Making Art About Hard Times

Talking Suitcases workshops often start with a question like “What is precious to you? “This is a great way for people to reflect on who they are and what matters to them, and to get to know each other in a group.   Next, we usually create an object about a happy memory. This helps prime the pump for remembering stories in more detail and a time when we felt whole and at peace in the world.

But it’s important to talk about difficult times too. How we handle challenges defines who we are, as well as the happy times. Sharing these stories can bring a group together, and underline that we are not alone in our hard times; everyone struggles.

This was especially important in the Talking Suitcases workshops I led at Asian Women United’s domestic abuse shelter, House of Peace.


Hard Time1

Above is a picture of one woman’s art about her home situation. This young woman, who has a delightful laugh and sparkly eyes, was 8 months pregnant when she came to the shelter. In the scene above, she is kneeling on the floor at her husband’s feet. He is brandishing a knife.   She is begging him not to kill her. As we passed the object around the circle,  each woman held it in her hands and looked in at the figures.  Many of us had to wipe away tears.

In fact, many of us cried during that session when each of the seven women showed an art object and told the story of some terrible challenge she had had had to face.   But the great thing was that those women were all there, at the House of Peace. They had each been desperate but brave, and managed to leave that situation, and arrive at a safe space with their children.  This story object was a testament to their bravery and to what brought them together in that shelter.

I learned later from Nhia, the advocate who assisted me, how important it is for the women to have the chance to tell these stories. For some this was the first time to talk about it, and talk about it in English. Having the scene illustrated in their box and sharing it in such a supportive group was really powerful. Nhia pointed out that it is good practice for them because in the future, they will have to tell these stories in court.

Also, by sharing these stories and learning to speak to each other in their limited English they begin to build the bonds that can help them in the future. Some of the women did end up living in an apartment together – how great a support that can be for them.

Creating art about their stories helped these women speak up and experience the support of a community. Their story objects gave vivid shape to their memories and experiences, and helped them tell the stories that are so difficult to bear alone. Their final Talking Suitcases object were about a dream for their future. Those objects were full of joy and imagination; they seemed to shimmer with laughter and hope – in stark contrast to the horrific situations they had so recently escaped.

Hard Time 2

For more about this project, see the link to “Untold Stories” video on Talking


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