Artist gives visual voice to domestic violence

Artist Carmel Anderson’s stands before a central piece from her show “Unheard Voices, Unheard Wisdom.” As she’s traveled, she’s collected narratives of domestic violence and sexual assault from around the state and is gathering more. She calls it the Hope Quilt.
(Carmel Anderson website)

Putting a topic like domestic violence into words is difficult, so artist Carmel Anderson has another approach. Her traveling exhibit, “Unheard Voices, Unheard Wisdom,” conveys the unspoken truths about abuse – of both women and children – through fabric. KCAW visited the artist last week as she mounted her artwork in Sitka.

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Carmel Anderson contemplates a mannequin. Wrapped in a purple organza skirt, the mannequin’s arms are pinned to her chest with an ace bandage. The piece is called “Bound.” Pointing to the mannequin’s fingertips, which are lightly touching, Anderson says she wants her work to show that abuse can be subtle.

“Bound,” a piece from Carmel Anderson’s show about women’s’ experiences with domestic violence and sexual abuse. (Photo from Carmel Anderson’s website)

“Sometimes there’s not bruises, but the control is psychological or financial or in different ways,” Anderson said. “So the question is, ‘Can she break free or not?’ That’s the piece for people to look at and ask, ‘Look, what do they see in this piece?’ Everyone will see something different.”

Anderson’s exhibit “Unheard Voices, Unheard Wisdom,” which ran in Sitka May 4th and 5th with co-sponsorship from the Greater Sitka Arts Council and Sitkans Against Family Violence, is meant to inspire that kind of contemplation. All around her are other mannequins displaying other psychological aspects of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Anderson’s traveling show, which debuted in Ketchikan three years ago, was motivated by a conversation she had with the former director of a local women’s shelter struggling to raise funds.

“People can’t go to a shelter to view a shelter. We can’t be invited into that because of privacy and security. And so this is a big part of why I’m doing this show: to raise awareness,” Anderson said.

It was a big leap for Anderson. She spent two decades in the fashion industry, working at one point for Lacoste and Carter’s, but switched to fine art in 1999 after her first daughter was born.

“I loved fashion in many, many ways but it didn’t connect with my inner purpose in life, which was to show the inner beauty and strength of the soul,” Anderson said. Her textiles soon became a way to access the inner life of another person.

In a different room of the exhibit, which was set up in Whitmore Hall on the Sitka Fine Arts Campus, Anderson hung a chiffon dress in a closet. It’s a party dress embroidered with pink flowers, meant for a child. But on the back, Anderson has painted a red target.

“Some children are born into situations where their chance of getting out unhurt are very slim. It’s not that they’re bad kids, it’s not like they deserved it. It’s just sometimes the situation they are born into,” Anderson said.

“Marked,” a piece from Carmel Anderson’s show, that addresses the abuse of children (Photo from Carmel Anderson’s website)

It’s a powerful artistic statement based in fact. According the 2016 Community Report from the Alaska Children’s Trust, a sponsor for the exhibit, Alaska’s children are 56% more likely to be abused than the national average.

Anderson isn’t the only person whose art is on the wall. We’re now standing in front of a patchwork of squares, held together with safety pins. On each one is a statement, written in black marker.

“These are canvas squares that represent currently Ketchikan, Anchorage, and Juneau. And I hope to be getting a few more squares from Sitka,” Anderson said.

There are messages of support, like “You are not alone” and “You are precious,” as well as stories. One businessman wrote about how powerless he felt as a child watching his mother endure physical violence. Anderson calls it the Hope Quilt.

“It’s kind of a mix of sadness but also joy and triumph. If you really want to understand the problem, it’s a wonderful piece to spend some time reading what our neighbors in our communities have shared,” Anderson said.

According to the 2012 Alaska Victimization Survey, 47% of  women in Sitka reported experiencing intimate partner violence, sexual violence, or both at some point in their lifetime. The 2015 survey found a slight decline in reports statewide.

Anderson plans to bring her show to other communities in Alaska, like Dillingham and Utqiagvik. There, as in Sitka, she hopes the art will allow people to access a difficult topic – no words needed.

“It’s Unheard Voices, Unheard Wisdom. It’s giving power and voices to those who may not have been heard,” Anderson said.

A documentary about the issue and Anderson’s work by KPU TV here: