A textile artist, painter, weaver and art educator, Bryana Bibbs has used art as an outlet for her own experience with domestic violence.
Six months after her relationship ended, Ms. Bibbs quit her retail job. She wanted to become a full-time artist again, but then, COVID-19 intervened.
After waiting a few months, she began leading in-person weaving workshops in September of 2020 for domestic violence victims and survivors in Chicago, Oak Park and Evanston. When she began, she realized that many of those attending were still in abusive relationships. Her past experiences allowed her to gain the trust of participants.
Ms. Bibbs studied weaving at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating in 2014. She fell in love with the repetition and relaxation it offers, realizing that by offering a conversational safe space, victims and survivors could gather and use weaving as an outlet and share experiences by relating to one another. And, during COVID-19, it offered an escape to victims who may be spending more time with their abuser due to isolation and social distancing.
Carol Gall, the executive director at Sarah’s Inn in Forest Park, said that challenges for domestic violence victims only increased during the pandemic, given the barriers to resources. As a provider of services and support to victims and survivors of domestic violence in Chicago and West Cook County, she saw this need first-hand.
“It [COVID-19] created very unique challenges for victims of domestic violence and their families,” Ms. Gall said.
During the months of isolation, clients wanted to touch base more than ever. Having lost their escapes and outlets to access normal support due to needed social distancing and isolation, those who saw representatives once a week wanted to move to twice a week.
At the YWCA in Evanston, Hillary Douin, the director of the domestic violence shelter, has also seen similar trends in the area.
The YWCA served fewer victims and survivors at the peak of COVID-19. They built a new shelter but could not use it, but they expect to serve more people with the increased capacity as COVID-19 cases decline. They rely on victims and survivors finding their services through word of mouth and advertisements in churches or other community spaces.
Calls for legal services from victims were higher, although Ms. Douin also noticed victims reaching out less during the shelter-in-place in Evanston. She is hopeful that virtual options offered during the pandemic will continue to increase accessibility for victims in Evanston.
“They didn’t have privacy or safety to reach out to us for support or the freedom to come in and see us,” Ms. Douin said. “It was really concerning because we know domestic violence increased during the pandemic.”
The safety of participants is Ms. Bibbs first priority. After sharing stories with the participants, she has learned that many are still in violent relationships. “They are still living with their abusers, so one of the things I am trying to navigate is how to make resources readily available to them,” she said.
Participants use 13 inch by 13 inch cardboard looms, so the free workshops remain accessible and approachable for first-time weavers. Sometimes they use personal objects or materials for the art, but Ms. Bibbs provides materials as well.
Each organization she partners with emphasizes the safety of guests and anonymity. Ms. Bibbs doesn’t hand out brochures or any physical items that may trace back to the workshop and alert the abuser.
In her own experience with abuse, she often felt alone, which inspired the name for her weaving workshops, ‘The We Were Never Alone Project’. She has received overwhelming support from participants, some even staying in touch and sending her holiday cards.
“I haven’t had a workshop yet where people did not feel comfortable to talk,” Ms. Bibbs said. “I think it is because I am not an outsider in this situation. It is different when someone is leading it and they don’t understand where you’re coming from – because I have been through [domestic violence] myself, it is easier for people who attend to express themselves.”
In August there will be an exhibition at Open Studio Project’s Gallery 901 in Evanston to showcase the work of weavers over the past year. The exhibition will be titled “Woven Stories” and will be open for guests August 7-31, with an opening reception on August 7 from 3 to 5 p.m.
On Saturday, June 26th, there will be a workshop from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Open Studio Project. Spots are still available and those interested can sign up here. Another workshop is being offered at Oliva Gallery in Chicago on July 11, 2. to 6 p.m. To find upcoming workshops, follow this link.
If you are experiencing domestic violence in Evanston please call the YWCA’s 24-hour toll-free crisis line at 877-718-1868.