Since prehistoric times, people have used art to depict their triumphs, struggles and everyday life.
Today, art used as therapy becomes a powerful healing tool that helps people express conscious and subconscious thoughts they might not otherwise give voice to, according to art therapy proponents.
At A Window Between Worlds in Venice, founder and executive director Cathy Salser uses art to help women and children who have experienced domestic violence find their voice and sense of self.
Since starting the nonprofit organization in 1991, Salser has offered her art workshops for crisis shelters, transitional homes and outreach centers throughout the U.S.
With programs in 14 states, A Window Between Worlds has helped over 18,000 women and children find strength, joy and clarity through creativity.
Salser says that she grew up shy, and that art was a resource that gave her a sense of safety and power to express herself without talking.
In the same way, her art workshops give domestic violence survivors a chance to heal emotionally as well as develop a renewed sense of hope and possibility. This growth empowers these women when making decisions regarding the direction of their lives and how to stay safe, according to the organization.
One summer after college Salser combined her desire to do something special with wanting to share the gift of art with others and traveled to 18 states across the country, leading art workshops at domestic violence shelters. Salser says her workshops were well received and she made some startling discoveries.
For example, if she asked the group to draw a rose bush as representing their lives, she would then discuss the drawing to see how participants saw their lives, making observations or asking questions. Are there lots of thorns? Are the roots deep or shallow? Is there a lot of soil?
“It astounded me how profound and life-changing the experience could be and to see how much self-discovery could come out of a simple project,” Salser says.
She continued her workshops, once in Los Angeles, and her organization now trains facilitators who already work at shelters. Salser says many new facilitators say, “I’m not an artist” or “I’m scared of art and don’t know what to do,” but then the facilitator sees how the art projects give the women and children a safe way to express and honor their feelings and how powerful it can be.
Her workshops are about discovery and about taking the time to honor thoughts and feelings.
Salser believes participants gain insight into their lives even if a person just sits there or crumples the paper. She believes that women and children in domestic violence situations need that window of time to practice respecting themselves and what they need to express.
The workshops are structured as a peer support model where participants share what they’re going through followed by creative expression through art, ending with sharing the art experience.
The group members listen to each other and some make breakthroughs, according to Salser.
The organization sends shelters a new project each month and participants paint, draw, create a collage, use oil and pastels or do some sculpting.
One project, a Life Clock, involved putting what the participant wanted to spend time on onto the clock face, in place of the numbers. Salser says that through this activity some participants felt that if they stayed with the batterer, their life was running out.
Salser says facilitators regularly affirm the transforming power of the workshops and some say they get more positive feedback about this program than any other program.
Battered women have said the art workshops provide a sense of relaxation, power and possibility.
The program gives women the opportunity to honor what they’re expressing.
For many women, fear has prevented them from saying what they wanted or felt, and they couldn’t honor these feelings. Removing fear and replacing it with a sense of safety is another tremendous benefit of the workshops, according to Salser.
For battered women who choose not to go to a shelter, who were battered in the past but still want to deal with what happened or who share custody of their children with the person who battered them, A Window Between Worlds offers a monthly art workshop, The Survivor’s Art Circle, at its studio. The program is free to survivors who want to build strength in themselves and paint, draw, write or sculpt for healing.
Since its inception, A Window Between Worlds has developed a children’s art program at the request of the Los Angeles Domestic Violence Council, and Kashi Company has supported a second tour across the country, according to Salser.
The organization relies on volunteers and donations.
“We’re always trying to get new sponsors to help the program,” Salser says. “We try to give $300 in art supplies each year to the shelters and it takes $500 to train a staff member.”
A Window Between Worlds has also presented several high-visibility exhibitions of the survivors’ art nationwide, believing exhibitions help break the silence about domestic violence in communities.
According to the organization, silence is one reason for domestic violence’s continued presence in communities, and through exhibitions, the strength, hope, and pride of survivors can be unveiled so that battering will no longer be kept a painful secret.
Information: (310) 396-0317 or www.awbw.org
Julie Kirst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org