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Thursday, 04 August 2011 05:08

The gift of art

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The words of Helen Reddy's song "I am woman, hear me roar" came to mind as I sat and listened to women from Catherine House telling the story of their works of art displayed in the recent art exhibition titled "cHART". Women were roaring with pride - albeit gently, in their achievements as they told about how they had come to produce their particular work of art. They spoke confidently to the gathered group comprising their fellow artists, members of staff and especially their families and friends.

I found it to be a very moving experience sitting and listening to women speaking confidently and happily, as I had met them previously at their lowest point, women defined by homelessness seeking crisis accommodation at Catherine House. I knew the women's stories of what had brought them to homelessness - the broken relationships with family, domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health, loss of employment and earnings - to name a few. But now roaring with success, again gently, the women had found the artist within themselves and had produced amazing works of art to exhibition standard.

The journey to discover the artist within had begun some years earlier with the establishment of the Catherine House Education and Employment program known as Sagarmatha. A component of this program was the Arts for Social Change curriculum. Over time this curriculum comprised activities such as voice and drama, creative writing and poetry, singing, beading, landscape sewing, patchwork quilting, various craft activities as well as a weekly art class presented by a well known Adelaide artist. It became clear that many of the women had never really had either the opportunity or the means to pursue artistic activities and reveled in the chance to express themselves creatively.

It was decided to work towards an exhibition of the women's works of art. A group of artists was engaged to provide a wide experience of art through the exploration of various genres and media. Over an eight month period the women participated in weekly art classes and a number of weekly master classes. Women were encouraged to participate in these workshops to explore different aspects of art and to visit local artists at work in their own studios. The University of South Australia, a supporter of the work of Catherine House provided professional exhibition space in its regular gallery.

Some of the objectives of the project included "to increase client participation in the Arts for Social Change program and increase their levels of self confidence and self esteem, life skills and overall health and well being; to expand on client artists' knowledge and artistic talent and to assist in clients gaining a wider understanding of art as a profession; to offer the wider community an opportunity to re-appraise any images or misinformation they may hold in relation to the abilities, talents and skills of women experiencing homelessness". As the Director, Madge McGuire says in the forward to the cHART catalogue "cHART 2010 is an opportunity to further promote the capacity and capability of women who come to Catherine House".

Sarah's comment is typical of the women's responses to the creative opportunities:  "I have not yet tried an art media that does not excite me! I am inspired by dreams and metaphors, and the converting of ideas and emotions into visual images. Sometimes I draw upon my own inner world and dreams. Other times a person might say something that sparks an enduring image in my mind."

A painting hangs proudly in the Sisters of Mercy Adelaide Congregation office. The painting is of the Central Market and while painting the rows of fruit and vegetables the artist was questioned "they're not fish are they?" In fact they were bananas but the question provided the title for the painting!  It has been an exciting and rewarding experience for everyone involved.

This article was first published in the April edition of the Sisters of Mercy e-news Mercy Matters.