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After career in fashion, artist crafts fabric pieces that give voice to domestic abuse victims

  • Author: Tamara Ikenberg
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published April 16, 2017

A delicate white dress with puffy sleeves and pink flowers dangles on a wire, turning and twisting at the whim of the air and movement around it. As it rotates, the faded red target painted on the back comes into view.

The garment, part of Carmel Anderson's "Unheard Voices/Unheard Wisdom" show at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art, looks as helpless as the abused child it symbolizes.

Alaska has one of the highest rates of child abuse per capita in the nation and is always in the top five. Children under the age of 5 are victimized the most often, according to Trevor Storrs, executive director of Alaska Children's Trust, which is co-sponsoring the exhibit's Alaska tour.

"They're at the greatest risk and that target on the dress reminds me of that," Storrs said. "People look at them, and think 'that's my target.' "

It was Storrs' and Anderson's goal to get the socially conscious sculpture and textile show to Anchorage in April, which is National Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month.

The show also includes a community "Hope" quilt, a pinned-together collection of canvas pieces decorated with words written by real Alaska abuse survivors, from kids to businessmen.

"Unheard Voices/Unheard Wisdom" debuted in Ketchikan three years ago and was displayed in Juneau this past February. After Anchorage, it will head to Sitka, Dillingham and Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow).

Anderson has added pieces to the exhibit along the way.

The exhibit's subject matter may be harsh and ugly, but Anderson didn't want the work to reflect that.

"I wanted to portray it in as elegant a way as possible to give respect to the victims," Anderson said. "There's something I think that's very soft about this show."

The former fashion designer has a knack for evoking empathy with fabric and subtle disturbing details, like bright Hello Kitty bandages peeking out from under a child's sweet summery dress or sports shorts.

"I wanted to (make art) to educate, because I found that a lot of people don't understand domestic abuse," said the Ketchikan-based artist. "It's a very complex issue."

She wants her work to help victims heal and to inspire the community to ponder questions like why someone beaten as a child would harm their own kids and what makes an adult stay with their physically and/or psychologically abusive partner.

An abuser "is not going to take a woman on a date and say 'in three months I'm going to start beating you and isolating you,' " Anderson said. "It's a slow withdrawal of family. It's a slow control."

Two pieces powerfully depict how crippling psychological control can be.

One is "Bound," a mannequin draped in a gown with a straitjacket-like top over a wrinkled lavender silk organza skirt. 

"It asks that question of could she break free or could she not?" Anderson said.

The artist added that a victim's psychological prison is often compounded by a lack of safe havens and resources, especially in Alaska's isolated rural communities.

"Thirty percent of our women don't have access to shelters," said Anderson, who lives near a Ketchikan shelter and has discussed funding problems and more dilemmas with the shelter's former director.

The statistic comes from the National Coalition of Domestic Violence.

"Controlled," a collapsed heap of an evening dress attached to two strings held by mannequin hands, is another strong statement.

Anderson originally wanted the gown to float in the air like a manipulated marionette, but it didn't want to.

"It fell down on its own," said Anderson, who eventually decided to let the work be. "The pieces have their own power and their own voice."

Hearing 'voices'

At First Friday on April 8, "Controlled" spoke to gallery-goer Christina Young.

"It feels like the person has been carrying a burden for a long time," she said of the piece.

Young was also affected by "Un-Welcomed," one of the show's most hauntingly honest works.

The airy, romantic dress has a fabric flower-studded bodice and full, sheer tulle skirt encasing two limbs that initially give the impression of legs.

A closer look into the cloud of tulle reveals two arms invading the underskirt space.

To Young, it represents the murkiness of recognizing and responding to abuse.

"How often do we see domestic violence, or we're not sure that we're seeing it?" she said.

Challenging assumptions about domestic abuse as solely a problem of the impoverished and disenfranchised is also one of Anderson's intentions.

At first glance, the piece "Facade" simply looks like a stiff power suit symbolizing a successful businesswoman. Peering inside reveals a frayed, tattered lining, haphazardly held together with safety pins, and a secret fragility is revealed.

"It's very businessy and constrained, and the inside is soft and delicate, like there's a hardening on the outside and a softening on the inside," said First Friday attendee Jessyca Rogers.

All of the pieces have an accompanying story or quote, and the one next to "Facade" is Madeleine Albright's famous phrase: "There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."

Hope couture

Anderson felt comfortable using the tools of her former trade to give voice to her subjects, and the skills Anderson amassed from nearly two decades in the fashion industry really show.

From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Anderson lived the New York City fashion life as an apprentice for sportswear designer Perry Ellis and a designer for Izod Lacoste and street wear line B.U.M. Equipment.

Anderson's last industry gig was as a design team manager in Atlanta for children's clothing empire Carter's.

She exited the industry in 1999, soon after the birth of her daughter.

"By that time fashion had become more my job than my passion or calling," Anderson said. "I thought, how can I tell my daughter to follow her own dreams if I'm not following mine?"

Anderson then began a transition into fine art. After dabbling in painting fruit-filled still lifes, she realized the curves of her produce, particularly the pears, greatly resembled a feminine form.

She ultimately decided to devote her art to social issues and the inner beauty and strength of women, which she said gives her much more joy and purpose.

"You don't change a person by putting a nice sweater on them," she said. "True beauty comes from your soul."

UNHEARD VOICES/UNHEARD WISDOM is on display through Thursday, April 27, at International Gallery of Contemporary Art, 427 D. St., Anchorage. See