Children often steered clear of the dark and uninviting basement inside the House of Peace shelter in southeast Minneapolis.
The basement, with its gray walls and cement floors, was where their mothers went to share memories of violence they suffered in homes where they were supposed to feel safe.
This past fall, local high school students helped transform the dingy space into a colorful canvas. Ana Keller-Flores, Maggie Yang and Olivia Reinhardt, who attend Great River School in Saint Paul, teamed up with others to paint a mural to brighten up the basement for the shelter.
“They wanted to have this mural painted as a symbol of hope for the women there,” said Keller-Flores, a 15-year-old sophomore.
The mural, spanning most of one wall, shows six smiling women of different Asian nationalities wearing their traditional clothing and embracing one another as the sun beams down on them and the mountains in the background tower over them. The mural’s message was to remind the women of their identities and their strength.
“That is what inspired me to do a mural here,” said Sipra Jha, shelter director of House of Peace. “Because it’s one of the richest and oldest art forms, and for women to see that, it would be empowering, to see them holding hands from different cultures. Different, but we are all one.”
According to the Oakland-based Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence, 41 to 61 percent of Asian women report physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner.
“I have family that has been victims of domestic violence, so I think for me, that’s what motivated me,” said Yang, also a sophomore at Great River. “I thought to myself, that if I’m painting this, [this is] one step to making a change.”
Many women in the shelter grew up with cultural customs that made it hard for them to take their children and flee their abusive relationships, Jha said. The mural is a way to help the women remember that they are not alone, no matter where they are from, she said.
House of Peace is run by Asian Women United of Minnesota, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending domestic violence by offering support programs and spreading awareness. The organization has created a welcoming safe house and a safety net for Asian women and children dealing with domestic violence.
Those who come to the shelter often face long and difficult challenges, including with their immigration status, housing and employment.
“They don’t have an income, they don’t have a place to live, they might not even have a green card status, so they might get deported,” said Bea Vue-Benson, an on-site therapist at AWUM. “I just hope to validate their decision to leave the marriage or the abusive family and help them go through this difficult time.”
The idea for creating a mural started with Vue-Benson’s daughter, Karah. Bea Vue-Benson told her that the shelter was in need of a mural downstairs. Her daughter had already painted murals in her own house, but she couldn’t do this project all on her own. She reached out to her friends Keller-Flores, Yang and Reinhardt.
“Our goal for it was to show the kids another representation of Asian women, instead of the mainstream media [view] of what Asian women look like, and to give them an ulterior image,” Bea VueBenson said. “Hopefully they can pick up the smiling and the arms up as a sense of community.”
Starting in October 2015, the students came to the shelter once or twice a week to fill in the mural. They spent weeks researching Asian culture, sketching out landscape designs and buying materials before finishing the mural in September. Keller-Flores said House of Peace felt more like a home than a shelter.
“You could feel like it was really safe there,” she said, “and you could smell food cooking upstairs.” After hearing that the women enjoyed seeing the progress the girls were making on the mural, Yang said it helped her feel “more motivated to finish and make a difference.”
Research has shown art in hospitals can have a positive effect on morale of patients and staff members. According to one study in the United Kingdom, 43 percent of frontline clinical staff believed art had a positive effect on healing and 24 percent considered the arts improved clinical outcomes.
During their nights at the shelter, the girls jammed out to music, ate cake and bonded over the message they were working hard to convey. They want to continue to paint the rest of the basement with more murals.
Bea Vue-Benson fondly remembers the students putting the final touches on the mural. “… They put so much work into it,” she said, “and there was so much compassion in the room.”