Carmel Anderson stands in a dimly lit room in front of a translucent dress suspended from the ceiling on a thin wire.
"I just pictured this beautiful, innocent child," she said. "And I have it on a beautiful, cloth hanger, like a party dress with embroidered pink flowers."
The dress slowly turns on its own. "And as it comes around, you notice there’s a target on its back," said Anderson. "A red target. And that’s why I called it, 'Marked.'"
"I’ve heard several stories here in Bethel where they were just... the child that was picked on," she said. "And I spoke with one woman through her tears. And I just said, 'You were marked.'"
A white-haired woman with red cat-eyed glasses, Anderson is down-to-earth with an easy smile. Her art is haunting. A bone-white, headless mannequin stands in the center of the room in a lilac skirt, its arms bound by an Ace bandage. A shadowy painting of a woman wearing a mask hangs in a corner. Anderson’s exhibition exploring abuse and domestic violence is touring the state. She’s on a mission to empower survivors and raise awareness.
"Hopefully TWC [the Tundra Women's Coalition] will see some more money coming in when people start understanding the importance of this topic and how we need to really address it," she said.
Anderson started painting women when she was in her forties. As she painted, she became preoccupied with the unspoken things that make so many women unhappy. She didn’t expect to focus on domestic violence, but the more questions she asked the more she understood it. While Anderson was never abused herself, several women in her life are survivors.
"A woman I talked to in her eighties was date-raped in her teens, and she has never forgotten that," Anderson said.
Anderson knows that domestic violence can be hard to talk about. Families try to keep the abuse a secret, and neighbors often look the other way. "There is, I think, a lot of shame," said Anderson, "a lot of embarrassment."
"We don’t want to talk about evil," she continued. "We want to pretend it’s not there. And when we do that, the person we’re helping is the perpetrator."
Communities struggle with how to deal with the problem, particularly in rural areas. Anderson remembers a comment she heard from an advocate in a small community. "'I see them in the grocery store. I see them sitting in positions of leadership.' So she said, 'I just stay home.'"
This violence that women and men endure can be unspeakable, and Anderson hopes that her visual art
conveys how survivors feel when words fail them.
The last piece in Anderson’s exhibition, “Hope Quilt,” is cobbled together by Anderson’s audience. It’s a patchwork of white and tan canvas squares that take up an entire wall. On each square an anonymous person has written a message.
"There’s one from a small child that says, 'Don’t be around other people who hurt their children,'" Anderson said. "One of the first squares I got from a man was, 'I love you mom. I’m sorry I wasn’t big enough to defend you.'"
For Anderson "Hope Quilt" is proof that people are willing to speak out against abuse. That’s the first step she says to fighting it. Here in Bethel, she’s been impressed by the community’s willingness to talk about domestic violence and try to stop it.
"The future of this community I see as very hopeful, because I see the wisdom of tackling these hard topics," Anderson said. For abuse survivors "to live their best stories, they have to heal their wounds. And that's why I've been so impressed with Bethel. They're talking about it so we can have healing happen."
You can see Anderson’s exhibit for free Friday at Bethel’s Cultural Center from noon to 7 p.m.