Fiber Art

Shimmering Contrasts, India Part 9

Speeding through the streets of colorful metropolitan Kolkata, we slow down and stop near the hippodrome to let a small flock of about fifty goats cross the street. Through the car window I watch a man in a bright orange tunic and pants, wearing a turban and carrying a mat under his right arm walk out onto a nearby soccer field. He is not bothered by the two dozen men chasing a ball up and down the green. He walks into their midst, opens his mat and sits. He is an orange beacon in a green sea and the soccer game parts around him, continues almost uninterrupted, different cultures occupying the same space.

This week we take two mornings to visit freedom businesses. These are businesses that exist to give people work, choices, and dignity. The two businesses we visit are specifically aimed at releasing women caught in the sex trade.

The first one we visit partly because we are considering using them for t-shirts. Shandra wants me to make a logo that can be used on t-shirts that will be sold to raise funds. To do this I need to understand what this company can and cannot do. The company is called FreeSet and you can find them online here: http://freesetglobal.com/

I meet the art-prepareres, the color-mixers (with their rings of Pantone color cards!), the fabric cutters and shirt-assemblers, and then I buy several t-shirts. I want to know how much drape there is in the cloth after it is printed. I am delighted to say that these shirts become personal favorites. They are soft and maintain their hand.

The logo I dream for the House of Light Project incorporates these things: a flame in an Indian-like pattern because their word for light is the same as their word for flame, a house within the flame and the word jyoti (flame) in Hindi inside the house. The house is filled with light and it emanates light. Beneath the flame is the website address where people can donate to the project. It is a little website I set up for them that they will maintain as they grow. The donation portal goes through Cru, which is the established and highly regarded non-profit that employs the feisty Shandra. The address is: houseoflightindia.com

The second freedom business we visit is Sari Bari. I have loved their products for many years, and we think it might be a good connection for the nuns at the House of Light. Sari Bari creates products--mostly blankets and bags--from used saris and straight stitching called kantha embroidery. The atmosphere among the women in the workplace is one of easy camaraderie and dedication to the work. There is something light and beautiful about the place. It feels like an oasis. You can find them online here: http://saribari.com/

Sister Dorothy, the smallest, youngest and newest sister in the house, comes with us to our meeting with the president of the company. One day I will create art to honor this most amazing woman. She does everything with her whole heart. This earnest woman, speaks to a tall, quiet earnest man with a heart for justice, peace and healing. I watch God stitch the ends of their fabrics together as they speak and I still don't know how He does it. Words are insufficient to describe that afternoon as we sit cross-legged together, grateful for the mats beneath us and the kindred spirits before us.

Sacred ground in the middle of the largest sex trade district in India.

Different cultures occupying the same space.

Playing With Dolls, India Part 8

I have spent a lot of time studying trauma this year. Enough to know that I don't know hardly anything. This is a complex field of study and the science has started to move quickly. Part of the reason for the complexity is that there are so many varied factors in creating trauma. Why do two people experience the same event and yet one is traumatized and the other seems to take it in stride? Trauma is not just something that happens to someone, it is very much more than that.

We do know that one factor in the level of trauma sustained by a victim of sexual violence, is the reaction of people who receive her afterwards. If her people overreact the trauma is deeper--this includes overreactions on both sides of the spectrum. We would expect that rejection by her people would be traumatic, but so is excessive sympathy. And what would excessive sympathy even look like? Well, that's another thing that varies from person to person.

Enter entrainment. Here is a short video to illustrate the concept:

In physics, entrainment is associated with conservation of energy. When two objects of like vibration are in close proximity, they will begin to move together in synchronicity. Two objects moving together use less energy than two objects moving in opposite directions.  

When we dance or sing to music we use entrainment to play together. Music therapists have used this concept for decades to teach muscles to work again, to help brains of stroke victims to make connections again.

We see this in nature as well. Biorhythms synchronize. Fireflies blink on and off together. And, when we sit next to one another and do art or craft, we breathe together. And you know what happens when we breathe together? We don't feel alone anymore. We feel accepted without feeling smothered. We just exist together, breathing together. 

Another thing we know is that having permission and space to tell our stories in our own way, rewires us. It gives us power over the story instead of the story dominating us. Before I left for India, my daughter and I talked about the many ways that dolls had given her personal stories voice throughout her childhood. She put together a doll-making kit for me to take to India. There in the House of Light, a truly safe space, our team sat with the girls and care-givers and crafted dolls together. Breathed together. Relaxed into rhythm together.

