When visual artist Anne Plaisance moved here from Paris, she found two things striking: the sense of community in Greater Boston, and the number of people experiencing homelessness.
She wracked her brain for a way that she could help Cambridge’s homeless population. She thought of starting a tiny houses project, but the executive director of the Transition House explained why that wasn’t a feasible solution.
“One thing that I didn’t know is that very often homeless women are survivors of domestic violence and abuse, so they have high safety issues and concerns,” Plaisance says. “And to be in a tiny house, visible, it’s the [opposite] of what you should do for a homeless woman.”
She worked with the Transition House to come up with a different plan that would better serve the women who live there. What developed was the Art’s Room Project, a series of workshops designed to promote healing through art.
“The objective goal is for the ladies to have fun—to enjoy, to destress, to smile, to laugh,” Plaisance says. “So I really try to create an atmosphere of trust, of safety, so that they can be themselves, and have fun and discover, and just forget about all the problems that they have to deal with on a daily basis.”
Many of the women bring their young children to class, and the participants often change from week to week, so Plaisance tries to design projects that won’t be stressful and don’t require any artistic background.
She once had the women sit around a circular table and draw a facial feature of the person across from them. Then they each moved over a seat to draw the next facial feature, so that they all collaborated on each piece of artwork and therefore weren’t as critical of their own work. Limiting the time for a particular step can also help take the thinking out of artmaking, she explains.
Plaisance, who works in all sorts of visual media—ranging from painting to photography to sculpture—finds the women she works with inspiring.
“The more I knew these women, [I realized] you need to have a lot of strength in you to say ‘I’m leaving everything, I’m taking my kid, I’m taking one bag of my belongings, and I’m leaving.’ I think it’s an extremely hard decision,” she explains.
So she decided to create a Wonder Woman series, where she photographed the women at the Transition House in costumes and masks of their own designs. Plaisance encouraged them to incorporate elements from their cultural backgrounds to make the costumes as individualized as possible.
“I really want them to create this representation of themselves,” she says. “I want them to be more proactive in the creative process, so I will bring as many different tools and materials, fabrics, objects, that I can think of.”
The Art’s Room Project is funded by grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Cambridge Arts Council.
This story originally appeared in the Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.