Those gathered in Francis Auditorium on August 31 to hear about a 2010 May Term trip to El Salvador were themselves transported to Central America, holding a paint brush and hearing the laughter of children.

The presentation was part of peace activist and college Artist-in-Residence Claudia Bernardi’s fall visit to the college. In May, Bernardi led a group of students to Perquin, El Salvador, where cooperative art is transforming a community ravaged by that country’s civil war.

Assistant Professor and Director of Studios Allan Moye presented a short student-produced film that documented the group’s work in Perquin. Student testimonials about the impact the trip had on their lives included in the video were echoed in the evening’s talks.

“This [trip] was so important to me then. It’s so important to me now,” said Meagan Bonestle ’10. “It changed me as a person.”

Kelly Martin ’13 said she keeps in touch with two children she met on the trip. Claudia Bowen ’11 added that young adults she met in El Salvador left a lasting impression that community is family.

Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Catharine O’Connell, who also traveled with the group in May, delivered persuasive remarks on why Bernardi’s model of bringing peace to a victimized community through art is an effective teaching tool. Further, O’Connell noted that the work corresponds with Mary Baldwin’s own mission for civic and global engagement. Students were transformed during their trip, she said, “empowered, elated, and engaged,” thanks to Bernardi’s work and leadership.

“She says she’s an artist, not an educator,” O’Connell said. “But she’s the best educator I’ve ever met.”

Bernardi also shared with the crowd photos and stories from her summer mission to the Guatemalan village of Panzos, where, like Perquin, innocent civilians became victims of a military-led massacre in 1978. By the end of her trip, the artist had helped the indigenous Mayans create what has become a Bernardi trademark — a colorful mural that tells a story of horror, survival, renewal, and hope.

“The mural … is not only a decoration, but a manifestation of community desire,” Bernardi said.

The artist’s visit concludes this week with classroom visits and a discussion at 3 p.m. Friday in the Spencer Center about a 2011 May Term trip to Perquin. An exhibition of Bernardi’s work will be on display in Hunt Gallery through September. 24.