Art therapy provides healing for North Texas survivors of human trafficking

She called her painting, a vision of a woman fleeing a cage, Freedom. Three months after being rescued from human trafficking, she still felt anything but free.

“I had drawn a woman in a white dress, signifying purity, floating up from a cage. At the bottom of the cage were black-and-white photos of syringes and very unhappy people crying and sad. She was going upwards, headed toward an array of different humans, colorful and smiling and happy.”

The survivor, who requested anonymity to preserve her safety, had joined other survivors for an artists’ workshop in 2019 at the now-closed Psychedelic Robot Immersive Art Experience at the Crescent.

With the help of the artists, she started to paint.

“The coolest part was being able to take my story, take this part of me that had been shut off, the creative part, and turn it back on. When I was in ‘the game’, I was in fight-or-flight mode, with no ability to do anything else. I realized I can take my own ideas and birth something beautiful with them,” she said.

An organization called Beauty for Freedom helped survivors of human trafficking express themselves creatively through artwork.
An organization called Beauty for Freedom helped survivors of human trafficking express themselves creatively through artwork.(Lawrence Jenkins / Special Contributor)

The artists’ workshop was sponsored by Beauty for Freedom, an international organization with Texas roots, with a mission to empower and teach artistic and other skills to survivors of human trafficking. The organization partnered with three other North Texas agencies, Traffick911, Unbound North Texas and Valiant Hearts, with the goal of eventually exhibiting the art created from the participants.

But that plan got sidelined during the pandemic.

In September, the organizers revived the project and realized the vision of an exhibition and sale at a show titled “The Art of Freedom” at The Gallery at Legacy West in Plano.

“Our purpose is to use art as a tool to heal, to show these survivors they are amazing at whatever they choose to do in life,” said Monica Watkins, a native Texan and co-founder and CEO of Beauty for Freedom.

Monica Watkins (center), co-founder of Beauty for Freedom, visited the  Dominican Republic on a mission trip. (Courtesy of Monica Watkins)
Monica Watkins (center), co-founder of Beauty for Freedom, visited the Dominican Republic on a mission trip. (Courtesy of Monica Watkins)

Since the organization’s founding in 2014, it has provided services to more than 3,500 survivors of human trafficking. Its work has included international missions to Ghana, India, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cambodia, as well as publishing two books of photography from survivors.

“Through skills and training, we want to shift the narrative from survivors being survivors to published and exhibited global artists. For them to change their own personal narratives, what better way to do that than with art and music, photography, fashion and design?” Watkins said.

The recent exhibition in Plano was curated by Shannon McAnally and Travis McCann, a couple and artists whose own works were displayed along with the survivor art.

Travis McCann and Shannon McAnally curated the recent exhibition in Plano. Their own works were displayed along with art by survivors of human trafficking.
Travis McCann and Shannon McAnally curated the recent exhibition in Plano. Their own works were displayed along with art by survivors of human trafficking.(Lawrence Jenkins / Special Contributor)

McAnally said that seeing the survivors’ art professionally framed and displayed along with that of more experienced artists was gratifying. “It’s beautiful to see all this effort and time pay off, and directly affect them and change them in a positive way,” she said.

McCann said he appreciated watching the process in the original workshop and then seeing the growth in the survivors two years later.

“Art can be intimidating, especially creating in front of other people,” said McCann, who participated in the Ghana mission for Beauty for Freedom in 2017. “You’ll see people being very timid at first, and as you’re sitting there creating with them, they become visibly more open and comfortable, escaping in the art they are creating.”

The couple are working toward a spring 2022 opening of Gallery DeFi, a 17,000-square-foot space near Trinity Groves. Among their goals is to provide an immersive art exhibition and gallery space, to partner with local charities and to continue the art therapy programs with Beauty for Freedom.

This work, called "Freedom," was created during Beauty for Freedom's artists' workshop and displayed at a Plano gallery.
This work, called “Freedom,” was created during Beauty for Freedom’s artists’ workshop and displayed at a Plano gallery.(Lawrence Jenkins / Special Contributor)

For the creator of the Freedom painting, the experience was “very humbling and very grounding.” She didn’t mind the delay between creating and exhibiting her art.

“After two years of healing and restoration, it was a very emotional experience when I saw it again. I remember the exact frame of mind and the thoughts I was thinking when I was making this,” said the survivor, a woman in her mid-20s who was involved in trafficking involving drugs and prostitution.

She participated in an extensive emotional and healing process through a safe house, and when her case manager thought she was ready, she began the process of reintegration into society.

“I had charges and records, and it was an extremely difficult time reintegrating. I couldn’t get a job, cellphone or bank account, my credit was so bad. It was hard to clear my name as a functioning human in society. After the two years, I have successfully done that. I’ve been empowered by the people around me.”

She has participated in leadership positions for the organization that rescued her, is working full-time and is pursuing an associate’s degree with a goal of earning a doctorate in psychology. And recently, she sold her first painting.

“When I was able to cultivate my story in the form of art, it unlocked a part of me that trickled down and carried into so many aspects of my life. I began to think in terms of not seeing everything as black or white, but things starting to turn gray,” she said.

Or perhaps as colorful as the faces she captured in her painting, smiling and providing hope for a young woman reaching for the clouds.

How to help

For information on Beauty for Freedom and how you can get involved, visit beautyforfreedom.org

“The Art of Freedom” continues online through Dec. 5. Proceeds from the art auction will help support the survivors directly along with Beauty for Freedom, Traffick911, Unbound North Texas and Valiant Hearts. Find the artwork at artsy.net (search for “Beauty for Freedom”).

Robert G. Mull

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