to restore a derelict Ottoman stable in the garden of his family home. In return he allowed her to use the space as the site of Art Residence Aley, a nonprofit program for young Syrian artists. 
“I had this place and I felt an obligation to make it an atelier for all the young Syrian artists in Beirut,” Mardini explains, “to give them their space and their freedom of expression, all their emotions and sufferings and frustrations and ideas and hopes.”
In addition to those residing in Lebanon, Mardini also hosts young Syrian artists  living in Jordan, Turkey and Syria, inviting them to spend a month working at the stables in Aley.
Many of them have had to stop working, for emotional or practical reasons, she says. The residency offers them a chance to escape their problems and focus on their art.
“Art plays a very important role,” she stresses. “It emphasizes the civil resistance and also documents the period and it’s also a good way of spreading the ideas of peace and reconciliation and nonsectarianism.”
Mardini provides visiting artists with food and accommodation, as well as art supplies and some spending money. She also aims to connect them with gallerists and other artists in Beirut, helping create a network that will allow them to continue working once the residency is done.
In return, each artist leaves behind one piece of work at the end of their stay, a collection that Mardini hopes will gradually transform the stables into a museum of work by up-and-coming Syrian artists.
The first artist to undertake the residency was Istanbul-based Wissam Muases. He visited Aley in July 2012 and left behind an arresting outdoor sculpture – a young man in cargo shorts, sitting casually on top of the 200-year-old stone wall, laptop perched on his legs.
Since then, 17 young artists have undertaken the residency and more than 40 others – who have heard of the program by word of mouth – have applied.
This month, in honor of International Women’s Day, Mardini is hosting two female artists.
Remy Haddad and Sally Samaan both studied art at Damascus University. Haddad, who lives with her family near the Syrian capital, says she has not been able to work consistently lately at home. She has rediscovered her creativity since arriving in Aley.
The artist is working on a series of enormous oil paintings, semiabstract portraits of screaming figures. The idea came to her, she explains, while listening to the sound of nearby shelling and gunfire.
She wondered what the men firing the guns looked like and what they were thinking and feeling, and began to draw, ending up with a sketch of a man whose mouth was stretched wide, perhaps in anger, pain or the throes of a war cry.
The artist has developed this idea over the past few months, sketching in charcoal and pencil on tiny scraps of paper, creating screaming men, women, children and babies, as well as women with bared breasts and long hair, the tops of whose heads are completely bald. She is using her time in Aley to transform these sketched ideas in paintings, working in a canvas gazebo on the lawn outside the stables.
Sally Samaan moved to Beirut eight months ago. The artist usually creates prints and, in the absence of print facilities, is working on a series of woodcuts. She has also been inspired to experiment, delving into a new discipline by playing with Haddad’s oil paints.
Mardini says this kind of crossover has proven common. Painter Fadi Hammoui, for example, stayed in Aley at the same time as Lyon-based artist Mohamed Omran, and took time out from painting to ask Omran to show him how to sculpt.
The residency, Mardini stresses, is about building a community and having fun, as well as hard work, one of the reasons why she hosts artists in pairs. Many of the artists have become friends thanks to their month spent together, she says, and a pingpong table, basketball hoop and barbecue, set up invitingly on the lawn, attest to her encouraging a mixture of work and play.
Mardini too, feels she is benefitting from the residencies: “I grow with them. They’re giving me a lot. Every time I see a white canvas, and then it’s filled with colors and passion and ideas I feel like I’ve done something.”
Last October she organized an outdoor exhibition of the artists’ work, earning them money from sales, and she is currently working on documenting Art Residency Aley in a book, which will include texts by the artists and examples of their work.
“I’m trying to find ways to reinforce them,” she continues, “and give them confidence in their work and show the work what they’re doing. They have a lot of talent and a lot of potential, but the circumstances are too hard.”
To find out more about the residency program visit www.artresidencealey.com .
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