Activist artist Shirl Chouinard creates dolls to educate about domestic violence

"I imagine our community where the strong provide for the vulnerable. Where the vulnerable become more empowered. [I imagine communities] where we can be safe and secure." -Shirl Chouinard

When Shirl Chouinard asked her mother when the abuse started, her mother replied, "almost immediately." That was the spark for her sculpture "First Strike."

"First Strike" is one of about 20 dolls Chouinard has created surrounding the theme of family domestic violence. Ten of her dolls were in an exhibit at the Northside Art Gallery at the Parkway United Church of Christ in Minneapolis for the month of October-Domestic Violence Awareness month.

Most of the dolls are made out of old chenille bedspreads, symbolic of a marriage that's broken. Except for the bride doll, which is made of brand new, beautiful materials. When people view Chouinard's fiber art they often cry, she said.

"They come up to me and tell me their stories or they thank me for telling these stories," she said. "It's kind of like a universal story. They have a daughter or sister or family member involved. The dolls are so accessible, anybody can relate."

She described the cycle of abuse. "A woman caught in domestic violence will always have a honeymoon phase with their abuser," she said. "The perpetrator will tell you that it will never happen again, that they are sorry and that it was a mistake. There's a sort of wooing of the survivor."

Don't talk about it

When her mother died in 2010, Chouinard described the shift in her artwork as an eye-opening experience. She had a sudden, single-mindedness. "The creativity and the energy just came flooding out of me when I started to create these pieces," she said.

The dolls Chouinard creates do not have mouths, for a reason.

"That is part of the problem surrounding domestic violence-people don't want to talk about it. This is a secret that we don't talk about in our society, where one in four women are abused in their lifetime," she said. "You still love the person, they are a part of your life, and how do you deal with that?"

Chouinard is a survivor of child abuse, as are her sisters. "I grew up with the stereotypes-you are 25 percent more likely to have childhood problems, such as delinquency, drop out, teenage pregnancy, drugs, alcoholism, depression, suicide attempts, etc., etc.

"I dropped out of high school, ended up as a teen mother, but the whole thing [I learned] is that you don't have to get stuck in that old story," Chouinard said. "I realized that it wasn't just me that caused my own problem. I was really a part of the legacy of child abuse."

From this survivor perspective, she said, "I freed myself up and starting forgiving my own mistakes. Up to that point I was hiding them. Sure I got my master's degree, but I didn't tell anyone that I was a high school dropout and a teenage mother."

Using art to educate
Chouinard's master's is in arts administration from Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, and she also has a fine arts degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She lives in Cambridge, Minn., with her husband, and has a grown son and two grandchildren.

Recently, she was awarded a Bush Foundation fellowship. In January, she will be working with artwork in three outstate Minnesota counties-Isanti, Chisago and Kanabec-to produce arts and cultural awareness, bringing to light family violence, with an emphasis on a prevention plan in addition to protection.

"Most of what you see in the world right now is protection rather than prevention," she said. "I think we need to start at the basic root of the problem and educate our society. I think art is the best way to do that."

Chouinard is looking forward to working with young people. "I think change happens by starting with kids," she said. "The experts say it takes about three generations for social change to happen. I feel that my responsibility is to enlighten and educate."

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