I recently had the honor of working on a special project for the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art. For their exhibition titled "More than Shelter," they invited eleven artists, including myself, to consider what the idea of shelter means to them. For awhile now, I have been wanting to shift the focus of my women's bedroom series to depict transitional spaces used in time of need. When I expressed this interest to Heather Hakimzadeh and Alison Byrne, of the Virginia MOCA, they introduced me to the incredible women running the YWCA of South Hampton Roads.
The YWCA is the oldest and largest multicultural women’s organization in the world. For over a hundred years, they have strengthened social movements that "eliminate racism, empower women, and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all." They run an emergency shelter for women and families escaping domestic and sexual violence. It is the only one providing this refuge in the City of Norfolk. As of 2019, the shelter consists of 22 rooms.
I was invited to visit the shelter and take reference photographs for a drawing. Even as I feel it is important to document these spaces, it is more important to respect the privacy of those in need of them. We were all in agreement that I would photograph an empty room, one awaiting use. Two days before my visit, however, a room unexpectedly became vacated. Many of the belongings of the woman who had temporarily been living there were left behind. I was told that she had left in a hurry. Instead of cleaning it up, the YWCA crew left everything as is for me to document.
I've visited over 30 bedrooms of women whom I do not know personally. It is sort of an awkward and funny thing to meet someone and then immediately have access to their most private space. I expected that visiting the shelter would be a much heavier experience, knowing that I would be in proximity to those who have recently experienced trauma.
As I visited the room, the one numbered 3, I moved around and tried to photograph everything at every angle. There was so much that felt important to capture, things that would not fit into one picture frame. There was a pile of wigs, clothes and empty shopping bags tumbling out of the closet on the floor. Shampoo and crumpled blankets on the bed. There was makeup sitting by the window. In the middle of the floor was a solo cup with a wad of gum stuck inside the lip. This woman's absence was palpable.
Back home in my studio, I digitally stitched the photos I took together to make one cohesive image. I knew from the outset that I wanted this drawing to be large and it ended up sized at 58 x 90 inches. Without realizing it until much later, I had sized it to appear at scale if you stood at the customary 3 feet away.
To create such a large drawing I moved from paper to fabric. I spent about two months drawing this piece, moving very slowly, as the fabric does not allow any erasure of mistakes. I always move around an image as I am drawing, starting in one corner, going to the next, and then moving to yet another area, all within the same day. It helps me have fresh eyes as I transcribe information from the reference photo to the drawing. In the case of this piece, it allowed me to create a balance of space between rendered and unrendered areas. This gives the drawing a feeling of coming or going, that the drawing itself is in transition, just as the room is. Just as the woman is.
As I was creating this piece, I was aware of how my assumptions were shifting. She left behind so much stuff, most of which were articles related to appearance. Why didn't she want to take those clothes, or those wigs and makeup with her? Where has she gone that she doesn't need them? At first I was worried that maybe she had returned to the situation that she came from and that she wasn't allowed to be so expressive with her appearance once she returned to her abuser. But then I thought about how those items could have been used for disguise. She needed to alter her appearance while living in Norfolk, but when she left she went somewhere where she didn't need to hide.
None of us will know her story and we will all make assumptions and judgments about her situation. It is human to do so. But I hope that by considering her and giving her space and time in our minds, we are collectively developing a deeper sense of empathy for those like her, those in need of assistance and shelter.
The "More than Shelter" show is on display at the Virginia MOCA until February 5, 2023. Visit their website for more details, including a full list of participating artists.
Room #3, May 12th, 2022, YWCA South Hampton Roads Emergency Shelter, 58 by 90 inches, Charcoal and graphite on muslin.
Pictured above is myself and the ladies of the YWCA celebrating at the exhibition opening reception on October 7th. Next to me is Michelle Ellis Young, the Chief Executive Officer. It was a really moving experience to get to share the drawing with them that evening.