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A painting by artist Char Coal.

... And Now This is one of a series of vivid watercolor paintings by Char Coal expressing her lifelong struggle with and recovery from childhood physical and sexual abuse.

Healing from violence: Art of Recovery gives voice to survivors

Art of Recovery gives voice to survivors

By Ann Freeman

"Still I rise." Those famous three words from the great poet Maya Angelou speak volumes about the capacity of humankind to turn from victim to survivor, from oppressed to triumphant. These days, Angelou's words seem to reverberate through the Art of Recovery, the current exhibit at Larson Art Gallery on the Twin Cities' campus in St. Paul.

There, four survivors of violence and abuse rise to publicly share their stories with the world through art. There, personal pain becomes a call for the community to take responsibility to end violence. There, images shout out a cacophony of healing and hope, and of lingering scars. The artists speak for themselves and they speak for those who remain silent. And, through their work, they insist we listen.

"When people tell their story through art, movement, or words, they often get in touch with their feelings and gain new insights and perspectives," says Mary Jo Kreitzer, director of the University's Center for Spirituality and Healing. "Additionally, they may find ways to process grief, anger, and loss. The only way to heal from pain is to find ways to move through the pain to get to the other side."

Last winter, Emily Johnson was attacked by a convicted rapist. Her images of women in heels fighting back attackers, embroidered on delicate vintage handkerchiefs, starkly contrast notions of "the gentile woman" with rage and violence, strength and empowerment.

"When people tell their story through art, movement, or words, they often get in touch with their feelings and gain new insights and perspectives," says Mary Jo Kreitzer, director of the University's Center for Spirituality and Healing.

Char Coal, a survivor of childhood sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her parents, says in her introduction to her work, "My watercolor paintings have given me an opportunity to express the emotional pain and bondage I've felt into adulthood." Her images evoke breaking free, yet a lifetime of struggle.

Rhonda Barnes' paintings shift from colorful images of hope and healing to graphic chronicles of depression, pain, and suffering. A survivor of domestic and sexual abuse, she says of one work--Fireball--"This was done on a day I was genuinely feeling I can make it." But in another, she describes images as black slashes of pain trying to come through.

Chris Maender was violently attacked in 2003 by a group of seven people. His painting, Cold Blooded Memories, chills.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, every hour in America there are two murders, two drunk-driving deaths, 28 rapes, 67 attacks on women by someone they know, 103 neglectful or abusive acts toward children, 163 violent attacks on 12- to 17-year olds in school, and 523 assaults. But we can only guess at the full extent of these crimes--especially domestic violence--as so many crimes go unreported, and so many victims remain locked within their silence.

"For some people, remaining silent is a way of not acknowledging or dealing with the traumatic experience," says Kreitzer. But breaking silence is a powerful enough action that it not only heals, but also calls out to others for understanding and action.

"It's important for victims of crime to be able to express the depth of their victimization to the community as a whole," says Mary Ellison, executive director, Office of Justice Programs in the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. "Through that experience, they can express that they've been hurt and experience the healing that comes from the support of members of the community."

"We learn not only through our own stories but also through the stories of others," adds Kreitzer. "Listening to the stories of someone who has experienced violence or abuse increases our awareness, and our ability to be empathetic as well as compassionate. Stories offer the gift of getting in touch with the core of our own humanity. They help us to understand the depths of despair and rage as well as joy and ecstasy."


The exhibit, which runs April 22 to May 14, is free and open to the public and commemorates Minnesota Crime Victims' Rights Week 2004. It is co-sponsored by the University's Minnesota Programs and Activities Council and the Minnesota Office of Justice Programs. For more information, call 612-625-3955 or see

The Center for Spirituality and Healing offers an eight-week program in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. For information on the classes or to register for a free information session in May, call 612-624-9459. A new series begins in June.

For more about art therapy, see

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