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Domestic Abuse Survivors Workshop

Trauma channeled into art: How a doll-making workshop is helping survivors of domestic abuse

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Updated January 19, 2019 10:01 AM EST

Editor's note: This article was first published Oct. 17, 2018. We're bringing it back today in observation of Artist as Outlaw Day.

WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — These dolls are not the kind one would find in a toy store. Their skin is made of hosiery. Some smile. Others seem stoic. Some are clothed in elaborate outfits. Others are nude.

Each one of them has been hand-sewn by a survivor of domestic violence.

It’s all part of an ongoing workshop in Washington, D.C., intended to help survivors channel trauma into art.

The workshop began with artist Marta Pérez-García’s advocacy, along with a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and support from the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, La Clinica del Pueblo and other organizations.

“It was like a community thing for all of us and at the end, everyone was hugging,” Pérez-García said. “I love all of these women. They are my friends now.”

Marta Pérez-García
Artist Marta Pérez-García helped start a doll-making workshop for domestic abuse survivors. (Circa/Aislinn Hein)

An exhibit showcasing the dolls, “Si Te Cojo … Cuerpo, Mujer, Rotura” (or "If I Catch You ... Body, Woman, Rupture"), was put on display at the Frank D. Reeves Center of Municipal Affairs in D.C., to mark Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October.

The opening night for the exhibit provided a rare opportunity: a confluence of D.C.’s most prominent survivor advocacy organizations and support groups, along with survivors themselves.

A few of the women who had participated in the doll-making workshops saw their collective achievement for the first time.

The installation provided a focal point to the gathering, using art as a conduit for conversation about a largely under-reported crime (the National Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that police are notified in about half of all instances of non-fatal intimate partner violence).

Domestic Abuse Survivors Workshop
Each of these handmade figures was created by a survivor of domestic abuse. (Circa/Aislinn Hein)

Seen all together, the similarities and unique elements among the dolls are striking. They’re all made using fragile materials — like stockings — to make the creative process a delicate one. Pérez-García said that the increased risk of tearing while sewing was intentional, a symbol of the care needed to mend the physical and emotional toll of domestic violence.

“It’s about healing,” said Pérez-García. “Your skin breaks, what do you do? You heal it.”

There was only one rule when making the dolls.

“They had free reign. The only thing that I wanted all these dolls to have was a spine. And the spine for me was that metaphor of strength.”
Marta Pérez-García, artist

Many of those who attended Pérez-García’s workshops also attended support group sessions together as part of Entre Amigas, a program within La Clinica del Pueblo. Through workshops, sessions and retreats, participants’ shared experience formed a community.

Yanira Doll
Yanira shows the second doll she made as part of a workshop for domestic abuse survivors. She says the difference between the first and second doll reflects the way she viewed herself before and after finding emotional support. (Circa/Aislinn Hein)

One of those women, Yanira, said the programs were transformative.

“They have been a great help to me, truly,” Yanira said. “Because I felt so depressed, without a way out. So, I said, ‘No, I have to have the strength to move forward, for my children.’ [These groups] have given me strength. I can’t thank this group enough for the care they’ve shown me.”

Yanira made two figures, and said the differences between the first and second dolls reflect a change she saw in herself.

“I made the first doll when I was feeling defeated. I felt like an abused woman. I felt like I had no value, and that’s how I made the doll, how I felt before. Without strength. Without a willingness to move forward,” Yanira said. “Then I made the second doll, because as I kept attending the group, I began to feel like a different woman.”

Dilcia Molina, Gender and Health Program manager with Entre Amigas, said the workshops prove that art is therapeutic.

“They can express through art all of their pain. It’s a cathartic experience, to get out everything they have inside, all of the scars that are the result of their abuse.”
Dilcia Molina, Gender and Health Program manager with Entre Amigas

Pérez-García grew so close to the women who participated in the project, she can identify each woman’s individual story just by seeing her doll.

“If I see these dolls,” she said, “I literally can remember almost each one of them … it's almost like a stamp.”

Activism against domestic violence has long been a driving force in Pérez-García’s art, and in her life. She recalls witnessing “machismo” back home in Puerto Rico, where she first realized the pervasiveness of gender inequality. In one particular instance, after a woman’s murder at the hands of her partner made headlines, Pérez-García noticed the conversation surrounding the death seemed to center on victim-blaming.

“Some people were saying, ‘But who knows what happened?’” said Pérez-García. “Almost giving an open space for, like, ‘Maybe she was dressing this way, maybe she was cheating on him.’ Just that opening of ‘What happened?’ when somebody’s been killed … can really completely change the conversation, which is completely wrong.”

Pérez-García’s show, in addition to showcasing dolls from her workshop, included her own interpretive works. Encircling the installation of dolls, the floor was painted red and black, with elongated figures that evoked cave paintings. At either end of the space, a collection of colorful wooden blocks invited visitors to rearrange letters. More interpretive pieces lay ominously below the dolls: eyeballs staring upward at the figures, within a perimeter of clustered bullets and teeth. The entire display was immersive; visitors could take off their shoes to walk on the paint and get a closer look at the dolls. Elements of innocence and childhood intertwined almost imperceptibly with the underlying theme of violence: the bullets, teeth and blocks were organized so neatly, they might all have been from the same playroom.

The theme of childhood came up in the workshops as well. A “doll” workshop wasn’t Pérez-García’s original intent — she said she initially thought of them as “figures” — but she later embraced the interpretation.

“For a lot of them, I think they were transported in their childhood,” said Pérez-García. “These workshops made them see themselves when they were young, what they went through and where they are now. And where they are now is an amazing place.”

Pérez-García said that, although her artistic endeavors brought her into this community, her advocacy does not end with this project.

“For me, it’s been really a changing life experience. This is what I’m gonna do. I mean, I was doing the art … but now I’m in the community, and that’s where I want to stay.”

Pérez-García stressed that survivors are more than what they’ve been through.

“They are not just survivors. They are just people that want to live, that want to study, that want to see their children grow, that want a good job, that just want to laugh. That’s how we have to see these women.”
Marta Pérez-García, artist

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