In art, mothers find way to deal with losing a child

At the Rotunda in West Philadelphia is an art installation of 331 wire sculptures to correspond to the homicides that occurred in Philadelphia last year. The collaboration involving mothers who lost children to violence will be part of the 2013 FringeArts Festival.
At the Rotunda in West Philadelphia is an art installation of 331 wire sculptures to correspond to the homicides that occurred in Philadelphia last year. The collaboration involving mothers who lost children to violence will be part of the 2013 FringeArts Festival. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 07, 2013

No one believes that they have found the cure for violence.

Certainly not the hundreds of women who earned membership in Mothers in Charge by losing their children to bullets and blades.

Certainly not Dorothy Johnson-Speight, who founded the group 10 years ago after her 24-year-old son, Kaahliq, was shot to death in Olney by a neighbor during an argument over a parking spot.

And certainly not the five mothers in the artists' collective MamaCITA who came up with an idea for an exhibit to raise awareness about the city's homicide rate.

Working together, though, these women figured that they might as well try to do something. To find yet another small way to push back against the crushing forces of anger, despair, and callousness that drive people to kill. If not to prevent another violent death, then at least to soothe and comfort those left behind.

Beginning Saturday, the results of their collaboration will be presented as part of the 2013 FringeArts Festival. An art installation set beneath the shabby but soaring coffered dome of the Rotunda in West Philadelphia. A collection of 331 hand-twisted wire vessels - one for each of the city's homicide victims in 2012.

"I didn't understand it at first," says Johnson-Speight, recalling her reaction when the artists first proposed the project.

They would work together for one year, the artists said. They would invite at-risk children and grieving relatives and neighbors and strangers to twist yards of annealed 18- and 14-gauge steel wire into free-form shapes resembling some sort of cup or basket.

"A vessel? How does that connect to a lost child?" said Johnson-Speight. "But it does. I can't explain it, but it does."

As she gripped the wire and tried to bend it to her will, she said, she found herself thinking about Kaahliq the whole time. And she suggested that the artists offer workshops to at-risk girls and women in MIC programs.

The intense concentration required to work the wire has a meditative and therapeutic effect, said Kimberly Mehler, one of the MamaCITA artists.

"Art can move you through your emotions in two ways," Mehler said. "It can help you feel them and express them, or it can help you get away from them when you need a break from your grief."

MamaCITA - Mothers' Cooperative in the Arts - bought supplies and put the exhibit together with $5,000 from the Leeway Foundation for Art and Change Grants and a good deal from American Wire, a local supplier of wire normally used for wrapping shipping pallets, said Janice Hayes-Cha, who helped organize the project.

"Wire is gratifying to work with," she said. "It's flexible, but it has a will of its own. You can try to wrestle it into a shape, but ultimately, you just have to go with it."

An apt metaphor for any parent trying to shape a child's future, she noted.

The vessels, Hayes-Cha said, "are just skeletons of people who aren't here anymore. Each is unique. There is no way to make two alike."

They are suspended against walls of translucent white fabric and cast shadows that grow longer as the daylight fades.

"The shadows are an important part of the art," Hayes-Cha said. "They show that the perpetrator and the victim are always connected. Just as mother and child are always connected. And the corporal body and the soul."

At the Saturday event, several mothers whose children were killed in Philadelphia will give spoken-word performances.

Marvella McDaniel, whose 21-year-old son, Erik, was knifed to death trying to break up a fight, will read her poem "Knowing, Not Knowing." It ends:

If the sudden force of anger and rage

has stolen the bright future

of someone you love, then you know.

You know the shock, the absence

of goodbyes, the heart torn to pieces,

But you do not know if you can go on.

Neither the artists nor the members of Mothers in Charge expect the exhibit to lower the murder rate or inspire any epiphanies.

But it could happen, said Johnson-Speight.

After her son's death, "I thought I'd talk to everyone who would listen about stopping the violence and it would stop," she said. She soon realized she needed to take action.

Today, the organization works in prisons and communities and schools, teaches anger management, provides mentoring and job skills courses. It has expanded nationally, with chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.

"People see the 6 o'clock news and they don't know what to do," she said, looking up at the wall of twisted wire spirals, cones, cups, and baskets.

"Something like this could change someone's life. Maybe it will make them want to write to their congressman and ask them to pass a bill requiring universal background checks. Or maybe it will make them want to mentor a child who has been written off. That's how a culture of violence is changed," she said.

"One little step at a time."


If You Go

The antiviolence groups Mothers in Charge and MamaCITA will present an art exhibit and spoken-word performances as part of this year's FringeArts Festival.

The exhibit "One Year" will be shown at the Rotunda, 4014 Walnut St., this weekend, and from Thursday to Sept. 15, and Sept. 19 and 20.

The performances, also at the Rotunda, will be presented at 6:30 p.m. Saturday and on Sept. 21.

Both are free. For more information, call Janice Hayes-Cha, 617-515-7897.


Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com or @dribbenonphilly.

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