Different paths: Cathy Salser ’88

We seniors know (and don’t worry, the rest of you will someday soon know this all too well) the first question that is asked of us after we are introduced to anyone these days: “So, what are your plans for next year?” Every new introduction, each family gathering, and every conversation with an old high school friend: “So, what are you going to do next year?” And the scariest thing is that most of us don’t know where we will be, or what we will be doing, next year.

Twelve years ago, a graduating member of the Class of 1988, Cathy Salser wasn’t all that certain about how she would answer that question either. The art studio major always thought she would go to graduate school, but as Commencement drew closer, she still wasn’t sure what area she might want to study. She left Williams to teach at a summer camp, and returned as a teaching assistant for a Women’s Studies professor. Then, after working for two years at a boarding school, Salser decided it was time to do something for herself.

As a way to combine her two passions of studio art and women’s empowerment, Salser mailed letters to domestic violence shelters across the country describing her self-initiated program designed to bring art to women in shelters, in an attempt to end domestic violence. With this, Salser began A Window Between Worlds (AWBW).

She left Massachusetts and set out to travel from state to state, and shelter to shelter, as she brought her creative workshops into the lives of domestic violence survivors. On this first national tour in 1991, Salser brought the healing powers of art to over 450 residents and 60 staff members in 32 shelters, across 18 states, from Massachusetts to California.

During this first national tour, Salser also exhibited her own portraits of survivors of domestic violence. The portrait sales from this first show totaled $16,000, which funded her program as she continued her tour across the United States.

Once she returned to Los Angeles, Salser established AWBA as a not-for-profit organization through a pilot program with Sojurn Services in West Los Angeles.

Through the pilot, she trained shelter staff and volunteers to be facilitators of her program to use art as a healing tool with women in the shelters. Art always provided Salser with a sense of safety, and she envisioned her program as a sharing of that safety with women whose sense of safety had been robbed by their abusers.

As her program grew to include weekly workshops at 30 shelters in Los Angeles County, she noticed that the art workshops became an increasingly important part of the week for the survivors.

According to Salser, women are not only able to use art to express what they are feeling, but they are also empowered as they see and discover new elements of themselves.

AWBA, in her opinion, allows survivors to create something and move from one world to another, in which they can recover their senses of safety, relaxation, power, possibility and identity.

In 1993, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence supported AWBW’s second national tour, which delivered over 100 workshops, exhibits and trainings to shelters and their communities. In Oct. 1994, the AWBW art exhibit launched Domestic Violence Awareness Month as it was displayed in the Senate Building Rotunda in Washington, D.C.

Salser explained, “The exhibits are more a document of the internal experience of the survivors. These portraits draw [the viewers] in, and they see the power and courage of these stories.”

Salser said that art exhibits portraying survivors of domestic violence serve as a powerful method of outreach to the community. “Shelters are always hidden for security reasons, but art is a fantastic way to…impact the community.”

During 1996 AWBW expanded to develop and implement an art program for children who are living in the shelters with their mothers. Art, Salser said, allows these children to explore and process their feelings in a fun, creative and safe manner. In 1998, the Children’s Windows Art Program reached a total of 2800 children in 24 domestic violence agencies.

Salser is quick to acknowledge that none of her work would have been possible without the support of her co-workers and close friends. During a walk through Hopkins Forest, her friend Jan Blacka ’89 encouraged her to follow through with her initial ideas for beginning AWBW.

As Salser traveled across the country, Blacka provided her with the encouragement and support that helped her maintain her energy and ambition throughout her tour.

In the second year after she began AWBW, Salser met Dolores Sanico, a survivor of domestic violence, who became the organization’s first volunteer, first staff member, and is today the AWBW executive director. Salser noted that she and Sanico have truly built AWBW as a team, and that many of the visions she has had for AWBW would not have become a reality without Sanico’s help and support.

Today, AWBW workshops are present in almost every shelter in Los Angeles. In addition to the local workshops and exhibits, Salser and her staff are available to train staff members or volunteers from any shelter throughout the country that wants to establish an AWBW workshop for women or children.

By expanding their services nationwide and, someday, internationally, Salser and AWBW hope to make art available to anyone who is interested in using it as a means to help end the cycle of violence.

For more information, check out the website for A Window Between Worlds at www.awbw.org.