Women’s Wisdom Art: Empowerment through art

Shown here is a piece of student art.
Photos by Leigh Stephens / Shown here are Laura Ann Walton, Susan Kelly-DeWitt, Helen Plenert.

Why art for healing: Art demands the involvement of the whole person; body, mind, emotions, imagination, spirit and, it requires unrelenting self-reflection and self-discipline.

Women’s Wisdom Art is celebrating its 25th year as a Sacramento non-profit organization that holds classes in the arts and writing for low income women. The women are referred by friends and various social agencies. They come from diverse cultural backgrounds, from all walks of life.

Several thousand women come through WWA’s door to take part in art that rewards them with hope and community. Many continue their education to help them have a better life. They have experienced poor health, mental illness, learning disabilities, military service, abuse; some struggle with drug addiction and homelessness. Through the program many are able to lead productive, stable lives.

The agency has had a number of sponsors throughout these years. The Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, Sisters of Mercy of Auburn, the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services and private donors are among those who have contributed funds. When the Food Bank changed priorities about three years ago, WWA’s budget dropped from about $100,000 to $20,000.

The organization leaders, teachers and women participants vowed to keep the program going. It was a struggle to pay rent and keep the program going so now it shares space with the Poetry Center in an old warehouse at 1719 25th St. Bob Stanley, president of the Sacramento Poetry Center invited WWA to use their space for a modest rent… poetry at night; art classes in the day.

WWA has just received a Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission Cultural Award for artistic quality. The funding is for three years, 2015-17. It will support about 20 percent of WWA annual costs.

In February 2015, WWA with the Community for Peace exhibited art at the Crocker Art Museum, titled “Peace and Hope.” The show consisted of a mixture of paintings: oil, watercolors, acrylics. It also displayed hand crafted art and ceramic pieces. Those women artists beamed with pride as they discussed how they created each piece. The women’s art has also been displayed at SMUD art gallery, at the California Capitol, at local galleries and businesses.

In addition to art and writing classes, WWA holds a show twice a year where the public can view the women’s work and purchase pieces. The money goes back to the artist, and the artists pay a fee of $25 each month to help pay for art supplies: brushes, easels, journals, etc. With this monthly fee, women can attend any type of class during the month.

WWA empowers women through tapping their inner self through expression in painting, fabric art, mosaics, and writing. Roberta Beach, board member says, “WWA provides a safe place for women to build self-esteem, to develop confidence and the courage to take the next step to a fuller life through their art.”

In a recent acrylic class, five women gathered with volunteer instructor Susan Kelly-DeWitt (who was also WWA’s first program director) at the studio in a small room staged in a U shape. The women were working on various art pieces. Susan moved quietly from student-to-student offering suggestions and encouraging the women in their inspirations.

Student voices and lives:

Mallory, says she has been attending classes for about ten years. She says she values the community of women where they become part of her family. The program offers a structure for the women’s lives. She says, “It feeds my spirit so I have the freedom to express myself.”

Jen, says the art makes her optimistic about her future, “I thought art was a talent you were born with but discovered it also involves skills you can learn.

Consuelo says, “I feel strong about my Apache background. Wisdom has opened many doors for me. We are not just black & white…we come from many different cultures…I no longer have to be alone.”

Catie is a military vet who suffers from a debilitating illness that makes her hands shake when she works. It took a long time for Catie to grasp the ideas that in spite of her difficulties, she could draw and paint. She is now an art major.

Sandy says, “I’m recovering from drug addiction & alcoholism. I’m also on a journey to recover from sexual, physical and emotional abuse. I’m learning to like the one I see in the mirror.”

Founder Laura Ann Walton says, “Women’s Wisdom Art not only ‘helps’ the women, but can bring about a transformation of life – it is a spiritual experience.” Walton is a native of Sacramento who taught English in Catholic schools for 13 years and worked two years as principal of Mercy High School in Carmichael. She was one of the founding members of Loaves & Fishes, a non-profit agency serving the homeless. She was the founding Director of Maryhouse which serves homeless women and children, and she is the founder of Women’s Wisdom Art in 1990.

From a published booklet by the poets of Women’s Wisdom Art, 2014, When the Light Changes, Jana writes in her poem, “Beauty of the Mind,” “…The mind holds a hidden stillness containing the secret to life’s mystery. As days go by our most precious memories await us in an inkling of time. They await us patiently to be called forth, Beauty, mind, remembrance.”

Helen Plenert is the program manager for WWA who graduated from CSUS Art Department and moved to San Francisco where she held a number of professional theater positions in art design. Returning to Sacramento, she received a California State general contractor’s license which qualifies her to work on building projects such as murals. Her other art includes acrylics, water colors, and oil pastels. She says one of her teachers was well-known Sacramento artist Wayne Thiebaud.

Women’s Wisdom Art accepts donations of money, art supplies, yardage, sewing supplies, and volunteer services to the program. (See list of needs on http://www.womenswisdom.org) For more information contact Helen Plenert at her office 916-482-2608 or her cell 916-599-2608.

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Leigh Stephens is a retired journalism professor from CSUS Department of Journalism and Communications and the author of more than 500 articles and the books, 12 Steps to Clear Writing and Covering the Community.

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