The transformative power of the arts to heal was the inspiration that fueled a cross-country road trip for one West Newbury native this past summer.
Juliette Nolan, a 2008 Pentucket graduate who grew up in the Church Street home where her parents, Peter and Phyllis, still live, joined Caroline Lovell, founder of the nonprofit Women’s Wisdom Initiative, on the five-week trip they dubbed “Shelter to Shelter.”
Designed to “bring voice, healing and wisdom” to survivors of domestic violence and other forms of oppression, the project connected Nolan and Lovell with residents of abused-women shelters across the country in places like Portland, Ore.; Glasgow and Casper, Wyo.; Aurora, Ill.; Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota; Pittsburg, Kan.; Charleston, W.V.; Asheville, N.C.; Austin, Texas; and Albuquerque, N.M.
When they arrived at a shelter, Nolan and Lovell presented residents with homemade postcards created by other women in similar circumstances elsewhere. They then led art workshops to provide the residents time and space to create their own inspirational “traveling postcards” — which Nolan and Lovell would pack up and deliver to the next shelter along their journey.
“We brought an abundance of art materials for collaging, poured them all over big tables, explained the endeavor, and watched again and again as each collaborator — who inevitably doubted her artistic capacity at the outset — created truly beautiful pieces of art,” Nolan said.
Because they knew their postcards would travel to other people in shelter, the artists took care to infuse their creations with words and images of encouragement, faith and understanding.
“We asked them to draw from the pain of their past and resilience of their present to inspire them creatively and link them to a large chain of survivors, a process which required them to identify with the incredible strength they exhibited in separating themselves from the abusive situation and starting over in shelter,” Nolan said.
“This is how art gave way to healing,” she said. “We witnessed pain and strength, side by side, again and again.”
As part of the process, both women tapped their professional training to further facilitate the healing. Lovell holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and art from the University of Richmond, a master’s degree in transformative art, and a master’s certificate in leadership for sustainable change and entrepreneurial leadership. She is a certified domestic violence advocate and the recipient of the 2012 Arts & Healing Network Award.
A 2012 graduate from Lewis & Clark College in Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Nolan currently works as a mental health counselor for youths in Albuquerque, N.M.
As part of the Shelter to Shelter project, the residents were asked to consider what empowerment feels like, what pearls of wisdom they could offer another person in their situation and what community resources they felt were most critical in supporting families dealing with domestic violence.
“We heard survivors in separate regions of the country talk of the importance of speaking out against violence rather than remaining in silent shame, of honoring themselves and practicing self-respect ... the need for more low-income housing and for education about nonviolence ... for empathy from their communities,” Nolan recalled.
Part adventure, part art project, part activism, Nolan said the project was, from the beginning, “a dream job” for her.
For five weeks, she and Lovell traveled cross-country, at times literally living out of a converted minivan — with a refrigerator and a sink in the back and two portable gas stoves for cooking. When they weren’t near a motel, Nolan slept on a pop-up bed on top of the van, with Lovell in a tent on the ground nearby.
Traveling this way offered a unique perspective into the lives of the women in the shelters she was visiting, Nolan said.
“We better understood isolation after driving nine hours on a two-lane highway passing nothing but cornfields and grazing cows to come to a town of population 1,000,” she said.
The road trip opened her eyes to the great diversity in social patterns that exist from one community to the next.
She learned, for example, that it was often more difficult to break cycles of violence in isolated rural communities where the influx of new ideas is limited and people living there rarely leave town. These are places where poverty and sexism ingrained into the structure of law enforcement can have a particularly devastating impact on women.
Nolan acknowledges that she sometimes felt “overwhelmed” in the face of repeated deep racism, sexism, classism and homophobia. But knowing that she was a conduit for sharing the wisdom that one abuse survivor could offer to another gave her strength to turn her darkest moments on the journey into ones of hope.
Nolan plans to head to the West Coast this fall, moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she will become a doula with a goal to eventually study midwifery.
But she plans to stay involved with the WWI and its next project — creating recovery bags to give to rape survivors when they arrive at the hospital. Each bag will include a traveling postcard, Nolan said.
Ultimately, Nolan hopes her participation in Shelter to Shelter encourages people to question the insidious ways they may be perpetuating violence in their own lives.
“Criticize the violence we see endlessly in the media — for it is destructive in many manifestations, some very subtle and normalized,” she said.
She hopes people will learn to celebrate the diversity of lifestyles around them and embrace “the healing power of honesty, community, service and creativity.”
For more information about Shelter to Shelter, visit www.sheltertoshelter.org.