If you gathered all the irritants in your life and tossed them into a pile, what would you get?
Most would probably just see an accumulated mess of the hardships that have plagued them for months or even years on end. But more than 800 survivors of domestic violence have uncovered beauty, wisdom and strength from their own piles in the wake of abuse.
“People talk about [domestic violence survivors] but don’t want to hear what they have to say. Turning those things around, it empowers them,” said local artist Kim Abeles. “If they can ground their feelings in either an image or metaphor, then they have a chance to survive.”
With support and resources from the non-profit women’s organization, A Window Between Worlds, Abeles has given women, children and men an opportunity to unchain themselves from secrecy and shame and start a dialogue with community members through the art exhibit, “Pearls of Wisdom.”
Running now through March 31 at the Korean Cultural Center in the Miracle Mile district of Los Angeles, “Pearls of Wisdom” showcases nearly 1,000 handcrafted pearls made in more than 70 womens’ shelters across California.
The exhibit coincides with Women’s History Month and the 20th anniversary of the founding of A Window Between Worlds, which began in Venice, Calif. and currently aids more than 50,000 domestic violence survivors in more than 20 states. The organization, which is composed of trained volunteers and local artists, uses art as a form of healing.
According to Outreach Chair Barbara Ketchum, “Pearls of Wisdom” is two years in the making.
The exhibit features two types of pearls: Flat, disc-like ones that come from out-of-town shelters, and 3-D representations created in L.A. workshops facilitated by Abeles.
“The women started by writing their experiences on mylar, which was sort of reflective because it looks back at you,” Ketchum said. “Then they crunched the mylar around the irritant — actual tokens, such as wedding rings, bottles and even bullets — and wrapped it in yarn or fabric.”
The irritants were then wrapped in bandages, a material used because of its symbolic power.
“One of the women I talked to said, ‘It was like healing my wounds,’” Ketchum said.
Now hidden from sight with another layer, the irritants were covered with plaster, molded and finished with a coat of paint.
What emerged is a striking menagerie, creations of various shapes, sizes and textures painted with swirls of pastels or sweeping strokes of matte colors. Some are even adorned with charms, flowers or braided string.
Abeles has firsthand experience with abuse. A victim of domestic violence and sexual assaults, she said she started “feeling like a rag doll” as her life wore on.
It only grew worse with her refusal to sort through her own pile of hardships, even as she developed several works of art that commented on her suffering and oppression, including an exhibit she describes as “Charlie Manson and love lockets.”
“I put this stuff on the back burner. I never thought about that work again, never lectured on it. I did it, put it away. Therefore, I never really learned from it,” Abeles said. “When the Window project came up, all that stuff crept up. If you just keep putting it off, it comes back with a vengeance.”
“Pearls of Wisdom” triggered some unwanted nerves in Abeles, a social-activist artist whose portfolio consists largely of work centered on the environment.
Yet, she found herself connected to the women. As a fellow survivor, Abeles was able to avoid “doing the pity thing” as she showed she was riding the same wave of emotions.
“I like working with community because it’s really challenging to not seem like you have all the answers,” Abeles said. “I would frame [the workshops] as, anytime you make art, there is a comfort and a soothingness. It’s about feeling centered.”
For the survivors, who participated, being “centered” comes with the pearl, their tragedies lying dormant inside.
“There needs to be a place to put that damn story. There’s a tendency to want to repeat that horrible story over and over again until you don’t even need the abuser anymore,” Abeles said. “You just sucked it up and all you see yourself as is that story.”
These stories are not only in the pearl but also in the quotes Abeles collected from the survivors. Imprinted on the gallery walls and in the exhibit’s accompanying The Handbook for Living, the most affecting quote speaks to the motivation behind “Pearls of Wisdom:” “Women should help each other and be welcoming to those who need our help.”