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EXHIBITION : A Look at the Art of Survival

June 15, 1995|LORENZA MUNOZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dolores Sanico called her husband's bluff when he pointed a gun at her temple. Tired of the frequent threats and the beatings, Sanico dared him to pull the trigger. Fortunately, he did not.

That was a turning point for Sanico, who grabbed her two children, walked out the door of their Fairfax-area home and never returned.

Sanico and 24 other victims of domestic abuse are featured as subjects in an art exhibit titled "A Window Between Worlds: Portraits of Survivors," on display through June 30 at the Santa Monica Place Mall, near the Broadway entrance.

The free exhibit was coordinated by Venice-based artist Cathy Salser and features her portraits of women she met in her nationwide travels. The 25-piece exhibition, which includes the victims' stories as told in their own words, is part of a national project Salser created to bring art into battered women's shelters as a means for abuse victims to express themselves, find the confidence to deal with their past and begin new lives.

The project grew from Salser's idea in 1991 to travel across the country exchanging art lessons for room and board at women's shelters. Three years later, Salser founded A Window Between Worlds, a nonprofit organization, and Sanico, 47, was the sole employee.

A Window Between Worlds offers art training in connection with 42 different domestic violence programs in 17 states and Moscow. Salser trains other artists to teach sculpting, painting and writing to women and children in shelters.

Salser said she found a strong interest in providing creative outlets for women who have had to deal with physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Art, she said, is a means to share feelings that are sometimes intangible.

"It [offers] a way to describe things they know are wrong but can't explain," she said.

The exhibit at the mall is the culmination of two nationwide tours by Salser.

The paintings--which are available for $800 to $3,500 each--are not grim. Rather, they portray the women with proud smiles, glowing eyes and a determination to create a better future.

While some of the featured women describe terrifying stories of beatings, threats and wounds, the exhibit also addresses more subtle forms of domestic abuse, such as verbal humiliation and constant degradation.

One survivor, who is Salser's aunt, described her struggle after divorce to find something that fulfilled her after so many years of concentrating solely on satisfying the needs of her husband and children.

Low self-esteem and ignorance about domestic abuse are a woman's worst enemies, said Sanico.

"It really angers me when I hear people say, 'Oh, she could have left him,' " Sanico said. "The people who say that are so snug in their lives that they don't understand what happens with women who are in an abusive relationship."

Without financial independence, no support from her family or the church, Sanico tolerated her abusive marriage for seven years, finally leaving when her ex-husband pointed a pistol at her head.

Twenty years later, Sanico said it is still difficult to talk about the suicidal depression she felt at the time and how she later relied on the goodwill of friends for money and temporary residence for her and her sons, who are now 21 and 27.

Sanico credits A Window Between Worlds with giving her a sense of stability, strength and renewed self-esteem.

"It has made me realize that what happened was not my fault. Now I'm able to help those women who are in abusive relationships. I want to let them know that there really is a future."

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