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Battered Women Paint Their Pasts, Imagine a Future

Friday, September 19, 2003

Art therapy programs designed for survivors of domestic violence are springing up across the country. The programs do not intend to replace traditional counseling. Instead, participants say, they help them express their emotions in a different way.

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Art therapy programs designed for survivors of domestic violence are springing up across the country. The programs do not intend to replace traditional counseling. Instead, participants say, they help them express their emotions in a different way.
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Collage created by women

(WOMENSENEWS)--In Castle Rock, Colo., a one-of-a-kind painting hangs on a wall in the Douglas County Women's Crisis Center.

A closer look will reveal that the painting is really 10 different images blended together to make one large collage. The scenes aren't of beautiful sunsets, spring flowers or smiling faces. They represent themes that may even disturb viewers, images of a house with a white picket fence being struck by an angry bolt of lightning, a female figure curled up in the fetal position and the face of a menacing man watching a bird in a cage.

The 10 female artists who created this collage, like many survivors across the country, picked up pens and paintbrushes and created art not only to express their painful memories, but also to help heal their trauma.

Whether it's creating a Web site, designing a t-shirt or contributing to a collage, art is gradually becoming an important supplement to the counseling process for the thousands of victims of abuse. All across the country an increasing number of shelters are now offering art programs to their residents.

"These women had already undergone private counseling," said Colorado artist Rebecca Gale, a center volunteer who facilitated the creation of the collage. "Although they were able to function in their everyday lives, many were still suffering some post-traumatic stress, so I facilitated an art project with them."

Gale said all the women were given the theme of power and control. By the end of the session, each woman had interpreted it in her own special way.

"Other than teaching them how to mix colors on the palette, we didn't offer them any instruction. But we did stress it wasn't about making a great painting; it was about expressing emotions and feelings in a different format," said Gale.

One sketch shows a positive image of an eagle in flight, which Gale explained was created by a woman who was moving back to another state to be near her family and was in her own words "on her way to being whole again."


Shelters Using Art to Heal

The concept of art therapy, which began shortly after World War II to aid veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, is now being adopted widely to help battered women deal with their physical and emotional scars.

At the Women's Center in Houston Noel Foreman, a teacher at Glassell Junior School of Fine Arts, teaches art classes to women who have survived domestic violence.

"I try to offer them a different art project each time, lots of it is drawing and painting and sometimes they will include writing on their work," said Foreman. "I think it's very therapeutic for them to draw and talk to me. It's a safe atmosphere, and I never make a comment about the work or ask them what it's about."

While these art programs are not used to replace counseling entirely, they are often an important avenue of self-discovery. Most of the instructors are artists and not formally trained in psychology or counseling. A master's degree in an approved registered arts therapy program is needed to become an art therapist. Courses cover psychology and therapy, and most people who enter these programs are artists and not psychologists.

"Art heals and that's the mission of our program," said Susan Paull, program director with Free Arts of Arizona, based in Phoenix, which offers art programs not only to women, but to their children as well. "It's a wonderful experience and shows the women positive ways to spend time with their children.

Another artist who has worked in similar type of program is Claudia Olivos, a full-time artist and educator with the Art Institute in Washington, D.C.

"I introduce the women to the work of Joseph Cornell, Robert Raushenberg and Frida Kahlo. We talk about conceptual art, emotions, hopes, dreams, nightmares and reality. Often times the work is a crucifixion of sorts . . . of the past," explained Olivos.

She adds that art is a way for the women to express feelings they might not have words for.

"Imagery, objects . . . they become letters and words for their experiences. The sharing of trauma is often painful, but yet wonderful and healing," she said.

A Window Between Worlds based in Venice, Calif., is a non-profit organization specifically dedicated to using art to help end domestic violence. For 12 years, the program has used artistic expression as a healing tool for battered women and their children. Lori Minick said the program helped reconnect her with what she loved doing most--creating art.

"I've been an artist since I can remember," said Minick. "During the first six years of my marriage it became evident that I'd married a person interested in controlling me, not loving me, and he succeeded at sabotaging my career. I locked my artistic self away, inside, and kept my creativity hidden from him at all costs."

After she left her ex-husband, Minick sought counseling and was referred to a women's empowerment group.

"I was now free and safe to reconnect with my family and my creativity. I began to paint and to heal," she said. "On my own journey, I have learned that creative expression has provided me with a powerful tool in recovering a sense of safety, relaxation, possibility and identity."


Most Are Accustomed to Being Told No

One educator who has taken a slightly different approach to art as a healing medium is Muriel Magenta, professor of art at The Katherine K. Herberger College of Fine Arts at Arizona State University. She received a two-year grant to teach women at the YWCA's Thunderbird Haven House in Phoenix how to create their own Web sites, and trained her graduate students to act as mentors for the women. The residents not only used artwork on the Web sites, but also displayed their autobiographies, uploaded family photos and placed resumes for potential employers to view.

"Most of these women are homeless and accustomed to society telling them no. It opens doors for them and empowers them," said Magenta, now making a documentary for PBS about the project.

While art by battered women can be seen hanging in shelters and viewed online, Verizon Wireless has taken it one step further. With the help of Hubbard House and the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Verizon initiated The Clothesline Project, a 1,300-mile, six-month tour that offers a powerful view of the reality of domestic violence by illustrating victim's interpretations of their abuse.

Women participating in the project create designs on t-shirts, which are then hung on a clothesline exhibit that travels to malls throughout Florida. At the opening of each stop, one survivor talks about the project and domestic abuse in general.

"You're impacted by domestic violence whether you know it or not," said Chuck Hamby, a regional manager with Verizon Wireless in Florida. "It puts a human face on all the statistics you read about."

One survivor, who wishes to remain anonymous, said the act of creating art is helping her to overcome her trauma.

"It's a huge part of my healing. My fingers don't lie, and there is no denial in my artwork," she said.

Susan Palmquist is a freelance writer based in Eden Prairie, Minn.

For more information:

A Window Between Worlds:
http://www.awbw.org

The Clothesline Project:
http://www.clotheslineproject.org

Free Arts of Arizona:
http://www.freeartsaz.org