I know you have heard the oft repeated story about how a butterfly flapping its wings in Tahiti can stir change in Siberia. We hear it and know vaguely what is being said but like all worldy things, personal experiences are what bring deep intimate understanding to such notions. These twelve Women Activists: Natalia Estemirova, Malalai Joya, Chouchou Namegabe, Rebecca Gomperts, The Zapatista Women, Wangari Maathai, Aung San Suu Kyi, Razan Ghazzawi, Frances Crowe, Shireen Issawi, Yvonne Margarula and Berta Cáceres have brought clarity to the concept of such traveling and profoundly awakening winds.
Upon completion of my twelfth and final portrait a wise friend concluded that it was time to reflect on the nine years of Roots To Resistance adventures and get those reflections down in writing, to which I promptly thought- Isn’t there something I need to be painting?
Reflecting means a pause from painting, a pause from the busy, buzzing brain of mine that wants to be on a 24/7 loop of transforming the inside stuff into tangible seen objects called Art. The act of creating for me has been as magical as the dreams of the alchemists in their search to transform base metals into Gold and elixirs of truth. I remain enchanted by this gift that each Human has for making and creating, amazed that a subtle notion or emotion can pass from heart to brain to paper in an instant, a magical process to be sure and I experience it that way every time.
The discovery of Art has been the primary gift given to me in this lifetime, a profound gift for someone with a tendency toward fear and anxious worrying. I was the child who stayed up at night pondering how I would perish the following day. Would it be from a nail shot out of the lawnmower like I saw on Rescue 911 or a kidnapping by the ding dong cart as I had heard happened in the Midwest? Perhaps I would simply be whisked away by orange skinned big eyed aliens as my odd childhood friend claimed to foresee. These strange ever present death fears and ponderings followed me into adulthood and Art School where I picked up the most useful tools I have ever been given; making, painting, drawing and most importantly a concept I have coined as Art Alchemy. This being the process of churning Art out of one’s inner workings, tapping in and making pathways that express the inner as outer. This was Life altering and it changed the trajectory of my path and infused it with meaning, purpose and medicine for my overactive worrying insides!
I have never stopped creating Art from that moment on. I painted my fears and my loves, my hikes, my imaginings and my questions. Many elements were added along the way and in my late twenties nature and all things creature stormed into my life and Art after a four month cross country camping adventure. By my mid thirties the influence of Social Justice was finding me and my perspectives grew much wider to encompassed the Earth as a whole. I felt I needed to be more informed and connected to People and Places on the Planet, who and where they were physically on the Globe. I wanted to be able to point to a map and say here is where Sri Lanka is and these are the People who are living there. I embarked on my first large sustained project called, Invisible Earth Our Human Family, which consisted of 234 painted Human faces, one from every country and territory in the World. These faces were then connected to the places that they called home by thousands of personal letters sent from People around the World. The project was greatly received and appreciated, exhibited widely in Schools and Universities, and personally shifted my perspective outward and carried me up the path toward new places. Art was no longer just used as a personal instrument, it could now be used as a tool for addressing things outside of myself.
With passing years the Art got bigger, more detailed and more diverse. There were painted rock cars driven by eggplants and luna moths, there were paintings on rusty metal dragged from old broken down amusement parks. There were devils, beckoning skeletons and fears but more and more there were snails and efts and fiddleheads. I was walking the woods each day and happily painting all of this quietly alone in my studio when I heard a news story in 2009 about a Woman named Natalia Estemirova…..
It is certain that the seeds of the Roots To Resistance project were planted with that first news story. That was the summer that I learned about Natalia Estemirova. That summer Natalia was abducted from her home in Chechnya and murdered because she raised her voice to speak truths about the horrors being perpetrated on her Community and because she refused to be silent when threatened by those perpetrators. I had never heard of Natalia Estemirova before, I didn’t know that she was a Human Rights Journalist who had tirelessly served as a voice for the silenced, war torn, and poor Communities of Chechnya. I had heard stories before about heroes and Activists but for some reason I was more profoundly moved by her story than any other I had ever heard. Natalia Estemirova most certainly was the far away Butterfly wing flapping that so magically guided this project into being. When I started painting her portrait I had no plans for 11 other Portraits, it was just Natalia that I wanted to paint back to life, and the act of the painting was a holy one that has never quite been duplicated in any of the portraits that came after. But came they did and from Natalia was born a focus and a question: Who else is doing such work on the Planet? The answer, thousands.
For those who have followed this adventure, you know that Roots To Resistance is a project focused on 12 Women Activists doing profoundly important Justice work on this Planet. With Natalia I had one Portrait and was aiming to do 11 others. A collaboration of friends and mentors gathered to help me choose 11 Women, Women like Natalia, that were still alive and doing Earthshaking, often extremely risky work in Communities across the Globe. What I did not know then was that this list would be a revolving one, that as 9 years unfolded there would be new Women emerging and exploding onto the scene as the World raveled and unraveled. In this way I decided to prioritize what was happening in this very moment, to draw attention and protection to those alive and risking so much in these times. Thus some truly amazing Women, Maria Gunnoe, Parvin Ardalan, Ditah Indah Sari and the one and only Vandana Shiva sacrificed their places for Palestinian prisoner Shireen Issawi, Syrian Journalist Razan Ghazzawi, Local peace Activist Frances Crowe and the fallen Honduran Activist Berta Cáceres who stepped into the spot of what was to be my final portrait, Vandana Shiva. I feel certain Vandana has happily stepped aside and that the final 12 are just as they should be, symbolic of the issues, challenges and voices of Resistance we are witnessing in these times. Thousands of brilliant, earthshaking Women did not make their way into this small handful of vitally important change makers and I hope you will go out and find them.
