Artist and survivor Cathy Salser always knew she wanted to use her art to make a difference. So, for the last two-and-a-half decades, she’s been running the nonprofit organization A Window Between Worlds to help survivors of trauma heal through creating art. Located in California, they offer workshops in domestic violence shelters throughout 28 states. We asked Salser to share her artistic vision for healing.
DomesticShelters: How did you come up with the idea to help domestic violence survivors through making art?
Salser: One summer 25 years ago, a friend asked, ‘What’s your greatest vision?’ I told her I wanted to share art that would make a difference. I grew up with domestic violence and art was a touchstone of safety, a way to grow and connect with people without words.
In college, I learned how to do portraits and all these technical skills, but they looked at my portfolio and said, ‘What do you want to do with this art?’ Back then, the directory of domestic violence shelters was a paper notebook. I sent letters to all these shelters saying I’ll offer anything I can as an artist. I was 24. I really didn’t expect anything, but then I heard from the director of a shelter in Idaho. She said she was an artist and said she knew how much of a difference art could make. She wanted to create a weekend of workshops around my visit. From there, I just started going from shelter to shelter, holding art workshops. We’d do things like paint murals on basement walls—the kind made of handprints, make miniature masks, sculpt, do pastel drawings or portraiture—which was amazing for those who thought they couldn’t draw; they learned how to draw themselves.
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DomesticShelters: How did living with domestic violence as a child impact what you do today?
Salser: Every step of the way has been a process of sharing something that might help someone grow while also growing myself. Growing up, I hadn’t named what my father had done as domestic violence or abuse. It was only after beginning this journey that I sat down with my mother and asked her about it. I remember shaking because of how scared I was, knowing it would upset my dad.
My dad grew up with extreme child abuse. He sat us down when we were in the 4th grade and he said he wasn’t going to hit us anymore. He stopped that and I’m proud of him for that. But he struggles with his temper. Most of the abuse was and is verbal, and that’s really, really hard.
DomesticShelters: What kind of art do survivors create in your workshops?
Salser: There are 500 workshops in our curriculum. There’s one called Miniature Mask Making where you make one mask for the past, representing what you want to let go of, and one for the future, what you want to go toward.
The Monster in Me is a drawing class where participants are invited to notice whatever ‘monster’ may live within them. For adults and children alike, the workshop can be a precious safe place to give voice to what we have witnessed and experienced around us as well as what we struggle with within ourselves.
In the Funeral of I Can’t, with construction papers and collage materials and the help of a shredder, participants are invited to voice any ‘I Can’ts’ that they feel are holding them back, be witnessed by the group as they shred them and create a funeral for those ‘I Can’ts’ as part of creating a new beginning.
The Personal Needs Flower is something survivors create with torn paper, oil pastels and glue, with each petal representing a different need. The flower becomes a visual reminder to take care of our needs—spiritual, physical, emotional, etc. In the face of violence and trauma, it can be difficult to remember our needs.
Touchstones is where participants are invited to create small glass stones holding their visions and wishes for their future—whether those visions and wishes feel possible or impossible, getting to hear them, create them and carry them through the ups and downs of the journey can be an incredible source of clarity and strength. Often participants, especially children, have used their stones (calling them ‘safe rocks’) to ground them so that they can sleep, or as gifts to their siblings when they have to testify in court, as a touchstone of connection and support for the journey.
DomesticShelters: How does creating art change survivors of domestic violence?
Salser: There was an older woman, a survivor, who had tried therapy, writing, anything anyone had told her to do. But it was when she got her trauma out in clay that she said she was able to sleep for the first time in years. It’s not about being an artist—it’s a journey of finding your strength.
The workshops are particularly welcoming and effective for survivors who say they’re not creative or artistic—which is a lot of us. The workshops are shared as a ‘window of time’ to practice respecting yourself, your needs, your visions your voice. And that means even if you lay your head on the table instead of drawing, that is you, using that window of time and honoring your needs. That means tearing up the paper if that’s what you feel you need to do.
For those who come to it believing they are not creative or artistic, it is incredibly beautiful witnessing and supporting their journey of exploring this window of time, hearing their own voice and feeling it honored and heard by those in the workshop circle. Thanks to the art, we have been witnessed, heard and valued. We are not alone.
A Window Between Worlds invites survivors, groups and other organizations to create their own Touchstones, as described above. For more information, visit Touchstones: A Creative Journey.
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