Transforming perspectives on trauma through paintings of hope

Video by Joey Mendolia

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Tarah Hargrove stands before a massive painting. One side is dominated by grey cinder blocks and stencils of guns. The other by a yellow sky filled with birds. And in the center is a giant portrait of Hargrove, herself. Her chin is lifted, and she looks defiantly at the viewer, magenta radiating from her hair.

“So my inner narcissist was like, ‘Yay! My face!” Hargrove said, laughing about her first impression of the four-panel mural painted by University of Alaska Anchorage students. Though she’s light-hearted, she knows that sharing he story – her truth – through the artwork is essential.

Last fall she was invited by a professor, Steve Gordon, to tell a group of beginning art students about her life. She started with her unstable childhood: her abusive stepfather had substance misuse problems, she was raped and she attempted suicide. Despite that, as a young adult she did well in school, started her own business and helped raise her younger sister.

Tarah Hargrove poses in front of the mural depicting her story created by students at University of Alaska Anchorage. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Things got rocky again in her early 20s and eventually she started using and selling street drugs and ended up in prison. Hargrove said she feels like being open and honest about her decisions, both good and bad, has ripple effects.

“When we’re being honest, and we’re being vulnerable, and we’re being intimate — Intimacy is the key to having connection,” she said. And through those connections people are more likely to care about others and take time to stop and help people. To engage with them.

Hargrove wasn’t always so willing to engage with others or with herself. She said her turning point is illustrated on the mural with the overlapping, seemingly endless images of guns. Before going to prison, she was violently beaten by her ex-boyfriend.

“Like I got my ass beat so bad it changed my life,” she explained. “And my gun was involved. It was my gun that they used on me, on my head. So it was I mean, it’s kind of pinnacle (for me).”

She permanently lost hearing in one ear and realized she needed a dramatic change in her life. When she went to prison she participated in different programs that helped her deconstruct the way she looked at the world and start her path to recovery. She said she started removing the layers of dishonesty and bitterness she used to justify her actions. She wanted to be candid and straight-forward.

A mural created by students at University of Alaska Anchorage about Adverse Childhood Experiences. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

And those are some of the traits that struck Arlitia Jones when the two women first met for the mural project. Jones is a playwright who took the nighttime art class at UAA because she wanted to learn to paint. She thought she’d be painting flowers and still lifes, not someone’s intimate story of trauma. It made her nervous because she wasn’t sure someone could be truly open about their difficult past.

Jones said Hargrove was not what she expected. “My first reaction to Tarah was when she walked in and I saw this woman, I was like, ‘Wow. That woman doesn’t look like she’s had anything happen. She’s very physically beautiful, and so strong.’”

And then Hargrove opened up about her story and laid out all of the details.

Meeting Hargrove made Jones re-evaluate some of the assumptions she makes about people and their life experiences.

“Now walking around, I’m not going to say that, ‘Oh, I never judge people anymore,’ because I do. Every day,” Jones said. “But just there’s this little voice in the back like, ‘Wait a minute, you know, you don’t know that whole story and how we cover up.’”

Jones said she hopes that when people see the mural, they’ll see Hargrove’s strength and determination. That she has to work hard every day to keep her relationships strong to and care for her daughter, but that she’s doing it. Her story, like the painting, has moved from dark to light.

A mural created by students at University of Alaska Anchorage about Adverse Childhood Experiences. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Hargrove wants people who see the piece to think about all of the young people they meet.

“So you’re going to Christmas and there’s like that one kid who acts like an assh*le, and you’re like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ There’s probably something really wrong with them,” Hargrove said.

She asks that people don’t just write the kid off – like adults did with her.

Hargrove never says her life was hard. She likens her experiences to special access to extra information about the world that helps her connect with others.

“I’m not trying to be like, ‘The quality of my life is better than other people’s,’ but the quality of my life is better than other people’s,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Because I’m aware, and I get to love people for real. I have no qualms about that.” She said she’ll take extra steps to help people, even if others judge her for it.

The two women hope this mural and the six others that will be on display around town will change perceptions about the effects of childhood trauma. Because if people receive love and support, their stories don’t have to end with more pain. They can begin again – with hope.

The murals will be on display from February 8 to March 8 by the Downtown Transit Center in Anchorage. In April they’ll be at the Loussac Library before moving to the Mat-Su Health Foundation in May.