McLean Hospital has joined dozens of businesses and organizations in sponsoring an art exhibit in Rockland, Maine, focused on the issue of domestic abuse. The event was created by Finding Our Voices, a nonprofit organization that seeks to “educate everyone about the pervasiveness and complexity of domestic abuse, erase stigma and shame for the victim, and help girls and women avoid, recognize, safely leave, and heal from, dangerous intimate partner relationships.”
The exhibit features work by 50 local and nationally recognized artists displayed in windows throughout downtown Rockland. The works reflect various aspects of domestic abuse and tell survivor stories. Individuals can bid on the work through an online silent auction that benefits Finding Our Voices. The art walk and online auction run through the end of October.
Telling Survivor Stories
According to Patrisha McLean, the founder and president of Finding Our Voices, the event is part of the group’s ongoing work to share the stories of domestic abuse survivors. In 2019, she put together an exhibit at the library in her hometown of Camden, Maine. The exhibit featured portraits of abuse survivors and audio clips in which the survivors described their experiences. Many of the individuals featured in the display live in the community.
“I was in a 29-year abusive relationship,” McLean explained. “I got out, and women all around me where I live started connecting with me, telling me that it happened to them too.” Drawing on her background as a writer and photographer, McLean decided to bring the issue to light through an exhibit. Initially, she planned to focus on photos of the survivors, but “added the audio element because finding your voice after this is so important.” Visitors to the exhibit could use their cell phones to dial up a phone number displayed next to each portrait and hear the stories.
When the pandemic took hold in April, McLean segued from large, framed portraits exhibited indoors to even larger (4’ x 2’) outdoor banners displayed in the windows of downtown businesses, each featuring the portrait of one of 30 Maine survivors of domestic abuse, a quote referencing her experience, plus the domestic violence hotline number.
The Finding Our Voices photos and the stories, McLean said, “take shame away from the victim and let you know you’re not alone.” Sharing stories allows victims to connect with others who have gone through similar experiences. “There is a very defined pattern for abuse,” she stated. “When women get together and talk, it’s amazing how much how much similarity there is.” These patterns of abuse can affect anyone, even though on the outside the people may appear different. “There is a wide range of women in our exhibit,” McLean said. “There is a prison guard, an architect, a woman who owns a health food store.”
Mental Health and Domestic Abuse
McLean Hospital’s support for the Finding Our Voice project stems from the strong link between mental health and domestic abuse. McLean said that survivors often face long-term depression, anxiety, and PTSD. While the abuse is happening, though, other mental health issues can develop.
“There are times when police officers will come to the house for a 911 call, and the man will be very calm and the woman is an absolute wreck,” she explained. “Often the police will believe the man because they think the woman is crazy—sure, he has tormented her and made her afraid for her life.”
Also, McLean said, many abusers themselves have serious mental health issues. “For some people, they would have to have a mental illness to behave that way, but sometimes mental illness with the abuser is often used as an excuse,” she explained. Some abusers claim a psychiatric disorder to “cover up” their actions or “they use it to make you feel sorry for them.” Some abusers say they will kill themselves if the victim wants to leave the relationship.
“They threaten suicide—that’s a hallmark—so the woman will stay because she’s afraid that if she leaves, he is going to kill himself,” she stated. “People say, ‘why don’t you leave?’ or ‘why did you stay?’ But it’s complicated,’” she said.
How Art Can Help Victims
Although the issues surrounding domestic abuse are both commonplace and frightening, McLean hopes that confronting the problem through art will bring awareness and hope to those affected. “Artists have a wonderful way of looking at things,” McLean said, explaining that painters, illustrators, and others can present new perspectives and shades of meaning that are not always apparent.
The Rockland exhibit and the ongoing work of Finding Our Voices are “about getting a conversation going,” McLean stated. “The idea of putting these stories up front is to help people find out what survivors are going through.”
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