“When I started doing visual art, I started seeing the world for the first time instead of feeling like I was being watched or that everyone was looking at me,” Beth looks thoughtfully at the rag doll in her lap, her hands quietly stitching. “I’m a human sex trafficking survivor and a domestic violence survivor. Something heinous happened to me in 2013,” she adds. “Right now I’m working on this rag doll, which is giving me perspective on objectification, especially of women. This doll helps me to remember my body and myself as alive.”
Beth is surrounded by other gifted artists who have known their fair share of pain and are now transfiguring their suffering into works of art. Together they form the Artist Collective at Nashville’s non-profit Poverty & the Arts.
Founder and Executive Director Nicole Brandt has been hanging out with people experiencing homelessness since her senior year of high school in 2009, when she would make treks to downtown Louisville with her best friend.
“It was a space where I was their guest,” Nicole says, “I was being invited into their setting. I got to understand how complicated their lives were and how resourceful and creative they were--more talented than half the people I knew with jobs and homes!”
Nicole Brandt, Founder and Executive Director of Poverty & the Arts
Nicole was a guest in their space; yet she observed that the spaces occupied by the homeless community are short-lived, stripped of privacy, and dangerous. For that reason, one of Nicole’s primary goals with Poverty & the Arts has been to cultivate for the artists a place of safety, solitude, and security--in short, a sanctuary.
“That word has come up a lot for us,” Nicole emphasizes, “especially for this space. If there’s something an artist doesn’t want to get stolen, they finally have a space that’s safe and secure. We have people who previously couldn’t determine their diets, and now they not only have a kitchen, but a garden as well.”
When asked about the word “sanctuary,” another artist named Gwen chimes in, “This is like going to church, but it’s in my language. I can express myself. I can make anything I want to make. This is my time with God. He says to me, ‘Do your art, and when you get finished, you’ll see what I’m talking about.’ It’s like reaching myself when I come here--reaching the person that was here for so long.”
Beth Flora Gunn (left) and Gwen Johnson (right)
For Beth, finding sanctuary means the recovery of her own creative voice. “I don’t believe I was seen as a person of agency,” she says, “that I had an opinion, or experience, or even that I had an inner life, a life of the mind. So it makes me feel like a person of value and worth to see the thoughts from my head come to fruition in a visual and tactile sense, in something I can hold in my hand.”
Beth smiles at her work-in-progress. “I’ve done a lot of stitching and re-stitching on her, which is actually what rag dolls are for, in part: to work on your work. They’re easy to mend. Endlessly creating, endlessly created.”