At the end of 2011 I found that I was feeling rather tight and scratchy under my skin, overwhelmed by work and project deadlines coupled with some traditional yearend burnout. Anxiety seemed to be nipping at my tender heels more than usual. Technically everything in my life was hunky dory, but I noticed that my brain was having a fine time making mountains out of molehills. While I owned the boo-hoo pity party aspect of my mental machinations, I was still having a hard time keeping my head clear. I'd wake up at 4am with my brain churning away at things that had no business mucking up a good night's rest.
A week or so before Christmas I had an interview with A Window Between Worlds (AWBW), a nonprofit dedicated to using art as a vehicle to heal the trauma of domestic abuse. I was there for research on this article. And I was happy to be there. I'd known about AWBW for years and had even mulled over notions of volunteering my time there; however I'd never fully explored my altruistic (albeit lackadaisical) impulses. I now had the opportunity to combine work and my more charitable (albeit armchair) aspirations.
I met with AWBW founder Cathy Salser and two of AWBW's integral staffers, Christy Turek and Cheryl Bookout. These women were all lovely; Cathy in particular seemed to radiate that inner glow of a graceful soul. They each revealed themselves to be amazing women as they generously shared their time and unwavering commitment to serving the greater human good. In the time we spent together, my learning about their amazing programs and listening to their personal and anecdotal stories of the power and affect of their work, I felt all my ridiculously poor-me impositions melt quietly away. Here were women doing extraordinary work on a national and international scope helping women and children deal with the affliction of domestic abuse. The only abuse I was suffering from was at my own hands. To say that our meeting put my life in its proper perspective would be an understatement. It's amazing what we can take for granted in our lives; a handy reality check if one feels a little, er, ah, scratchy under their skin.
When someone suffers at the hands of an abuser the most devastating toll on their psyche is the surrender of their voice. This witting or unwitting act becomes the abuser's most perversely opportune and potent weapon. When a person's voice is squelched or defeated the victim's autonomy is compromised. They lose the ability to speak to and eventually recognize their own needs and desires; ultimately they are disavowed of their ability to envision a healthy world outside of their current circumstance. In essence, they are stripped of their power. It's a devastating situation, yet in listening to the stories as told by Cathy, Cheryl and Christy hope became renewed. These women have dedicated themselves to restoring the personhood of domestic abuse survivors. Their personal and vocational mission is to help these victims regain their voice. And what's their greatest weapon? Art.
More than talk therapy, these women have found that the creation of art is the most effective tool to help domestic abuse survivors express and resuscitate their voice. Art holds the key to unlock change. It softens the protective shell of resistance and grants permission to release past pain that can transform strife into strength. And most importantly the results are tangible – the art hangs on a wall, it dangles from a car rear view mirror, it sits on the nightstand- and you can see and experience its power daily. It remains an eternal and vivid reminder of hope.
For over 20 years, AWBW has offered what they term the gentle process of art for women and children to release their hurt, anger and sadness in a safe and nurturing environment. Through thoughtfully and carefully crafted art projects, women and children are allowed, perhaps for the first time in their lives, to articulate their inner feelings that have been stifled and suppressed. This act allows them to reclaim their power and self-worth, a critical starting point for rebuilding their lives, reconstituting strength and envisioning a better, more positive future. "As they draw, sculpt, paint and write they begin to make their choices visible and see their dreams take shape." The process of creating art provides a critical window of time in which these women and children are allowed to summon their courage to envision and manifest a life outside the confines of domestic abuse. In essence, art restores their humanity.
In the early 90s Cathy Salser discovered her destiny on a road trip, yet she had had inklings of her humanitarian future as an art major at Williams College. She always knew that her art practice was not meant to be a solitary endeavor; in her heart she knew her artistry was meant to serve others. Encouraged by a friend who had worked with women's shelters, in 1991 Cathy decided to embark on a four-month road trip in which she would visit 28 women's shelters nationwide and collaborate with each on art therapy projects of her own creation. Her determination and vision were to share the gift of art, one that had provided her a sense of safety and possibility in her own life. Her quest was to extend the virtues of art therapy with no strings attached; her only hope was that it would prove to be a gift that would keep on giving. And it did. After taking one of her workshops a participant testified that she was able to sleep for the first time in years.
Given the success of this initial trip and the support and mentorship of the Southern California Women's Caucus for Art Cathy set off on a second expedition to revisit the shelters and once again share art with her new tribe. On this trip she also brought along portraits she had made of the women whom she met on her first visit to the shelters. It was this second journey that brought clarity to Cathy's vision. Shortly thereafter, in 1994 AWBW received its nonprofit status and became the first and only nonprofit organization of its kind in the nation.
