the healing power of art

The women of Mary's Place led the way

Next month, an autobiographical exhibition, "Terrible Beauty | under the canopy" opens in Seattle.   This exhibition is grounded in a childhood experience of sexual assault by a group of teenage boys. A few people have asked why come forward now in this very public venue for such a personal subject.  Of course, art can be an incredibly powerful vehicle for expression, but in reality, this series has been years in the making. At the time, the assault was so far beyond my understanding and I lacked any sort of context to make sense of it.  Complete confusion, trauma and a vague sense of shame followed me from that day on and led to my decision before I even got home that day to never tell anyone.  I kept that promise to myself for over twenty years.  The death of my father seemed to be the trigger that washed away that cracked and broken wall. Grief for my father infused itself with sorrow for what was lost that traumatic day several years earlier.  The secret became an overwhelming burden that had to be let go of.  I chose to break my silence and thus began the long and cumbersome journey to healing.  

A few years later in 2006 I was sitting with a group of homeless women from Mary’s Place, a day shelter for women in Seattle.  I grew to know and love these women through my weekly volunteer work teaching art.  I came to see them as some of the strongest and most courageous women I had ever met when I saw how they handled the daily grind of life in the streets.  The subject of childhood sexual assault came up innocently enough in conversation one day while we were painting.  Each one had their own heartbreaking story.  I sat in silence and was not ready to share mine.  It bothered me a bit that I could not speak up.  That was the day that I made up my mind that someday I would take that step into the wider world.  I would do art about this very personal and difficult subject. This process of returning to the day of the assault has been neither short nor easy.  Returning to that very dark space and time demanded honesty, a certain kind of fearlessness and compassion for one's self.  After an initial and difficult self reckoning, the physical experience of getting words and ideas out proved strongly cathartic.  In addition, the repetitive nature of completing certain pieces became a deliberate meditative journey to healing.  Frankly, it stunned me that after completing the workI was left with the sense that a tremendous weight had been lifted,  This mental, emotional and artistic journey had been well worth it.  Going back and giving that small girl a voice has made all the difference all of these years later and I will always be grateful to those women of Mary's Place for showing me the way.