The rattle of thousands of tiny pieces of glass pouring from buckets and Tupperware was the steady soundtrack in the basement of Courtland Place — a senior housing project in the Columbia City neighborhood — last Tuesday morning.
Well, that and the crooning of Barry White.
“It’s nice to see them cut loose,” laughs Abeba Gebrehiwet, a translator for the weekly Arts Expression Workshop as she looks out on a dozen women bobbing along to classic soul and sorting piles of jewel colored glass fragments. “And music helps.”
These women—ranging in age from mid-sixties to mid-nineties — are creating a 6-by-9-foot mural featuring their own silhouettes rendered in glass mosaic. The finished product will be permanently displayed in the lobby of their building. But this project—a collaboration between the Senior Housing Assistance Group (SHAG) and South East Effective Development (SEED) — is also helping senior women in the area find some common ground.
“The Rainier Valley has a really diverse population in general and this building is representative of that,” explains Alyza DelPan-Monley who helps run the weekly art classes. “We have three ladies that speak Cantonese and Mandarin, ladies that speak Tagalog, an Eritrean lady, a couple of white ladies and African-American ladies.”
But it hasn’t always been easy getting all of those ladies to talk to each other. In addition to language barriers (there are two translators that work with the group) DelPan-Monley says that differences in religion and some cultural tensions created a kind of “hesitancy toward really understanding each other” when the group originally formed back in January.
But as the mosaic grew, so did conversations around shared experiences related to aging, health and women’s rights.
“You learn about the traditions and everything — like marriage customs and how they treat women,” says 72-year-old Liti Anglo, who is originally from the Philippines and says she’s learned that many women — regardless of background — have experienced gender discrimination.
“Little by little the stories became more personal,” says teaching artist Mary Coss, who leads the group and initially conceived of the project as an opportunity to encourage connection and women’s empowerment. “People became more vulnerable and trusting.”
You can see that trust at work in the opening exercises of the session — when the group gathers to share stories and thoughts from the week before the glass gluing begins in earnest. Some women talk about health problems, others about the recent death of a resident. One woman’s description of being hit by her mother as a child spurs a powerful conversation about generational and cultural attitudes toward abuse.
Some of these conversations and stories have been recorded by Jack Straw Cultural Center and will be included as an audio installation that accompanies the mural.
“Art class helps us get used to seeing each other, gets us looking forward to seeing each other,” says Carmen Howard, who grew up near Courtland Place at the Yesler Terrace housing development. “It gets you outside of your house and doing something other than watching TV.”
And it’s more fun than watching TV.
Little piles of garnet, gold and emerald glass click through their fingers as murmuring conversations occasionally erupt in singing and laughter. The mural itself, which will be installed in the late summer or early fall, depicts a riotous crowd of figures, arms outstretched or encircling each other.
But there’s always room for one more.
At the beginning of the session a woman, dressed in a white dress and shawl traditional to Eritrea, wandered in looking skeptical. Her translator explained that she was “just checking it out” to see if she wanted to get involved. I wondered if she felt left out as she sat pushing the warm, coffee-scented air from her face with a paper plate and listening to her translator’s whispered explanations.
But just as I was leaving I noticed she’d taken a seat across from Howard and had begun quietly gluing a few small pieces of amethyst glass on a discreet corner of the mosaic.