The Common Good
March-April 2000

Healing Through Art

by Bronwyn Shiffer | March-April 2000

Women's project leads to transformation.

Evelyn came in at 9 a.m., all smiles and ready to draw even though class doesn’t begin until this afternoon. Evelyn usually comes for the Greeting Card class, where she quietly draws the same face over and over again: two circles for eyes, one for a nose, and one for a mouth. "Do you want to color them?" the instructor suggests. "No," Evelyn says. Today she is looking through old National Geographic magazines to cut out pictures that catch her eye.

Evelyn is diagnosed as mentally retarded and does not know her birthday. She sits near Teiko, a former medical researcher at the University of California at Davis who takes medication for paranoid schizophrenia and depression. Teiko has been coming to the Women’s Wisdom Project, a nonprofit arts organization in Sacramento, California, for five years. She remarks how lucky she is to have "psychosis" since it allows her to come to Wisdom.

The mission of the Women’s Wisdom Project is to provide a secure environment in which women can enter into a personal transformation process through the creative arts. Through this process they are able to experience self-worth and dignity in a creative community and are strengthened to shape their own lives and connect with the resources they need to break free from patterns of oppression. Classes at the Women’s Wisdom Project are free, supplies are provided, and no experience is necessary.

Wisdom has come a long way since its beginning in 1991. Originally held in a local homeless shelter and founded by Laura Ann Walton, a Sister of Mercy who realized that souls, as well as stomachs, needed to be fed, Wisdom now rents a building that has a small kitchen, kiln, and ample storage space.

In December 1998, Wisdom artists created a mural that spans one side of the building and reads, "‘Reflections,’ Created with Hope and Vision."

Since June 1991, more than 2,500 multi-media classes have been taught by local professional artists. These include watercolor and acrylic painting, clay sculpture, mosaic and collage, creative writing, printmaking, papier-mâché, bookmaking, African dance, jewelry-making, and drama.

TRANSFORMATION is almost inevitable with regular attendance at Wisdom. The mother of a Wisdom artist says, "Wisdom has made a major difference in my daughter’s life, and mine too! She’s been attending the program since this past April and is starting to look happy. After a nervous breakdown in 1995, sleep was her major activity. Her motivation has tripled since her involvement with Wisdom. When I walk through your doors and feel the peace and watch the women working relaxed and focused on their projects, I know it’s a blessing."

Some women come to Wisdom for years, saying they don’t know what they would do without it. Many women leave Wisdom with the confidence necessary to go back to school or job training programs.

Although nothing is required of the women when they participate, many feel a strong sense of ownership of the program. Almost 1,000 women have participated in art classes at the Women’s Wisdom Project. More than 350 women lived in local homeless and domestic violence shelters, in cars, or on the streets. Almost 500 were referred from resource centers for women who are poor, drug and alcohol recovery programs, and mental health agencies.

Today the announcements for the semi-annual art exhibit will be mailed off. Usually the show draws more than 300 people. Sales from the artwork (sold year-round) are shared between the artist and Wisdom (70 percent to the artist and 30 percent for supplies)—which not only benefits the women but also allows them to give back to the program.

"The scholar seeks; the artist finds." Artists at Wisdom find something beautiful inside themselves, maybe for the first time. The respect, the encouragement, and the acceptance they receive here may be the brightest part of their day. And it is just the beginning.

BRONWYN SHIFFER is a native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and a 1999 graduate of Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She is a Jesuit Volunteer at the Women’s Wisdom Project, which will hold its semi-annual art show and sale in early May. Contact the Women’s Wisdom Project, 3508 24th St., Sacramento, CA 95818; (916) 454-1862; wwisdom@ix.netcom.com.

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