Art as a source of strength and solace

The art is beautiful, but it's not the point.

The paintings, sculptures and collages that line the walls of this Venice walk-up are the creations of women and children who were wounded by domestic violence, and turned to art for strength and solace.

The apartment is the office of A Window Between Worlds, a 20-year-old program that teaches domestic violence counselors to help families rebuild lives by tapping creativity.

"It's not about making an art project," said founder Cathy Salser. "It's about art as a process you experience; a way to connect with emotions you might not be able to acknowledge or express."

Counselors can choose from hundreds of projects for children and adults who are living in crisis shelters or transitional housing because of family violence.

A mute and angry 7-year-old can use "The Monster in Me" to unleash his rage on a paint-splashed page. Mothers and children can share fears and unpack resentment as they design "A Family Tree." And a woman, uncertain about her future, can use "Take a Walk in My Shoes" to decorate a shoe with symbols of how her life descended to this, and where she wants to be.


I've never wholly embraced the concept of art as therapeutic tool.

Maybe I'm still smarting from my own family's experience in the wake of my husband's death 18 years ago, when a therapist declared my youngest daughter love-starved because she drew people without arms.

My daughter was 3. She didn't know how to draw arms back then. It took me years to talk about it with her, and even longer to get over the feeling that I'd been labeled an inadequate mother by my preschooler's drawing.

So I was curious about the potential for art to help battered women heal. A few visits to A Window Between Worlds showed me that art can be a way to communicate, or provide a necessary retreat.

Salser is an artist who grew up in Pacific Palisades: a shy middle daughter pushed into a shell by her father's spankings, harsh words and angry tirades. Art was her refuge, she said.

"It was silent, something I felt comfortable with, something people would notice and say something about. It was like my message in a bottle, when I felt quiet and torn up inside."

She graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts and taught art at a nearby boarding school. But at 24, she packed her trunk with art supplies and spent a summer traveling the country, offering to teach art at women's shelters in exchange for room and board. She wound up teaching the clients and training volunteers at five shelters.

It was only a whim — until a battered woman showed her how much power art has to cushion pain and tragedy. The "gruff and angry" client attended a workshop complaining that she didn't want to be there. She worked all day on a clay figurine that had a finger pointing awkwardly to a stomach rippled with knots, Salser said.

"She came in the next day and said it was the first time she'd been able to sleep in months." Something about acknowledging the grip of her problems had untangled those knots.

Now, with a budget funded by grants and donations, A Window Between Worlds provides art supplies and workshop training for domestic violence counselors across the country.

"It's not really art healing or art therapy," said Ivy Panlilio, program director at Haven Hills, a domestic violence program in the west San Fernando Valley. She calls it "art empowerment. It's a time when the adults and the children are able to focus on themselves, without having other people judge them or provide feedback that isn't welcome."

That's a far cry from my mother-without-arms memory. "It's not like 'Oh my God, you drew a dark horrible-looking face. Something must be wrong with you,' " Panlilio said. "It's a personal journey for them; a way to figure out what they feel.

"We're always saying 'Talk, you need to talk.' The intake counselor, the hospital worker, the police officer.... Everybody wants to talk to you about the abuse. The art helps them to have an internal discussion with themselves … gives them a safe way to say what they're going through."

Even police officers have discovered that art sessions can help move victims past shock and shame and on to the legal process of restraining orders and court cases.

Retired South Gate Police Capt. Vincent Avila said many victims can't escape from family violence until they can imagine a better future, and "all the restraining order process classes in the world would not necessarily make that happen."

That takes "motivation and inspiration from within," he said.


Jennifer was one of those victims who needed an internal shove. She was 15 and pregnant when she first fled an abusive boyfriend four years ago. But she kept going back because "I wanted my baby to have a father," she said. "I was in denial about how bad it was."

Art workshops at a Long Beach shelter helped the teenager find her voice. "I never thought art could actually help somebody. I couldn't draw. I was a bad artist. But I found that you can do something on a piece of paper, and it will say a lot."

Now she's 19, supporting her daughter and attending college, studying for a degree in human services.

Art may not be able to heal domestic violence, or put a family back together the way everyone wants it to be.

But it can help a teenage son express his anger without tearing up a room, give a mother and her toddler a ritual to move past loud voices and harsh words, let a little girl mourn the puppy she had to leave behind when Mom said, "Pack up. Let's go."

It doesn't take talent in art — or even knowing how to draw arms — to create something that says, "Listen to me."

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