These women have deep pain. They’re turning to art to help them heal
March 8, 2018
When women have been sexually harassed, raped or abused, they often don’t have a person or place to turn to for safety.
How do they deal with that trauma?
Some find refuge in art.
The Miami Herald spoke with women about their #MeToo stories, during a women’s circle organized by the Miami Workers Center. Those telling their stories were everyday people. They clean hotels and homes. They’re nannies and waitresses. They help care for the sick and the elderly.
Their words were so powerful the Miami Herald turned them into poetry and asked female artists from various countries to illustrate them.
Among the illustrators is Yuleidy González Nieto, a survivor of child sexual abuse who participated in the women’s circle in December. She said creating art is her way of healing, her way of dealing with her trauma and of helping others express themselves.
“Art is a positive way of liberating negative energy,” González Nieto said. “Art heals.”
In commemoration of Women’s History Month in March, we share these works of art:
Jasmen Rogers moderated the women’s circle. She wrote the words above: “Men have no problem … Taking up space … Even when that space … Is not there.’’
“The statement is purely powerful and speaks to the dilemmas we experience in a society that permits many incidents to occur in which men threaten women’s agency,” Ringer said. “We need to teach men to move freely with us and to not enter where they don’t have permission.”
Rogers’ words in the above illustration — “We take up space … By being in community… Together… And saying that we… Won’t tolerate this … Anymore’’ — inspired Jazmin Freire, an Ecuadorian American artist who grew up in Chicago and studies art in Paris. She created the artwork.
“All of us are part of the #MeToo movement. We are all a sisterhood, and none of us should dismiss a movement because we don’t think it has personally affected us,” said Freire. “It is important for people to feel heard. Once we are able to release our darkness, there can finally be light in all the little places we hide behind. It is important for victims, survivors, men, women, everyone to feel like they have importance, because they do. We should let our differences unite us because we all hurt in different ways.”
“This is us taking up space … This is us fighting for our dignity back … And saying that we deserve to have our dignity … That we deserve to have control over our bodies.’’
Ringer, who illustrated the above statement by Rogers, said she often finds herself having to fight for her own space, especially while leading projects: “I’m constantly challenged to take up space unapologetically as a women in environments in which men don’t think twice about taking up space and often don’t allow me to do the same.”
“Understanding that all of us have been… Sexually assaulted, sexually harassed … In moments when our body is not our own … Our minds are not our own … Our homes are not our own.”
Janae Lynch, an artist from Tampa who studies anthropology in France, illustrated the above words of Marcia Olivo, director of the Miami Wokers Center. Olivo decided to talk about the #MeToo movement during the monthly women’s circle to provide a space for women to heal and feel empowered.
When she read the survivors’ words, Lynch said she “felt a bit of anger, sadness. I felt that women shouldn’t have to experience these things on a constant basis. But we do.”
“It affects the way we are,’’ she added. “Our personalities, the way we dress, the way we walk, where we walk, who we interact with. It isn’t normal and shouldn’t be normalized.”
“It is like a flower … That sprouts another flower … And that flower sprouts another flower … I am the fruit of a rape… And I was also raped.”
An eye shedding tears in the shape of petals is Lynch’s interpretation of Milagros Jiménez’s moving testimony above. Jiménez was sexually abused as a young child.
During the women’s circle, Jiménez’s words silenced the room.
“My mother was a maid in the Dominican Republic,’’ she told the group. “My father was the owner of the house where she worked. He abused my mother and I was born from that. I think of how much my mother suffered during that time. These days, those stories stir everything inside of me.”
Yuleidy González Nieto illustrated her own words.
“I realized that… I was never… Not going to be… A survivor…Of rape… So I decided to… Own my shit … Deal with my shit… Carry my shit with me … And do something good … With it.”
At the women’s circle, she spoke publicly for the first time about being sexually abused as a child in her native Colombia. Shortly after speaking to the group, she founded the art collective MotherShip, with Miami artists Toni-Symone and Sabii, to promote healing through creativity. They host health fairs in Miami’s poorest neighborhoods and plan to provide spaces for art therapy.
“Some of the best works of arts come from people who have been in very dark places in their lives, like people who cut off their ears,’’ said González Nieto, the gender justice coordinator at The New Florida Majority.
