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Spirited Woman Interviews by Nancy Mills
Nancy Mills : Cathy Salser Interview

Interview with Cathy Salser, Founder of A Window Between Worlds

By Nancy Mills

It's an honor to write about a heroine. And yes, I feel Cathy Salser, age 42, is right up there with the best of them. In fact, Oprah needs to do a show on Cathy — I feel that strongly about her mission.

Cathy is the founder of A Window Between Worlds (AWBW), a special nonprofit located in Venice, CA that brings art to women, teens and children in domestic violence shelters and is the only non-profit in the entire country dedicated to using art to help end domestic violence. Cathy believes with all her heart and soul that through creative expression, battered women and children gain a sense of renewal and power.

She feels that art empowers survivors to transform how they view themselves, allowing them to see past the abusive messages they've learned from their batterers and rebuild their self-confidence. I personally feel, she is soooo right. And I salute her for recognizing that and taking action.

Since Cathy founded her organization in 1992, AWBW has provided creative expression as a healing tool for over 31,500 battered women and their children in crisis shelters, transitional homes, and outreach centers throughout the United States. She now has 10 employees and over 150 volunteers working with her. Additionally, AWBW has opened over 100 art exhibitions in 19 states, in such significant locales as the US Senate Building in Washington D.C, utilizing art as a powerful way to break the silence.

Cathy is an "amazing" woman — passionately dealing with a situation of epidemic proportions. And now during National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I believe her interview is especially poignant. My plea is that we help her organization and most importantly acknowledge the reality of abuse. Now, here's Cathy.

Q. Tell us about your "Road Trip of a Thousand Lifetimes" in 1991. How did it come about and set you on your path?

A. I was walking through the forest with my friend and she asked me what my greatest vision was. What came to mind was I wanted to share art in a way that can make a difference. I didn't picture it being possible. I pictured going door to door with a suitcase of art supplies. My friend encouraged me to reach out to domestic violence shelters as she was a staff person at one. She showed me the national directory of shelters and suggested I announce that I was coming. In my letter, I said I would do anything in exchange for room and board — I would do whatever I could as an artist. I actually heard back from a shelter in Idaho. They wanted to set up a weekend of workshops around my visit. So I began to go from shelter to shelter to share whatever I could as an artist. It was very different from just traveling and painting — it was traveling and offering. I was offering what had given me safety as a child. I was just so shy that I didn't want to speak at all. It was painful to be that shy but art is what made me feel safe. I wanted to share that safety. I also knew it would make me grow and help other people grow. It was like a completely open blank slate.

Q. Later in 1992, you founded A Window Between Worlds — how did you come up with the name?

A. When I was traveling across the country, it was so incredible to see how just one art workshop could change somebody. It could open something they didn't think was possible and change their relationship — how they see their child or how they interact with a parent — it could transform their relationship just by having that window of time, and that is why it was called A Window Between Worlds, because the art was like a window of time that would take you from one place to another. It wasn't about what it looks like or making an impressive piece of art — it was about using the art as that bridge or that window to go from one place to another in your life.

Q. Did you have a history of domestic violence in your family?

A. I do. I grew up with that experience of fear and anger being major issues and a lack of sense of safety. It definitely is a personal issue, and that I think is why I do what I do, but when I started it I actually didn't know. It was one of those things that you realize when you are doing it which is one of the beautiful things about life. When you follow your heart or your vision, how it can be the right thing without you even knowing it and you can figure out why later.

Q. What makes A Window Between Worlds mission unique?

A. We're the only organization in the country that assists domestic violence shelters nationwide in using art as a healing tool. There is no other organization helping them to develop their own art program. It's unique to train their own staff. Often the staff at domestic violence shelters know what's going on with the clients but most often they are afraid of art. For us to get to take these wonderful staff people and share this with them — it's like sharing magic. They see how simple art really is and how powerful. The art is a window of time to practice respecting yourself, your needs, to practice listening to your heart, and that opens up so much. It's unique to be able to put that kind of magic into the hands of all these domestic violence shelters and see them be able to support the women and kids at such a deeper level.

Q. Who can become a shelter leader?

A. Generally, if a shelter wants to start a program — they send us who they want trained and it does not have to be an artist. It can be someone who is terrified of art and they can be a fabulous leader. But, if there is someone in the community who wants to become a leader — coming through the training does not hook them up with a shelter. The shelter relationship is something they have to establish. There are many other ways to volunteer and to help us. Also at AWBW we have a monthly Survivor's Art Circle for mothers. All survivors of domestic violence who are not in a shelter are invited to attend.

Q. October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month. What do you think we as women can do to help women and children move beyond violent relationships?

A. I think to notice how we communicate with the people we love the most. Some people are shocked that domestic violence — such violent things — would be done by a loved one to another loved one. Yet, if we really pay attention, we all know that our strongest emotions can come up with those we care about most. It's very important to really examine how we handle our feelings and what we accept in terms of how other people around us handle their feelings. So what we can do is notice that this is not surprising and that it is important to talk about it and get help. In reaching out for support, there are plenty of resources. There is a National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) that can refer people to resources around the entire country.

Q. What would you like AWBW to achieve in the next five years?

A. We turn away a third of the leaders wanting to be trained because we have not been able to grow as fast as the demand for our services. There are more shelters wanting to have an art program than we currently have funding for. During the next five years, I'd like to see us raise the money that's needed so that we won't have to be turn down shelters that want to participate. My goal is to make that happen. I would like to see us find more individuals and groups to support a shelter. It only costs $1000 to support a shelter for a year and that includes supplies and training and on-going support and consultation. I know how much art makes a difference at each shelter that has an art program.

Q. Cathy, why do you feel that you are a Spirited Woman?

A. Our spirit is what we are listening to. And if we truly listen to that, our lives will be healthy, our relationships will be healthy, and our communities will be healthy. Not only healthy but vibrant and vital and creative and joyful and that's what I want to see for the world.

THANK YOU CATHY FOR USING ART TO HELP END DOMESTIC VIOLENCE. YOU ARE A HEROINE.

Cathy welcomes hearing from you at www.awbw.org.

© 2009 Nancy Mills

Nancy MillsNancy Mills is the Creator of the Spirited Woman Approach to Life, a self-inspirational writer for women, and the publisher of the highly successful Spirited Woman Blogger Team. More »

7/31/09