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Pearls of Wisdom: Uncovering Strength from Abuse

A participant wraps the pearl with plaster bandages, as used for broken arms and legs. Photo by Kim Abeles

Behind the closed doors of many American households live battered souls who have been repeatedly assaulted physically, emotionally and mentally. A simple experience with art can offer an opportunity for self-expression and self-exploration for such individuals who have suffered abuse for a long time. A two-year community-engagement project, Pearls of Wisdom: End of Violence, that began in 2009, is one such avenue to the survivors of domestic violence, providing an outlet to recast their traumatic experience into a unique piece of art.

The project began when A Window Between the Worlds (AWBW), a nonprofit organization dedicated to using art to help end domestic violence, asked renowned artist Kim Abeles to create a collaborative project to be implemented in shelters for domestic violence survivors throughout California.

The resulting project included workshops where participants were allowed to create their very own pearls of wisdom, along with exhibitions and a catalog, Handbook of Living, which featured artworks and advice offered by the survivors as lessons of courage and strength.

As the name suggests, the metaphor of pearls symbolizes a beautiful treasure, which forms inside oysters in response to an irritant (the abuser). The beautiful pearls are women and their children who have been heroes and heroines in moving forward and sharing their heartfelt messages. The project celebrates the courage of these survivors and pledges to end this senseless and violent episode in the history of the individual and to humanity at large.

While explaining the choice for the metaphor of pearls, Abeles says, “Society often limits its view of women in domestic violent environments to the role of a victim, rather than their more victorious roles as strong women and mothers leading families out of a horrible cycle of abuse. These women are not survivors, but rather, they are champions in the athletic and spiritual sense. A person who moves beyond domestic violence or other forms of assault has a great deal to share with the world and these words of wisdom are born from experience.”

Christy Turek, Los Angeles regional manager at AWBW explains that art allows survivors who have experienced violence to look inside, and offers them a window to see their life in a different way. She says, “The AWBW art workshops are designed to give the participants a window of time to look inside themselves and practice respecting whatever comes out, and to channel what comes out onto their artwork. This window of time allows them to have an internal conversation with themselves.”

Although there are no longer workshops being held in the physical space, people can still participate in the art workshop through AWBW’s website awbw.org. The website includes a curriculum for the project and access to a instructional DVD for making a pearl.

The pearls, made by 800 participants, are on display at the exhibit Breaking In Two: Provocative Vision of Motherhood, which is 
being held in Arena 1 in Santa Monica until April 14th, and in the exhibition Pearls of Wisdom: End the Violence, being held in Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles until May 20, 2012.

A partial installation view of the Pearls Table & some of the 800 pearls created. The table is a visualization of the pearls process, including the materials & videos of each step in the process. Photo by Ken Marchionno.

How Art Heals

Art is often believed to go beyond words, which are sometimes not enough to capture the intensity of feelings stemming from violence, abuse and trauma. By participating in art, an individual suspends everyday logical thinking and develops a relationship with lines, colors and the flow of active discovery. Engaging in art activities helps to disconnect from our left-brain “logical” selves and provides the medium to stop thinking and start a more direct form of expression; the language of sensations, emotions and pre-verbal memories.

Turek uses the analogy of ice to explain the impact that domestic violence has on these survivors. She says, “When we survive trauma, oftentimes parts of our heart become hardened because of what we’ve experienced. Many therapeutic modalities try to chip away at that ice; however, the art, because it is completely self-directed, gently allows the ice to melt.”

Grid sample of 12 of the 800 pearls. Photo by Ken Marchionno.

As a part of the healing methods, the AWBW workshops emphasize giving the survivors a choice to create their own artwork without the involvement of an authority interpreting or using their art as a diagnostic tool. Each participant in these workshops is in charge of her or his own creative exploration. Giving the survivors control of their own healing process provides them an opportunity to notice that they have the freedom to decide what they want to create.

The creative process of making pearls helped Emily Anne, an eighty-year-old survivor and a long-distance participant of the program, unwind her suppressed feelings. She says, “The art helped me to look inside for the first time in my life to see who Emily Anne really is.” The “monsters” Anne says, “have been closeted too long, and the art brings them up into the light, where they just shrivel up and blow away. They transform from ‘monsters’ into a creation of beauty.”

The project also became a collective and personal journey for Abeles who has a history with domestic violence. She says, “I realized I needed to come forward with my own history with domestic violence. I felt that it would be disingenuous of me to expect participants in the workshops to be so open about their own lives if I were not to do the same. Pearls of Wisdom became a personal journey for me as well as a collective journey and chorus from all the 800 participants.”

Art, Abeles agrees, can work as a healing agent because “when artists bring community collaborators into the artistic process, the participants are given a unique view into the chaos that transforms struggle into what we have grown to understand as ‘works of art’. This process holds the key potential for all art and healing.”

There are seven steps in the complete process. In this photo is an example of the "irritant" & the story written on mylar by the participant. Photo by Kim Abeles.

The Art of Making Pearls

Abeles gives a glimpse of the process of making pearls for which she held workshops with survivors of domestic violence and community members alike in Southern California. She also facilitated the Pearls of Wisdom Workshop with trained AWBW leaders. Each leader was given instructions on how to facilitate the Pearls of Wisdom workshop and was also given a kit with instructions on how to run the workshop, as well as all the necessary materials.

Kits were distributed to collaborating AWBW programs throughout the state of California. All of the kits included a DVD of Abeles giving information about the project and tips on facilitating the workshops. The collaborating programs then mailed their completed pearls back to AWBW, which is how the organization was able to have such a large sample of pearls.

The process of making pearls required participants to learn about the tools and sculptural processes that most of them had never encountered before—the goal being that they use the process to physically transform their private stories of violence by working with challenging and visceral materials, including plaster and tools used for making sculptures.

On this pearl, the participant paints with the colors that she finds empowering. Photo by Aaron Tamayo.

Abeles explains that pearl-making relied on the metaphor and the visceral strength of the process. “The participants were invited to bring an object that symbolized or described their ‘irritant’, the abuser or an event…When participants opted to select objects and symbols at the workshop, they choose them as a meaningful way to tell their story.”

In these workshops, Mylar paper was used to provide a reflective surface for writing or drawing. Seeing oneself mirrored back while writing attached a unique meaning for each person. Most often, Mylar paper with its natural abstraction of light was photographed by the participant before heading to the next step, which was crumbling the mirrored surface with the symbols secured within.

Next, the “irritant” and writing were wound up like a ball of yarn. A myriad of yarns, ribbon and raffia were turned round and round, covering the shiny mass. In the natural progression, the next steps involved working with bandages and wrapping up the fiber cords. At this stage of the workshop, Abeles recalls participants gathering around the table while they worked. She says, “Sometimes people would talk and most often they seemed in a mutual reverie, occasionally helping each other to learn the process…The cooperative spirit of the participants became the source of confidence for each member to share their words of advice with each other and the world at large.”

The participants in these workshops prodded through the heap of abuse and pain to create pearls; but rather than creating a single object, these participants recognized the powerful meaning of their wisdom–words combined together as an act of courage and strength.

Page from Pearls of Wisdom Book


Anuja Seith
Anuja Seith reported for the exchange4media group in New Delhi, where she interviewed government officials as well as national and international media, marketing and advertising personalities. Seith also worked as a reporter for local publications—Tri-City Voice, the Santa Clara Weekly, and was a freelance journalist for New America Media in San Francisco. She is currently working as front page editor for DailySource.org, a non-profit news website. Seith received a Master of Science in Mass Communications from San Jose State University.
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