Artist Aimee Wissman works on a butterfly mural inside of Sanctuary Night.
Artist Aimee Wissman works on a butterfly mural inside of Sanctuary Night.Courtesy Wexner Center for the Arts

‘To remember that I have an imagination’

Art residency at West Side drop-in center brings beauty into the lives of women who are struggling for survival.

It’s 10:30 on the Friday morning before Thanksgiving and it’s been flurrying outside for hours, so it’s not surprising that the woman who comes into Sanctuary Night on Sullivant Avenue is more concerned with warmth, breakfast and a place to pee than she is with talking about art. As she scarfs down a couple of pancakes as big as the plate they are on, she doesn’t chat with artist Aimee Wissman, who stands nearby maneuvering a paintbrush around the eye of a butterfly mural on the kitchen wall and wondering aloud whether it makes sense to add glitter. But as the woman, who is extremely thin and missing several teeth, edges past Wissman on her way out of the kitchen and back to the street, she smiles at the artist and thanks her.

And that’s the way it can be sometimes, says Wissman. Some days, her presence in the space is the gift she can offer.

Wissman is the current artist-in-residence at Sanctuary Night, a new drop-in space on the West Side for women who live hard lives that often include addiction, poverty, homelessness and sex work. Sanctuary Night offers meals, showers, bathrooms, laundry facilities, clothing, healthcare, and legal and counseling services, as well as acceptance, dignity and a moment of peace. It opened last May in a brand-new building, after operating for years as a Monday night drop-in program at Lower Lights Christian Health Center on W. Broad St.

In its first two months, the new center – which at that time was not yet operating full-time – served 262 unique women, says founder and executive director Hannah Estabrook; currently, 20 to 30 women ring the doorbell each day and come inside.

The artist residency is a collaborative effort by Sanctuary Night and the Wexner Center for the Arts. It’s not the first joint effort spearheaded by Tracie McCambridge, whose current role at the Wex is director of art and resilience, and Estabrook, who worked for a time as the coordinator of Franklin County Municipal Court’s CATCH Court, an alternative docket for women charged with prostitution and related crimes. Then, Estabrook brought her clients, women who had already left “the life” and were striving for change, into the Wex for art-based programming that McCambridge put together. What Estabrook learned from those moments was that “there's something about creating art that taps us into things like hope and imagination for beauty.”

Now she wanted to know if there was a role for artmaking in the lives of the more enmeshed and vulnerable women who come into Sanctuary Night. McCambridge, too, saw potential and raised the funds for a pilot. 

They recruited well-known Columbus artist April Sunami to get things rolling. But none of the three was sure how the program would work. Would women whose lives are filled with stress, fear and, often, pain benefit from exposure to art and to artists? Would they welcome it?

Artist April Sunami paints outside at Sanctuary Night.
Artist April Sunami paints outside at Sanctuary Night.Courtesy Wexner Center for the Arts

Still in its early stages, the project is gradually taking form. Sunami started, she says, by simply “hanging out.” “It is never my practice as an artist, when I go into a new community, to just start doing things without getting to know that community first,” she says. So she came for a few visits, then tested some projects. “The first project that I did in the space was collage. Absolutely nobody was interested – partially because, you know, in that particular space, a lot of women are just trying to get immediate needs met. It's just like, ‘Let me go get something to eat, take a shower and get back to what I need to do.’”

Over time, however, she became a familiar face and some of the guests took an interest. Spray paint was popular, she learned, and during one visit she worked with guests and staff – many of whom are survivors themselves – on creating a mural on wood panels that will eventually hang on the patio fence. “It's just a matter of finding what can like really engage people in a short amount of time,” she says, as well as “things that can relax, be therapeutic, just take their mind off of things.” One day she did a fluid paint activity with the women – you’ve probably seen the Instagram reels where poured acrylic paint colors mingle and flow – “And one woman told me, ‘This is the most relaxed I’ve felt in two weeks,’ and I thought, ‘Okay. This is kind of like the role of an artist being here,’” Sunami says.

Sunami passed the torch to Wissman this fall, although she is still finishing the mural and remains involved with the initiative. “That's just the nature of it,” she says. “You’re not just like, ‘My part is done and I'm out. The space, the mission, the women – it all just becomes really meaningful to you.”

Wissman has a special connection to the project: A decade ago she, too, was living on the street and coping with addiction. She became an artist while serving a five-year prison sentence, at first making pictures to send to her daughter, who was a year old when she went to prison, and later making things for other incarcerated women to use as gifts, and finally creating art therapy programs within the prison. 

Wissman is currently finishing the butterfly mural, done in chalkboard paint so it can serve as a place for the Sanctuary Night staff and guests to write messages. She wants to create a crystal mobile for the common room, which has a cathedral ceiling and will one day have a stained-glass window to emphasize the sense that this is a safe and sacred space. And recently, she began thinking about providing opportunities for the women to create gifts, perhaps for their own children. 

“There's so much guilt and shame that you walk in daily when you've gotten to that place,” she says. “I can't describe the pain of not being able to be with your kids, or not being able to be like what you think you're supposed to be for them. … When you can’t be what they need.” She’d like to help the women at Sanctuary Night who are mothers find ways to connect with their own children. “To show love and reach out in whatever way you can.”

Women work on an art project at Sanctuary Night.
Women work on an art project at Sanctuary Night.Courtesy Wexner Center for the Arts

Now, five years out and raising her 11-year-old daughter on her own, Wissman has a thriving art practice. She hopes that her own journey can be a model for women who get to know her at Sanctuary Night. “I think I'm modeling that you can do whatever you want at whatever time you want,” she says. “It's never too late to just do something different and do something hard. 

It’s not necessarily like, ‘Oh, look what I've done,’ or ‘you can be like me,’ but like, ‘you can do you whatever you want.’”

And that, says Estabrook, is what she feels germinating in this early phase of the art residency. “I think what has ended up being really the highest value is that we've had these incredible artists who have been just really present in their own bodies in our space, creating art in front of people. They’re literally embodying the Zen or the peace of tapping into their own creativity, and we get to bear witness to that. 

“And as part of that, they're creating beauty with input from staff and guests. They're creating beauty for our space.”

“One of the things that a couple of the women actually have said as we've been working on our projects is, you know, ‘I don't have a lot of time or space to be creative or just use my imagination and have fun,’” McCambridge recounts. “‘This is an opportunity for me to remember that I have an imagination.’”

“And that’s one of the ways that women can start to imagine a life beyond the streets,” Estabrook adds. “Through the mechanism of art. But only when they're ready.”

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