And girls who had missed out on childhood played with dolls. By the next day breathing became laughter and they were creating bouquets of pipe cleaner flowers and gifting them to one another.

Synchronicity. Moving together. It's good for healing.

And it's less lonely that way too.

1 in 6, India Part 7

The television was always on in the hotel restaurant. The large flatscreen at the far end of the room was most often tuned into the news. The news was (understandably) Indo-centric and skewed slightly in India's favor, so I was shocked one morning when I heard the anchorwoman preface a story with:

One in six girls in India does not survive to reach the age of fifteen.

One in six.

One in six?

And the girls we were working with? They were girls who did survive. They made it to fifteen years of age, but they have endured so much in their little lives.

One in six. I am not a numbers person. I had a hard time understanding the statistic. I needed a visual. How could I wrap my mind around the meaning in those numbers?

One evening some new friends took us to visit various sites around Kolkata. It is truly a beautiful city. We saw civic memorials and religious sites including a Hindu temple and the Anglican cathedral of St. Paul's. We found relief from the Kolkata heat in the cool interior of the cathedral. Behind the baptistry, at the back of the church, was a framed quote from John Donne. The words were so familiar to me, but standing in India with a heavy statistic pressing on my heart I read them, heard them, as if they were brand new:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

We are all a piece of the same cloth, together we make a tapestry. That statistic is not just a number. Because we all participate in humanity, we are all diminished by the death of another, all diminished by the hurt of another--even if we don't know it.

So, here is a piece titled 1 in 6. It is a visual for myself to see what that number means. Two broken eggs from a box of a dozen. When I was finished with this textile piece, I took a sharp blade and tore 6 holes into it in no particular pattern. I was trying to mar the piece without symmetry or beautiful placement of the ripped places. Because our tapestry, our humanity, is marred by the death and misfortune of others.

1 in 6, Michelle Winter ©2016 polyester & rayon thread with cotton print fabrics on natural cotton twill, stitch mounted to 16x20" museum board

Whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we understand it or not, when lives are lost, we all lose.

I Am Disturbed, India Part 3

I pushed open the door from the hotel and stepped into the Kolkata heat. Immediately, my glasses fogged up. As I stood wiping them, I could feel sweat collecting between my shoulder blades. By the time our driver dropped Shandra and I at the sewing machine shop, our clothes had melted into our skins.

But inside the shop, the atmosphere was quite chilly. Neither the manager nor his assistant smiled. When he spoke, the manager was careful to look pointedly away from us, mostly out the window, so that we became most familiar with his right ear and shoulder. He asked us a lot of questions, he didn't answer ours. The assistant brought us tea. The manager didn't drink his. I didn't drink mine.

"I could feel the steam coming out of your ears in that cold room,"  Shandra would laugh about this for weeks. And it was true. My anger was growing and I was struggling to contain it. This man, Lord! He is so condescending! How? How is he going to be able to do the things we have contracted him to do? How can a man this arrogant teach the women at the House of Light? His arrogance is a wall... And suddenly I realized I was catching a glimpse of another invisible story. There was so much I didn't know about this man, so much I would never understand; however, it was clear that he was woven into this tapestry. To discount him would be to leave a hole in the fabric. That's when the Holy Spirit broke into my own arrogance.

"There is much I don't know," I leaned forward. "Teach me."

He turned and looked at me for the first time. He waved at his assistant and thus began an hour of "training." I let him show me the machine features and I cooled down. He let me ask questions and he warmed up. We embroidered several samples onto black cloth and with each stitch our conversation became more real. Then he asked me to step into the back room. He wanted to show me the machine I should have bought. It filled the room. He showed me that it operated in exactly the same way as the smaller one but moved significantly faster.

"Tell me why you prefer this machine," I asked him.

"It's so much faster! You cannot hope to be competitive in the industry with the machine you bought!" He took a breath, "Tell me why you prefer that machine."

I laughed, "Because it is so much slower! That machine will go to a home for girls. They will learn on it without losing any fingers and then have the skills to get jobs later."

"A home for girls? It is going to a home for girls?" He looked at the floor for a second. He spoke very quietly, "Then you have purchased the correct machine." When he looked up he was smiling.