The advice to take some pause for reflections on this project has been wise because I have the urge to storm through transitions and endings. I also have the habit that many of us have for discounting and quieting, or at the very least being uncomfortable with, naming our achievements. This has been a very long campaign, one that has been dependent on the support of others, one that has required more asking for help and more touting of achievements than I could ever have imagined. Having to ask for so much support has been uncomfortable, awkward, sometimes embarrassing, most certainly my biggest challenge and almost caused me to breeze by the completion of this project without naming or celebrating it. I do not want to breeze by nine years of passionate work or the amazing achievements of these twelve Women, so thank you Tuti Scott for the reminder to pause and for always being there to fit me with the big girl shoes and encouraging me to wobble forward in them!
As long as we are talking challenges and questioning, there is also the question of whether or how a western, seemingly white Woman, takes on the paintings of 12 Women Activists of the World. Most of whom, 9 to be exact, are Women of Color. For the record I am actually not officially white, I am half Puerto Rican, a mixed raced Latina I suppose, that did not grow up in contact with this part of my heritage and thus never felt the right to claim it officially and I am still very careful about doing so. The fact Is that I was adopted and raised by a white Family, have always presented as white, have always benefited from white privilege and have just barely scratched the surface of figuring out where my original Roots lead me. So the question of how this Woman from Western Massachusetts paints Indigenous Australian Yvonne Margarula and Palestinian Prisoner Shireen Issawi remains. I suppose the answer is that I have tried to approach this project with humility, openness to the questioning and always working hard to avoid defensiveness in the face of questions about taking on this project. Most importantly I have always sought to partner with the Women I am painting vs simply portraying, fetishizing or iconizing them and always letting their voices and ideas lead the way. I am certain mistakes on this long journey have been made given that my perspective is often that of an outsider but I have striven to make the emotional impact of the Art and the power of the Women’s voices stand above all else.
Reflecting on the entirety of the Roots To Resistance project is a very large and overwhelming task which naturally starts with the twelve painted Portraits. These are the imposing, larger than life, visual hearts of the project, the embodiments of the Women themselves and each contains and captures the stories and narratives of the Roots Women in great and dizzying detail. The portraits however, cannot travel with ease to places near and far and for that purpose we created the Global Postcards Campaigns. These campaigns could carry the Women’s voices and resistance cries to all corners of the Planet, to echo and amplify the words and work of each of the twelve Women Activists. In some cases the Women themselves or Organizations they worked with crafted the postcard campaigns. We then sent those campaigns through partnerships with International Organizations that helped us send and disperse over 25,000 Postcards into Communities around the Globe. We sent Postcards to the UN asking for Justice and inclusion for Burma’s Indigenous and displaced Peoples, we sent them to demand truth about the murder of Natalia Estemirova and to bring the heart of Wangari Maathai and her Freedom Forests to inspire an entire Planet. In our final campaign we refused Islamaphobia by sending our “Standing with Muslim Neighbors” postcards to the trump tower in NYC from countries around the World. The Portraits may have been the home base of this project but the Postcards were the megaphone.
Creating the 12 portraits and postcard campaigns was an enormous undertaking and sometimes I forget that there was so much more! Within each of the twelve campaigns there was laser focus for the issues and places these Women were working. If it was Malalai Joya, I was all things Afghanistan, its History, her History, her brave story, her accomplishments, and in her case a friendship, as we have spent time together in the US on many occasions and continue checking in and working together when she returns to Afghanistan. It was she in many ways that brought local Massachusetts Peace Activist Frances Crowe and I together as we worked side by side on many campaigns to raise money for Malalai and the people of Afghanistan. Eventually I would paint Frances Crowe as well and we would craft a Postcard Campaign calling for an end to all Nuclear weapons. These postcards would be carried by Monks and Peace marchers from Western Massachusetts to Washington DC. in 2015. This is how it worked, one step would often seamlessly lead to another with each of the 12 campaigns, often there would be a pause to help raise money for an Afghan Woman to attend medical school or to raise funds to support refugee groups in Syria and Palestine. Eventually though I would have to leave the intense focus of Malalai’s World or Frances Crowes work for a new campaign and in that way my work is very different than the sustained lifetime of commitment that all of these Women have dedicated themselves to. In the end my chosen place is the Art and I have only just dipped my toes into the issues these Roots Women have faced down for decades.
So the 12 Portraits are painted and the postcards continue to find their way over the lands and seas and the work is not done. A full circling is needed and for that I need to raise funds from these 12 larger than life avatars, some of the most magical, beautiful, fierce and transformative Activists on the Planet. Roots To Resistance will be raising funds from the sale of these Portraits, with 60% of what is raised landing directly in the hands of these Women or in the places they have designated. In doing this we can close the circle and put resources in the hands of those who know how to turn them into all things good. Thus for now my reflecting comes to a close and the work of bringing this project into a full landing is about to begin, it will be the hardest work I have embarked upon in these nine years.
There are not enough words of thanks and Gratitude to heap on my Family, Friends and Mentors. You have all contributed so much to this project, you have showed up at every event and pitched in with every fundraiser, so many of you leapt in at just the right moment, with just the right thing to offer to ensure that this project reached its potential. Thank you truly from the bottom of this indebted heart.
So much love and gratitude to all of you and to the twelve Women of Roots.
Sincerely and In Solidarity, Denise A. Beaudet