by CHRIS ROGERS
It is rare for the victims of child abuse or domestic violence to speak publicly about the trauma they experienced, but victims are out there. At virtually every one of her shows, someone will come up to Minnesota artist Shirl Chouinard and quietly tell her, "This happened to me, too."
Chouinard makes life-sized fabric dolls depicting women, children, and babies who suffered violence, sexual assault, or verbal abuse at the hands of their husbands, boyfriends, partners, fathers, and mothers. The dolls and props are currently posed throughout the lobby of Winona State University's (WSU) Maxwell Hall. In one piece, a young woman doll — the victim of rape — is curled up on the concrete floor with a crumpled pair of blue jeans and a sweatshirt tossed over her torso like a pathetically small blanket. A baby doll lays in a crib in another piece. The extremities of its arms and legs are stuffed like the other dolls, but its thighs and upper arms are made of thin ribbons of scrunched up fabric, so that its limbs flail and wobble absurdly if someone picks the doll up; in the crib, its arms and legs lay twisted at grotesque angles. The doll is based on a true story of an abusive father shaking his baby. In another vignette, a little boy doll stitched from denim is seated in a rocking chair surrounded by a pile of belts. "I'll let your imagination figure that one out," Chouinard said.
Chouinard is a survivor of child abuse herself. Her father abused her and her mother. When she talks about it, her tone is plain and unaffected. She has talked about it so much, it no longer upsets her, she said. One of her pieces, "First Strike," is based in part on her mother. A bride doll is decked out in pure white, ornately embroidered fabric, a bouquet of roses, and a white veil. On one eye, the doll sports a black eye. A long road separated Chouinard the child victim and the Chouinard the winner of state and national arts awards and grants. She became pregnant as a teen and did not graduate from high school. In other words, "I was a standard child abuse victim," she said. In her late 20s, she got her GED and went to community college, thinking she would get a business degree. Then she stepped inside the college art studio and thought, "Oh no. This is home." She went on to become the first in her family to earn a bachelor's degree and she earned a master's degree from Saint Mary's University's Twin Cities campus.
The process of creating the dolls is emotional. She said she cried after making some of them. "It's just one of those things where I'm in the crap when I'm making it. I'm in the junk world, this violent world, and it's such a release when I get it done," she said.
Some people are irritated by her artwork, Chouinard said. "Why do I have to have this in my face?" they ask. Some people are moved, though. In a recent grant application interview, Chouinard was grilled by the Minnesota State Arts Board. She thought that her grant application was doomed, but as Chouinard started to walk out defeated, she saw one board member wipe a tear from her eye. "This is why I'm doing this," Chouinard thought. "It's not for all the accolades. I do this for other people." She got the grant.
Chouinard describes herself as an activist artist. "To me it's subject matter first and the art follows," she said. Chouinard practices a variety of mediums; making fabric dolls is just one means to start a conversation about abuse. Her work blends art with storytelling and victim advocacy, and Chouinard is deeply knowledgable about the effects of abuse on victims, the tactics of abusers, and the system that tries to respond to the problem. In one project, she worked with various criminal justice agencies in Chisago County, Minn., to develop a sexual assault response team and help ensure criminal justice workers were asking the right questions to catch signs of abuse. She has made artwork based on a victim's experience of post-assault forensic examinations, and abstract quilts inspired by post-traumatic stress disorder. In one of her pieces currently on display at WSU, a little girl doll clutches a cat doll with red fabric stitched to its chest in a pattern reminiscent of a bullet wound. Abusers often hurt or kill pets as a way to control their victims, she explained.
"Child abuse is one of the most heinous things that can happen to a human being," she said. It affects brain development and mental health and it makes victims more likely to abuse drugs or have teen pregnancies, she said. The physiology of the brain is changed by child abuse, and victims offer suffer from mental health problems as a result of their trauma, she explained. In her artist statement, Chouinard calls family violence "the most pervasive yet least recognized human rights abuse in the world." In an interview she added, "That's why all the dolls don't have mouths, because nobody talks about it in public."
Chouinard's exhibit "Unspeakable" is on display in the lobby of WSU's Maxwell Hall until Saturday, April 11. Chouinard will give a lecture titled "Violence Against Women and Children: A Challenge for Sustainable Human Development" at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 8, at Stark Hall auditorium.