What began as one woman's vision has now extended its healing hands to over 230 shelters, outreach centers and transitional homes in 23 states. Since 1991 AWBW's programs have served over 348,000 participants. In 2011 alone they reached over 65,000 participants (7,500 women and 8,100 children participating in an average of four workshops each during their shelter stay). AWBW has also spawned culturally-sensitive, art expression programs for survivors in Japan, and provided curriculum and training to domestic violence agencies in Russia, Australia, Mexico and Britain, countries with divergent stigmas and responses towards of the epidemic of abuse, including denial.
AWBW's programs have been increasing exponentially, tripling over the past six years. It currently offers a repertoire of 400 expressive art projects - 200 designed for women and 200 tailored for children—with specific emotional themes and objectives designed to release blockage and initiate a healing process. Their projects' goals are to allow the expression of feelings, releasing of the past, building confidence, and developing hope. Collaborating with shelters as well as offering training courses for would-be art instructors, AWBW provides art supplies, clear curriculums and compassionate instruction so that their programs are accessible to any given circumstance. All the programs are designed to be responsive to the particular needs and situations of their individual participants; they can also be mixed and matched in order to provide just the right remedy at just the right time.
Cathy shared the story of an eight year-old girl who was having exceptional difficulty managing her anger. She was acting out in school and given to highly aggressive behavior including the destruction of shelter property. Her mother was on the verge of relinquishing her daughter's custody to The Department of Family Services. Eventually her behavior exceeded the capacity of the shelter staff and one day the local emergency psychiatric team was called in. Determined not to not let this troubled child become a ward of the state, the shelter leader quickly devised an art project she felt might assist the child in dealing with her anger. Combining two AWBW exercises – "Heart Stories" and "Feeling Friend" – she had the girl create a Feeling Friend paper doll and then write down what emotion she was experiencing on a small banner of paper that would be placed in the dolls' arms. Within an hour of engaging this exercise the girl had calmed down, and when the emergency psychiatric team arrived they did not need to take the child away. The creation of art opened and safeguarded that precious window of time that allowed her to transition from anger to solace. The gentle process of expression provided her access to her tumultuous feelings and a safe place for them to reside, which ultimately proved to be a turning point in her life; from that day forward she would write down her feelings and place them within the care of her Feeling Friend. Her aggressive behavior has subsided and her relationship with her mother improved. And most importantly she was allowed to return to being a little girl.
The immediate healing capacity of AWBW's art therapy is truly awe-inspiring. Just one or even a few creative exercises can make all the difference in the world to its participants. The exercise of art opens a window that allows them to see and dream a new life. And eventually this practice becomes a positive and productive habit. They soon come to recognize an alternative universe, one in which they are strongly set at the center and where their own voice can resonate loud and clear. Their past pain and suffering is reincarnated into strength and a newly cultivated wisdom.
AWBW is seeking new ways to bring its message of hope into the broader community. In addition to fostering collaborations with regional human services agencies, AWBW has enlisted the talent of renowned artists to help create statewide, touring art projects. The Pearls of Wisdom: End the Violence project, a three-year collaborative project with Los Angeles-based artist Kim Abeles, recently exhibited at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles. The exhibition featured samples of the over 800 pieces of artwork created by women across California; at the center of these pearls women placed their "irritant" to symbolically represent their pain so that it could be transformed into an object of beauty that contains their unique wisdom wrought from strife. In April 2012 at SPARC in Venice, CA, performance artist Barbara T. Smith and video artist Nina Jun will debut I Can: Requiem for I Can't, an interactive art project based on the ritualized elimination of perceptions of impossibility. Based on the AWBW project "Funeral of I Can't," in which held assumptions of what one can't achieve are written down and then destroyed, the project will engage the participation of shelters across California and culminate in a final performance and installation in 2014.
Domestic abuse is not a private matter; it is a human rights issue, the right of sovereignty over one's dominion. The worldwide prevalence of domestic abuse is not exclusive to gender or age, race or creed; its threat is insidious and potentially deadly, affecting countless victims worldwide. AWBW gives survivors of this once silenced epidemic a powerful voice that can sing with a newfound joy of possibility.
I am eternally grateful to Cathy, Christy, Cheryl and all the AWBW staffers and participants for their bravery, compassion and great work. They have made an indelible mark in my life and helped me put my own world in its proper perspective. I am fortunate to have art as a constant in my life; we all are. Rest assured that as artists we can help change the world, one voice at a time.
For more information of A Window Between Worlds please visit awbw.org.