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Abuse survivors bear 'witness'

This is Jack and Jill's home.

The door bears the phrase "Home Sweet Home" on a red heart; behind it are three rooms.

In the top room, Jill is a puppet with strings on her arms and a sign in her hands that says "courage," because that, and a guardian angel, are what sustained her during hours of sitting in the turquoise chair listening to Jack's verbal abuse.

The second floor is covered with eyes, representing how Jack would spy on Jill, and pictures of the gun he would hold to her head.

The bottom floor is filled with word clouds containing the expletives Jack would yell at Jill and the phrase "I love you to death."

"He would say that, and it made no sense because death has nothing to do with love," Jill M. says, showing The House That Jack Built, which she created in collaboration with Lexington artist Pat Gerhard as part of the Lexington Art League's project Witness.

The project was two years in the making after being suggested by LeTonia Jones, an advocacy programs director for the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association and first vice president of the Art League's board.

"It came out of an ongoing desire to make the Art League relevant to the issues in the community," says Jones, who also drew inspiration from producing the Until the Violence Stops festival at the University of Kentucky in 2007.

Projects such as Witness have dual purposes: giving survivors of violence a way to deal with what they have endured and raising community awareness of violence against women. The issue recently leapt back into the headlines when Amanda Ross was killed in Lexington. Steve Nunn, her ex-fiancé and a former state legislator and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, has been charged with murder. He has pleaded not guilty.

"It is unfortunate timing," says Julia Curiel, program coordinator for the Art League. "But it does show why there needs to be awareness of this issue in the community."

Santana Berry, 23, a University of Kentucky junior majoring in social work, says that like many other survivors of domestic abuse, she suffered in silence for years before telling her story.

"I will take any opportunity to share my story," Berry says, "because if someone else going through the same thing hears it and connects with it, it may empower them to speak up and start their own journey."

She spoke about her experiences first in a UK writing program designed to help survivors of abuse, and then at Until the Violence Stops.

The top portion of her piece, Space for Change, which she created with artist Alice Leininger Underwood, depicts a stage with a spotlight and a microphone, because that is how she first told her story. The bottom portion is wire mesh that holds eyeglasses, empowering phrases and one of the green Chuck Taylor low-top shoes that she wore when she spoke up.

Like other artists, she said she found something therapeutic in working on the piece. She said it expressed her feelings in a new way.

Jill M., who prefers not to use her last name, says, "I've had family and friends say they didn't really understand what I had been through until they saw the piece, even though I'd told them about it."

Jones says, "That's why I am so passionate about being able to use art, because our society is very visual, and these pieces have a different impact."

There was not a precedent for Witness that the Art League was aware of, Jones and Curiel say. A primary model they worked from was Side-by-Side, a project that the Art League has had for several years, pairing artists with special-needs children at Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation.

Preparing for the project, the abuse survivors, who are referred to as storytellers, and the artists went through workshops. Artists were screened and completed two sessions to prepare for dealing with violence and abuse survivors.

"I think they were worried we would hear their stories and freak out," said fiber artist Mary Nehring, who collaborated with Mary Jacobs. "I think it was overtraining, because if you have an ounce of human compassion, you can't help but be moved by what these women have been through."

At the end of some mutual workshops, each storyteller got to choose the artist she wanted to work with. Because there were a variety of types of artists involved, Nehring says, who the storyteller chose in large part dictated what medium she would be working in.

Jacobs said she chose Nehring primarily because she felt "a vibe" about her when they first met, but she also had worked with fabric before and was interested in pursuing that.

"I gathered most of the images and materials that helped tell my story, and she helped me put them together," Jacobs says of Nehring.

Making the pieces was an emotional journey for the story tellers, although Jones says it was noteworthy that the pieces, for the most part, did not dwell on graphic details of abuse and violence, and many had hopeful and empowering themes.

Some of the storytellers were more than a decade removed from the violence, but others had recent violent experiences. Either way, creating the pieces took the storytellers on journeys back through their abuse.

For Jacobs, that meant that letting go of her piece, a quilt, was difficult when it was time for it to be displayed.

"I have seen people moved by it, so I decided I needed to let it go out and do its job," Jacobs says.

The pieces will be on exhibit at several locations in Central Kentucky into early next year, and then they will move out into the state.

Organizers hope to present Witness again and use it as a model for similar programs around the state and country.

"A lot of these women have not had a chance to express themselves," Nehring says. "Through art, they find a means of expressing what they are feeling, and they also find they have a talent."

And they find that they have a vessel for dealing with their experiences. Jill M. is contemplating a ceremonial burning of The House That Jack Built once it had finished touring with Witness, although Gerhard protests that idea.

Either way, there is a liberation in the piece similar to how she felt when she left her abusive home 13 years ago.

"I put everything in there," she says, "so I could close the door and walk away."