COLUMBIA — A large room in Orr Street Studios is tucked in the back corner, hidden by a white, sliding barn door. The walls are bare, off-white cinder blocks; the ceiling has wooden beams. Tin domes cover rows of 60-watt bulbs. The only hint that this room will soon be filled is a large circle of red plush chairs. The only hint of the art to come is the lone bronze tower on a table.
About 115 women, for the most part strangers, met for "Women with Wings," a nonprofit art project during which, over seven sessions from Oct. 10 to 13, participants shared their life experiences with one another.
***"I remember being a single mother, not by choice, but it just happened that way. I remember taking my children out to restaurants. I have five of them. And I wanted them to experience life in a restaurant. I think we were at Denny's one time and my youngest son — I think he was about 3 — and we had just ordered something. He got broccoli on his plate, and I remember him saying, 'Mom, I didn't order trees.' That was my memory of him. A year later, he passed away from sickle-cell anemia." — Carmela
"Women with Wings" was created by artist Lorri Acott-Fowler in Fort Collins, Colo., while she was working on a proposal to create towers and sculptures for the "Walk of Heroines," an event in Portland, Ore., that celebrates the artistic expressions of women.
Then a high school art teacher, Acott-Fowler was working on the towers in her art room with the help of two students. They were having so much fun that Acott-Fowler told them that if she received the funding for the project, the girls should continue to help her. One student, in the midst of stamping symbols on damp clay, said, "Mrs. Fowler, we should do it anyway."
Acott-Fowler was rejected for the "Walk of Heroines" project, but she followed her young assistant's advice and did it anyway. "Women with Wings" was created.
***"My mom was a single mom who never intended on being a single mom. So, we would go to the pool and my brothers and sisters would be swimming in the deep end. And she would be trying to read a novel. And we would play a game where I would say, 'What do you want from the bottom of the sea?' She would reply, 'I want pearls from the bottom of the sea.' And I would swim down and come up with nothing and say, 'Here are your pearls from the bottom of the sea, and what else do you want?' So we would go through rubies, and we would go through everything. She never got to read. But you know, it never mattered. What it means to me now is that she accepted that much of her life was not fact, it was imagination. A lot of what she gave me, she gave me through wishes. 'I wish I could do this for you.' It didn't matter that she couldn't do it in three dimensions. ... I can still feel the sun and the water." —Elaine Johnson
The driving idea behind "Women with Wings" is to empower women by incorporating their experiences into creative expression. Acott-Fowler recruited her best friend, Nan Larsen, and some of the strongest women she knew to organize the project and propel it forward. In Colorado, the project included 400 women in the creation of 32 towers. Columbia's "Women with Wings" was the first time the project took place outside Colorado.
"Women tend to weave their lives together, and so part of what we are doing here is weaving our stories together," Acott-Fowler said in explaining the process during one of the sessions. "Then, when we use clay, we will leave those marks together that tell our stories." In all, more than 100 women participated in the Columbia sessions.
"Women with Wings" was brought to the community after downtown gallery owner Jennifer Perlow saw Acott-Fowler's work in Aspen, Colo. In calling Acott-Fowler to see if she would like to do an art show at her gallery, Perlow heard about the project. She told some of her friends, and a local effort was under way. Sharon Ginsberg, Christina George, Jennifer Larmie, Michele Spry and Perlow worked for a year and a half, raising $8,000 toward the cost, to bring "Women with Wings" to Columbia.
***"My husband passed away in 2003. We used to love the beach. I decided I should journal. I got this Maya Angelou journal and on the cover it said, 'I dreamt we walked along the beach, we made small talk together.' When I woke up in the morning, I had sand and a seashell in my pocket. I felt that my husband was reaching out to me." — Darlene Huff
A room full of strangers can be intimidating, but as Acott-Fowler met with the first group of the four-day event, she flashed a bright smile and eased the apprehension in the room. After a quick run-through of what they were about to experience, Acott-Fowler began to share her own memory. Each woman shared a memory, as well as repeating those of the previous two women.
"Our stories overlap, and we take the stories of our lives and overlap them in the same way," Acott-Fowler told the group. "So if we had a tapestry and did not overlap the thread, would it be beautiful?"
The next step was creating the art that represents their stories. The women moved over to fold-out tables to press their trinkets, stamps and other objects into the clay to make an impression. Later, Acott-Fowler took the slabs of clay back to Colorado, recasting them into towers and glazing them in bronze.
***"Phi Beta Kappa pin: It meant so much to my father. My husband just bought me a new one. My father only went to the eighth grade and so somehow he learned about Phi Beta Kappa. I don't know if he fully understood what it was, but he must have because when I went to college — I was the first female — he said, 'I would really like you to get it.' I had no idea what it was myself until senior year when I got this invitation. I thought, this is what he wanted and mentioned all along. The minute I got my pin, it was symbolic for me to wear. My father wore it as a tie pin, and when he died, my mother asked me if he could wear it. So my father was buried with it. My father read and read and read, and he was just as educated as any person that I ever knew." — Anne Deaton
The only piece of art that Acott-Fowler sculpts herself are the winged sculptures placed on top of every tower. The sculptures lack perfection and proportion; rather, they are full of cracks and imperfections, and they have long legs and, of course, wings.
For Acott-Fowler, the long legs represent women rising above. The cracks are a reminder that all women have cracks within themselves and that women should be gentle with one another. The wings are for women to be who they want to be. Acott-Fowler's conviction is that some women forget they have wings, and this project is to remind them who they are and how to find their own wings.
"This is like letting your hair down," participant Mary Ginsburg said.
"It is like having a massage," another participant, Mary Austin, said. "I know when I get back to work, everything is going be crazy again."
At the close of each session, Acott-Fowler brought the women back together. The clay, once plain and bare, was now full of impressions edge to edge. Elaine Johnson, trying to sum up her feelings about the project, said, "A continuum from feeling into word, from spoken word back into the abstract thing."