“We already said, ‘MeToo.’ Now what?” she asked. “We need to create community, spaces to heal, to support one another. I am never going to be free; I am never going to heal if my sisters aren’t free and healing.”
Artists Carmen Ferreras did not choose a specific poem. Instead, she created an illustration inspired by the spirit of survival she found in the words of the Miami women’s group.
A little over a year ago, Ferreras, who is now studying in Madrid, was assaulted in a street of Santo Domingo, in her native Dominican Republic.
"The boy grabbed me to take my cell phone. That feeling of being cornered, emotionally abused, it turns you into a distrustful person,” she said. "Should we walk the streets worried that, because we are women, they see us as fragile?"
“Every day I say to myself: I do not have to live like that, nor feel that way. I have the right to be respected, no matter how I look. And I have decided that I'm not going to give in to the abuse to which we are subjected.”
Mardi Hartzog said she decided to illustrate the poem created with the words of community activist Jasmin Rogers, to honor the community of women who support her every day.
“Sadly I, like so many women that I know, have experienced some degree of abuse. For me, my community has been so vital and quite a blessing in disguise to get through such trying times, and to help me remember that I am not alone,” said Hartzog, a Seattler artist now based in Mexico City. “I know that flowers were mentioned in another poem as a metaphor for rape, but I would like to repurpose the analogy in my work to represent my community as a garden, always growing, beautiful, and thriving.”
Vian Paniagua illustrated the quote from Milagros Jiménez about a cycle of sexual abuse in Jiménez’s life.
"I liked this for the comparison of women with a branch full of flowers. We all want to be that plant that blooms but these attacks wither us many,” said Paniagua, a Mexican artist.
The process of creating the illustration helped her reflect on her own experiences, Paniagua said.
“I admire the strength of these women to share their stories with everyone. The situation is worrisome, but I think this helps to sensitize and empathize, so we can continue in this fight together, healing and empowering women,” she added.
Also inspired by Jiménez's quote, Mexican artist Mónica Olivera created this image.
Many years after being abused, Jiménez emigrated to the United States, where she has cleaned houses and hotels for more than two decades. As an adult, she has fought off sexual abuse attempts “with tooth and nail.” One attack came from a hotel guest, another by the owner of a home she cleaned.
“Just because you defend yourself doesn't mean that the abuses stop,” she said during the December meeting. “There’s always someone else who tries.”
“When I read the poems and the women’s testimonies, I immediately identified as one of them,” said María Luisa Estrada Sánchez, a Mexican artist. “Among women we understand one another, by telling our experiences without having to explain more than the facts that have marked our lives.”
Estrada said that her illustration of Jasmen Roger’s words, is the contribution she can make from her trench, to elevate female voices and help women get rid of that absurd “feeling of guilt.”
“I have also felt responsible for the harassment I suffer in the streets, on public transport,” she said.
Mexican artist Isabel Ruiz Tello feels a responsibility to “make visible the current social issues and raise awareness about the harassment and violence against women.”
Ruiz, an engraving artist, worked with a community brigade to assist the victims of the earthquake that shook Mexico in September 2017. In addition to helping to rebuild homes, the brigade worked with affected people to help them heal through art therapy.
Ruiz and Hartzog, the artist from Seattle, have teamed up to teach graphic arts to indigenous communities in Mexico.
“I think it is time for everyone to become aware of these issues and to fight for the life and dignity of women, to stop normalizing the exploitation of the female body, to stop overlooking small and big acts of disrespect and to celebrate the individuality, beauty, fertility of women, who are cyclical, perceptive, sensitive, intuitive and sisters,” said Ruiz.
When Francisca Tillería read the story about the group of women in Miami, it made her think about Mary J. Blige’s song “The Living Proof.”
The chorus goes: So many don’t survive... They just don’t make it through... But look at me... I’m the living proof.
Then Tillería, an artist from Ecuador, took her brushes and created this image. She added a short and convincing phrase of her own: “I will be heard.”
Find and share these images on the Miami Herald’s Instagram account.
Special thanks to Janae Lynch, Ángela Medina, Mardi Hartzog, Matías J. Ocner and Germán Guerra.