Artist’s workshop utilizes art’s transformative power to heal

San Francisco artist, Cynthia Tom preparing for an 'Artists' Talk' meeting via Zoom this past Saturday, June 20. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Tom

What had been simply an art project for an ‘artists in residence’ program in 2009 at San Francisco’s de Young Museum has now blossomed into something profoundly transformative as “A Place of Her Own ™” workshop brings art and healing together.

Founded 10 years ago, artist and director Cynthia Tom has helped “A Place of Her Own,” establish, grow and reach levels of accomplishment unfathomable. On June 20, seven artists met via Zoom to present an “Artists’ Talk” sharing the empowering work that ‘A Place of Her Own’ has provided for women over the years.

The seven artists who gathered for the talk that Saturday afternoon were: Patricia Z, Reyna D, Norma C, Katie Q, Emily Y, Janet K, and Julie A. Each shared their personal journey stories, their art statements and how ‘A Place of Her Own’ has helped them heal and transform their lives.

Taking a few moments to look back before the seven women each expressed their life-stories, Cynthia wanted to mention. “When I began the very first workshop back in 2009, the focus was about Asian women and culture,” Cynthia said.

“As I asked the attendees in 2009 to imagine a place of their own, I discovered that mounds of trauma blocked them back from exploring what they wanted for their lives. Many women of color struggle with self-loathing, non-acceptance and self-doubt from trauma stemming from ancestral familial wounding due to historical and present-day colonization.”

For women to progress, she realizes, “we need to transform the trauma to move forward,” Cynthia added. To Cynthia’s amazement what she was seeking for initially for her Asian sisters, over a decade ago, is actually a transformational process for all women and humanity.

“Artist’s Talk” was facilitated by Cynthia Tom and members of the Asian Woman Artists Association. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Tom.

Gradually, as she addressed issues Asian women face, things like silencing, shaming, exclusion, racism, etc. Cynthia incorporated art and artistic expression as a culturally acceptable catalyst for change.

Some of that trauma as Cynthia noted is passed down, through relatives-ancestors. It was also over a two decades ago when she began to uncover her own painful family history of the Chinese immigrants that were detained at Angel Island.

Cynthia’s grandmother Hom Shee Mock was among the thousands of immigrants detained at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, during the early part of the 20th Century. Often referred to as the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island treated the Chinese, specifically, as non-humans. There are many sad stories of injustice, degradation, and exploitation.

As part of Bay Cruise excursions that tourists have taken around the Bay for decades, Angel Island became a recreation and picnic destination. It has only been in the last 20 years or so that the full extent of what Angel Island was has come into focus.

It was while she was working on an art installation for Angel Island that Cynthia uncovered an even more shocking and painful but all too common fact. “My grandmother was sold by her village to come to America as a ‘wife’/ “servant”. She suffered tremendous indignities. Relatives here in California whose ancestor bought my grandmother and her children viewed them as nothing. In today’s terms this is what we now call ‘human trafficking’ and it is still going on today,” Cynthia said.

Part of the healing work that “A Place of Her Own” does is to acknowledge the past, and our family’s generations of suffering. What was happening in your root country when you family left? Understanding their lives and what they had to cope with may explain a dysfunctional pattern in your life. By participating in other art exhibitions like the “Hungry Ghosts” and altars for “Día de los Muertos” celebrations in San Francisco’s SOMArts Cultural Center, Cynthia sees similarities across all cultures.

It is from these discoveries and realizations that she continues producing ‘A PLACE OF HER OWN’ workshops and exhibitions and opened it up to women of all backgrounds not only the Asian community.  It’s no surprise to Cynthia that just days before she and the seven women artists gathered via Zoom that long-standing statues and monuments were toppled down in Golden Gate Park.

“That’s practically right there at the de Young Museum where through the ‘artists in residence program’ ‘A Place of Her Own’ very first workshop began, over a decade ago,” she said.

All the turmoil that has been happening lately with the protest rallies, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and the dismantling of monuments not only here in San Francisco, but worldwide, represent a major shift.

“A lot of American life and culture, said Cynthia are systemically embedded forms of colonization; it has been about the marginalization, invalidation and genocide of the indigenous-native peoples that have been here all along. Even the Ohlone, well-known indigenous people in this area and not recognized by California. Why not?”

“’A Place of Her Own’ is about acknowledging and fostering a ‘sacred space,’ she said. In doing this, participants in the workshop present and acknowledge, not only the past and their inner child,but their present and future,” added Cynthia.

“It is a space of non-judgment, both as a physical space and a spiritual one,” she continued. As each of the seven women artists told their story, issues of being ignored, invalidated or entanglement in a harmful duality that occurred in their childhood and continues to follow them today. It was due to long standing familial patterns of trauma that leads to little or no self-esteem. Often this pattern draws women into situations of abuse, neglect or lack of self-confidence.

Cynthia views connection to ‘Mother Earth’, staying grounded as vital to part of the healing process. “Dispelling negative energy is crucial,” she said.

The toppling and dismantling of monuments is a rewrite of history, an important step to stop glorifying, romanticizing and deifying the colonizers’ history and claim the true history for the indigenous peoples that are still here being crushed.

As news reports showed video clips of the fall of the statue of Junipero Serra in Golden Gate Park, with its imposing Christian cross, in an odd sort of serendipity, it sent out a message.

It signified what all the women who have participated in the workshop over the years have done. They have worked to awaken to the colonizing and conditioning patterns they were taught without question. To comprehend, to claim their rights and heal into an affirming and fulfilling, authentically powerful life. To learn more about “A Place of Her Own” and the work of artist Cynthia Tom, visit the Cynthia Tom web site.