Shandra signed the papers and we packed up the boxes. She would laugh later, "I don't know what you did but you gained a friend in that shop." The Holy Spirit wanted to use the stones in my own wall of arrogance to build a bridge. As we were leaving I picked up the black cloth on which we had stitched out several samples, "Can I have this?" The assistant snatched it out of my hand, but the manager gave it back to me, "Of course you must have it, there is no problem." He gave us several business cards, "You must please disturb me for any reason. If the sisters at the House of Light need anything, machine maintenance, lessons, any question at all! I will look forward to being disturbed by them."

This textile piece is titled The Holy Spirit Disturbs Us. I wanted to do a textile piece to remember that moment. I loved that the manager used the word "disturbed" because it so accurately encapsulated all of our feelings that morning. We were negatively disturbed by one another, then we were positively disturbed by the Holy Spirit who invited us to try again. The piece is entirely hand-stitched to honor the effort, one stitch at a time, one word at a time, that it takes to choose to build a bridge.

The Holy Spirit Disturbs Us,    Michelle Winter ©2016 cotton thread on cotton fabric stitch mounted to 16x20" museum board

The Holy Spirit Disturbs Us, Michelle Winter ©2016 cotton thread on cotton fabric stitch mounted to 16x20" museum board

The gray background fabric felt chilly to me, like the atmosphere in the shop when we first arrived. The orange square is the Presence of God, which is always there. The straight stitches are a nod to a form of traditional Indian hand embroidery called kantha. They form lovely undulations in the fabric (and texture is the reason textiles are my first art love). I chose white embroidery floss because I wanted something that didn't stand out too much. I wanted the stitching to feel almost atmospheric. The straight lines at the bottom are about the paths in which we are often stuck. The undulations are the unintentional ripples those paths can create. The scattered stitches are the times when the Holy Spirit explodes us out of our paths. The curved stitches are the times when we are merely nudged to see things in new ways. Anything can happen when The Holy Spirit Disturbs Us. I used a mounting technique that was new to me. Though it was a pain-staking process, I am so happy with the result and will definitely use it again.

The House of Light

My friend Shandra hates injustice. That's probably true about a lot of people, but Shandra beats it with a stick. Last year she went to Kolkata, India to partner with an international NGO. She wanted to save girls from the sex slave trade. The NGO only prosecutes cases they think they can win. Between them they came up with a plan to grab girls from perpetrators they were sure they could put away. The problem was that they needed an adult witness to testify to having seen a crime committed. Do you see where this is going? They needed some mighty brave women to risk their lives by going into very dark places.

Where do you find women like that?

They visited churches Kolkata asking if anyone would consider doing this. A woman in a golden sari stood up. "Look no further. My sisters and I. We will go." They explained to the woman that her life would be in danger. She waived them off. "Our lives do not belong to us. We gave them to God already."

Shandra wrote this:

I met some nuns who were all about Jesus and justice. We call them the Ninja Nuns because they run alongside ... on rescues into brothels. When I met them, Sister Lissi told me of her hope to turn their home into a place to love and care for the young girls who were being rescued.

I became a contributor last year. One of the many things I love about this project is that Protestant organizations joined hands with Catholic nuns to love the hurting. This kind of unity is what Life is about and it is what I have been praying for since 2000. Unity, not so that we can all believe the same thing, but so that we can love in a big way. Unity was Christ's last prayer for us before He was arrested. We are better together. Loving big.

A few weeks ago I met Shandra for coffee. "I'm going to India in July and I need you to come with me," she said. I listened while she described what she needed: a textile artist who could also help them purchase and learn to use an embroidery machine, someone who could offer soul care using the expressive arts. Then she said the magic words, "Michelle, what I really want is to take a dreamer." 

I'm going.

This is exactly what I signed up for when I became an artist missionary in April. This is what I do. I walk beside those who are doing a good work and offer some creative tools. 

Want to join the adventure? If you would like to contribute to the project or to my ministry you can do so HERE.

If you would like to join my prayer team, you can fill out the form HERE.

Here is an email excerpt from India:

"Greetings and thank you for this help. I am sure that this would be seen as a great step in the history of missions, to know how the Evangelicals and Catholics can come together to give freedom to the oppressed. Please let your partners and friends know our gratitude towards the expression of love and commitment to the girls in Kolkata. I know that much effort from your side have gone behind the scene and may God bless you for all efforts."

And He does, you know? God blesses all efforts.