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Women gain voices through photographic art exhibit

By Deidre Jacobson

With donated cameras and film, 12 women at the Women’s Hearth gained voices and self-awareness as they participated in 10 weeks of photography classes and created photographs for the “Eye C: Perspectives” photography exhibit last spring.

Photos of birds in leafless tree branches, Spokane Falls, a toilet, hands knitting, a close-up of ice, a street at sunset and a boy swimming were among images inspired by poetry on eight themes about women growing and changing.  The themes were February, wind, community, infinity, fortress strength, magic suitcase, growth and self-portrait.

Women's photo art

Women's Hearth receives 2008 Bold Strokes award from Spokane Arts Commission

The exhibit, which was part of the 2008 Spokane Art Walk on May 2 gained renewed recognition in October when the Women’s Hearth received the 2008 Bold Strokes Special Achievement Award from the Spokane Arts Commission.

The award was granted to the organization for “changing the community through art,” by helping women grow, change and contribute to the community.

The “Eye C: Perspectives” exhibit was on display in November at the Intercollegiate College of Nursing, 2917 Fort Wright Dr., and will be on display in December at the Community Building, 35 W. Main. The plan is to keep it circulating in different locations.  Photographs were also used for the 2009 Transitions calendar given out at the Women Who Care Breakfast and Luncheon in November.

Plans are in the works to start another class.

Art forms continue to flourish at the Women’s Hearth day center for low-income, homeless and other women downtown.

Women have sculpted, written and painted their way to healing from abuse, isolation, addiction and broken relationships since the Dominican Sisters, Sisters of the Holy Names, Sisters of Providence and Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia started the Women’s Drop-In Center in 1991.  It is now part of Transitions, which was formed in 1995 and includes Miryam’s House, EduCare and the Transitional Living Center.

Other arts include writing and poetry, knitting and crocheting, copper tooling, crafts projects and music, including a drumming circle, piano lessons and a singing group.

Encouraged by Mary Rathert, Women’s Hearth director for 10 years, the arts have been integral services for the women as well as 12-step meetings, support groups, life-skills classes, access to basic needs, referrals for social services and a technology center.

They are as important in building self-esteem and fostering community as meals, meetings, speakers and events, said Mary.

She sees healing and growth in the women when they are encouraged to use their creative gifts. 

“The arts bring so much out in the women,” Mary said.  “As we witness the growth of their talent and creativity, we see that art builds self-esteem.  In our need for affirmation, love and friendship, we are more alike than different.  There is power in realizing one’s talents.”

Through AmeriCorps, the Women’s Hearth now has an arts coordinator position, which is filled by Stephanie Burgess, who has a master’s degree in music and wanted to do something directly with women in need.

She organized the “Eye C: Perspectives” photography project, inspired by a 2004 documentary, “Born into Brothels,” in which women were given cameras to explore their world and educate people.

“I found the photographers’ perspectives made their art remarkable,” said Stephanie. 

“I was moved by the pride the women took in their work and their joy in sharing it with the community.  At the Women’s Hearth, we emphasize support of women’s art, so women feel affirmed and are encouraged to create, share and grow in their artistic capabilities.”

Dorothy Detlor, a photographer who retired as dean of Washington State University’s Intercollegiate College of Nursing, volunteered as the primary instructor for the photography classes.  Gonzaga students, Kat Brauer and Adam Membrey, and AmeriCorps member Megan Mulcaire-Jones helped select photos for the display and advised on photography skills.

Classes included lessons on basic, technical aspects of photography. 

After each lesson, women discussed the images they took the previous week and what meaning they found in the photo.  Sharing what the photos said about their lives was therapeutic and supportive for many, said Stephanie. 

At the close of each class, the women received a copy of a poem and a theme for the week’s photographs based on the poem. Themes progressed from the external world to the internal world of self.

In 2002, the then Women’s Drop In Center participated in Spokane’s First Friday Art Walk, showcasing the participants’ drawings, sculpture, poetry and self-portraits.

In July 2004, with opening the new site at 920 W. Second and the name change to Women’s Hearth, staff, volunteers and participants marched to the new building carrying pieces of art to decorate the new “home away from home” for many downtown women. 

Former Transitions board member the Rev. Brenda Tudor, nominated the program for the Bold Strokes award.

“The Women’s Hearth’s work of feeding, clothing, housing and educating is basic, but for the spirit to thrive, the women must have art,” she said.

For information, call 455-4249.