The Clothesline Project (CLP) gives women affected by violence a creative means of communicating their experiences and expressing their emotions. The women decorate shirts which are collected and hung together on a clothesline. The shirts are all as different as the experiences of the women who created them, speaking to the personal nature of domestic violence. When seen together, they serve as a vivid testimony to the problem of violence against women.
For Ann*, her healing process began with an ugly duckling t-shirt.
Ann graduated from university in Sri Lanka with a fine arts degree, and an impressive portfolio. She worked as a graphic designer, and further developed her love for artistic expression. “I was born with the talent,” Ann says. “But after I got married to my husband, I had to give up on it.” Her husband controlled every aspect of her life, and was emotionally, verbally and physically abusive. His family bullied her as well. Ann felt she had no choice but to leave her passion for art behind.
In 2007, Ann’s husband was transferred to Lake Louise for work. Ann stayed in Sri Lanka, as she had taken a good job in the Government sector. However, without her husband around, his family grew even more hostile towards Ann. Wanting to escape their incessant bullying, Ann decided to join her husband in Lake Louise. Shortly after arriving in Canada, his abuse started up again. When asked about her experience at that time, Ann explains, “I stayed with him because I didn’t know there was so much help out there. Immigrant women, especially in remote areas like Lake Louise, have trouble – like they don’t know English and think they have no choice other than to stay.”
Ann became pregnant in 2009, and her husband’s cruelty only escalated during her pregnancy. She remembers, “I thought everything was going to be alright after I had my baby, but it got worse.” After giving birth to her son, Ann knew she needed to leave her husband for her baby’s sake. She needed to ensure he could have a good life, free from abuse. Alone and socially isolated in Lake Louise, Ann didn’t know where to turn or who to talk to. Desperate for help, she reached out to the only person her husband had allowed her to see on a regular basis since arriving in Lake Louise; “I went to the clinic because that was the only place I knew because of my pregnancy. And the doctor there, she helped me to get out.
Ann and her son were moved from shelter to shelter, going from Lake Louise to Banff, then to Calgary. Once they arrived at Discovery House, Ann was given the opportunity to participate in the Clothesline Project (CLP) as part of her healing process, and decorated two expressive and emotive shirts.
The first shirt Ann created was inspired by the story The Ugly Duckling, which she would often read to her son. “(My son) would always get so sad when the ugly duckling was thrown out by his family. I felt I should do something with this because it felt so close to my story. Because I was rejected from my community and I didn’t do anything wrong. Through the image of the dog I wanted to show it’s never right to bully somebody. It’s not my fault, and it’s not my son’s fault, and that’s what it means. And the swan (represents) my inside, it’s my creativity.”
The shirt also captures some of the hateful, abusive language that Ann was subjected to. Phrases like “You are ugly with brown skin”, “You are a worthless, stupid woman” and “You are a bad mother, bad wife, bad woman” are emblazoned on the shirt as a reminder of what Ann has left behind.
Ann’s second shirt expresses even more of her personal struggles.
“Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream
If you see a crocodile don’t forget to scream”
“The life jacket says Lake Louise, where I began,” Ann explains, noting that the rowboat symbolizes her journey from Lake Louise to Calgary, their healing journey following the path of the Bow River. “My son’s life jacket says love, my love for him is what I’m holding onto. And he is waving the green flag for me to go ahead.” She says the crocodile represents the abuse she endured, and the struggles she’s trying to leave behind. “That’s what the “don’t forget to scream” means: don’t stay in abusive situations.”
Ann goes on to explain, “In my culture, even with the abuse, you are expected to stay, and I stayed. I’m not going to give my life for that. I deserve to live for my son.” She acknowledges that it’s extremely difficult to revisit these memories, and to vividly unpack the emotions surrounding what she has endured. “It’s so painful, but I now realize it’s not going to happen again because of what Discovery House is giving me in this safe environment. And the main part of the healing journey starts from here.”
She believes that healing through art is especially valuable for children, saying “if you can give children room to enhance their artistic ability it is such a healing tool… Sometimes my son doesn’t know how to express his ideas and emotions, but he can draw it or do something like that.”
Ann says she’s doing better with being a single parent, and the transition was made a lot easier with the help from the counsellors at Discovery House. As a non-status woman, Ann is currently struggling with immigration, and is attempting to seek justice through the refugee claim. Discovery House is helping her as best we can and she’s grateful for the opportunity to move forward with her life, and regain her dignity. As she puts it, “I have faced enough horrible circumstances, but I came through those things with confidence, and I’m not going to lose that.”
* Name changed for confidentiality purposes.