oil pastels making matters

Open art studio offers sexual assault survivors healing in Ravenswood

By Carolyn Talya Cakir

There is a still that settles around the room as people begin to create.

Surrounded by art created by sexual assault survivors, eight people sit at two fold-out tables in the center of The Awakenings Foundation art gallery in Ravenswood.

They are participating in Making Matters, an open art studio session for sexual assault survivors. The monthly event is a chance for those touched by sexual violence to come together and heal through creativity.

A joint effort between Rape Victims Advocates and Awakenings, Making Matters carves out a safe space for those affected by sexual assault.

“We started this group as a way to build community and solidarity around the issues of sexual violence,” says organizer Jordan Ferranto. “A place to kind of unwind, relax, enjoy each other’s’ company, make some art, and just kind of be present with each other.”

It doesn’t matter what people create at Making Matters. As an open studio session, anyone is able to create anything they want, using any artistic medium they want.

“Sometimes people come in and do just totally random stuff; it still helps them,” says Awakenings gallery manager Liz Moretti. “We don’t need to know why or what it looks like or anything like that. The point is that we’re here and people are benefitting from it.”

At an  October session, one woman sketches a stunning teal mermaid with colored pencils. Another participant colors in geometric designs on pages from a coloring book. Moretti draws a floor plan of her apartment. Other attendees fold origami swans, cross-stitch and paint with oils and watercolors.

Sketching at Making Matters
Participants can choose any medium with which to create their works of art, using either their own tools or the ones Making Matters provides, Oct. 18, 2016. (Carolyn Talya Cakir/MEDILL)

Art has been used therapeutically since the 1940s, and the RVA art therapist considers it a powerful medium that promotes healing.

“Art and therapy go together perfectly,” Ferranto says. “As an art therapist, what we are doing is guiding people through healing using metaphors.”

As humans, we often use metaphors to interpret the chaotic world around us. Metaphors, the RVA art therapist explains, are how “we understand our experiences.”

Art therapy uses the instinct toward metaphors and harnesses it into creating tangible works of art.

graphic relief comics
Comic art covers The Awakenings Foundation gallery walls for Graphic Relief, an exhibit that tackles the topics of street harassment and sexual assault. Oct. 8, 2016. (Carolyn Talya Cakir/MEDILL)

Creation can help survivors process aspects of trauma that can be hard to talk about.

“Trauma gets stored in our brains and our bodies in nonverbal ways,” Ferranto explains. “A lot of the processing that happens in art therapy is nonverbal as well. So, art provides a really nice loophole for healing because we’re working with stuff that’s not easy to communicate verbally.”

“I also think learning new art-making processes are really good for reclaiming that self-efficacy or agency that gets lost when you experience trauma,” she adds.”

For Moretti, the stillness of making art is a large part of healing.

“To create work is very therapeutic in and of itself I think,” she says. “There’s something that can be meditative about it. You’re thinking about why you’re choosing certain colors, why you’re, what kind of style you’re working in.”

oil painting making matters
Attendee uses oil paints to create a volcano for Making Matters open art studio session in Ravenswood, Oct. 18, 2016. (Carolyn Talya Cakir/MEDILL)

Indeed, at the October session, the room is filled with peaceful contemplation. There is a sense that this peace comes from a place of security and belonging.

Ferranto and Moretti agree it is important to carve out spaces where sexual assault survivors can feel safe and not judged.

“We started [Making Matters] as a way to build community and solidarity around the issues of sexual violence,” Ferranto says. “It really came out of a need for a space where there is this shared understanding of common experiences that survivors have.”

“With Making Matters, I think it’s more than just the art itself,” says Moretti. “It’s a place where everyone is just aware of what it might feel like to be a survivor, to experience violence in a sexual way.”

“There’s not gonna be victim blaming [here],” says Ferranto. “There’s not going to be judgement, there’s not going to be a lot of things that survivors are met with on a daily basis.”

making matters participants
Participants gather for a Making Matters event at The Awakenings Foundation gallery, Oct. 18, 2016. (Carolyn Talya Cakir/MEDILL)

It was only the second Making Matters, but there were participants at the October session who had read about the event and decided to attend with no prior connection to Awakenings or RVA.

Moretti isn’t surprised that the session resonates with survivors.

“The concentration on this kind of working on yourself in a fun, creative way speaks a lot to people,” she says.

There is no pressure to talk about why you chose to attend or your personal experience with sexual assault. Yes, there is an mutual understanding, but at the end of the day, it is a time for people to come together and create, not necessarily share.

The topics at the October session range from Halloween costumes to the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters to Donald Trump who had been saturating the news cycle after The Washington Post published a 2005 recording of the then-presidential candidate describing, in graphic detail, how he grabs women by the genitals without consent.

Making Matters participants expressed the same shock and disgust as most Americans, but they had a more personal connection to the comments. The recording’s content was uncomfortably close to the sexual assault survivors’ own experiences.

Speech bubbles
White boards shaped like comic book speech bubbles feature women’s opinions on street harassment as a part of the Graphic Relief exhibit, Oct. 18 2016. (Carolyn Talya Cakir/MEDILL)

Usually eloquent, Ferranto struggles to summarize her feelings about the tape but adds that it illustrates why programs, like Making Matters, are so needed.

“I do think that, given that all the stuff that’s been coming up lately, it’s even more important to hold spaces like these,” she says. “To have alternative communal, public, spaces for people to feel safe in. To feel like they can again have that shared understanding, without explaining it or over-explaining it again and again.”

Making Matters meets on the third Tuesday of every month from 5 to 8 p.m. at The Awakenings Foundation in Ravenswood.

For more information, visit rapevictimadvocates.org.

Photo at top: A female attendee oil pastels and her fingers to create landscapes for Making Matters open art studio session at The Awakenings Foundation gallery, Oct. 8, 2016. (Carolyn Talya Cakir/MEDILL)