by Sarah McGowan
Features & Photo Editor, The WIP
- USA -
Having just moved from New York City, the couple finds their new home confounding and yet liberating: despite its frenetic pace, sunny LA somehow seems less hostile than the Big Apple. Kim campaigned emphatically for the move. Feeling hedged in by New York’s cramped surroundings and aggressive, teeming populace, Kim longed to put space between herself and the place that held too many painful associations. Just as she always suspected, in LA she feels she can finally breathe again. As both seek to find their footing in a new place, they are grounded by their artistic passions and the unique projects they bring to their new home.
Recently relocated to Los Angeles, artists Kim Strouse and Joseph Michael Lopez are no strangers to the often aggressive nature of both “big city” life and life itself.
The Rita Project
When Kim was 24 and living in New York City, she lost her younger sister, Kristin Rita Strouse to suicide in 2001. Kristin was just 17 and a freshman in college. As an artist, Kim sought a creative environment in which to process her loss. When she couldn’t find one, the idea for the Rita Project blossomed. Kim was also very curious to see how others process such huge loss and she knew that in order to observe, she needed a sort of “lab”.
Sanskrit for “Truth”, the Rita Project became Kim’s way of containing her experience - a means to reconcile and transform her grief and myriad emotions into something manageable. Kim founded the non-profit, Rita Project, just one year later - a venture she considers to be a joint-project with her sister who was also an artist - and began programming in 2004. Kristin’s artwork is now Rita’s logo.
Kim has an almost ethereal quality about her until she starts talking and sharing her thoughts. Her eyes grow bright and spark to life when she’s excited by an idea – they reveal a creative intensity burning just below the surface. It’s also through her eyes that I can see the effects of her sister’s death, her struggle to find her own balance while managing bipolar disorder as well as her quest to achieve a peace beyond the pain and confusion she has known.As founder and executive director, Kim says, “Rita is currently the only art therapy program in the world that is doing what we’re doing. That’s why I really see this as a global movement. Rita could help so many people in so many communities.” Empathetic and sensitive, Kim oversees the project’s operations and guides all development. Her goal is to create a nurturing community that will give those on the edge of despair a sense of belonging.
Kim's ultimate goal is to see Rita implemented all over the world. And it’s a gap that needs to be filled. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 million people die by their own hand each year. With suicide rates in Asia and Eastern Europe steadily increasing, it’s easy to see how a program like Rita could someday be a global service. Having operated exclusively in New York since its inception, Kim recently expanded Rita into her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. In January 2008, Rita will open its next studio, in Los Angeles, California. Kim is especially excited about the new studio in LA because it means Rita is getting closer to being offered worldwide.Rita’s programs offer services to both those who have attempted or are at high risk for suicide and to those who have lost loved ones. At Rita’s community-based open studios, this mixed population of participants explores their feelings through art and the creative process. Rita also offers workshops in both high school and college settings, designed as part prevention and part art therapy.
While the studios are the gravitational center of Rita, its outreach through the workshops has proven highly successful. Tailored to the specific needs of each site, they offer a process that involves, as Kim says, “feeling, brainstorming and collage.” After taking emotional inventory, developing a creative vision and then implementing through collage, the workshops always conclude with an exhibition of participant work – a critical component that gives the artwork a chance to be seen and recognized. They are also an important step to fighting the stigma associated with suicide. Kim says the exhibitions are a joyous occasion, but also highly illuminating. At a school in Harlem, Kim’s team of art therapists and interns worked with students who had never been exposed to art therapy before. Her team helped identify a few students who were at high risk for suicide through their artwork, ones that the school counselor had missed with traditional talk therapy.
And now with the help of curriculum builders, Kim has overseen the development of six core curriculum lessons that correlate to specific coping skills (i.e. managing feelings, communicating in a relationship, etc.). Two years in the making, this curriculum will be piloted in LA this spring at Rita workshops.The Rita Project allows participants to find deeper meaning through the artistic process. Kim has fostered a unique environment where art therapy, talk therapy and support group intersect, all very informally. Defying those in the various professional communities where she did her research, Rita sets a new precedent in art therapy: populations that elsewhere are strictly segregated (by age or risk level) are combined. The participants and facilitators (a licensed art therapist and an intern) work side-by-side, sharing their experiences and exploring their emotions with art. The results are highly personal works that often unearth emotions and result in a sense of acceptance usually elusive in traditional therapy. Making this journey with others also reinforces a sense of community for people who often feel alienated by their pain. In sharing their creations, Rita’s participants offer a profoundly visceral glimpse into an inner world, one that speaks volumes on a subject that often leaves us speechless, if discussed at all.
As Kim continues to expand the project, she is meticulous in choosing each studio space. She now rents but hopes at some point to own each space so Rita participants can express themselves as freely as they want – including painting on the walls if the moment calls for it. But she sees the workshops as the part of the program that will expand most readily. Kim believes they are a vital tool for prevention and one that can easily be adopted and implemented worldwide.
As Kim prepares for the first open studio in Los Angeles, she acknowledges that the project is a big idea - much greater than either herself or Kristin. She has absolute faith that if the project is meant to evolve further, a greater force will ensure its longevity long after she’s moved onto to other creative endeavors.
Inspired by his unfettered curiosity and desire to understand the many complexities of life, Joseph has a dynamic vision that he expresses through his photographic work and projects. Joseph’s love for imagery initially developed out of his interest and education in film. He collaborated with venerable photographer, Bruce Weber, as a photo assistant and cinematographer on his documentary, the Chop Suey Club, a film that debuted to critical international acclaim in 2001. Gradually, Joseph gravitated more towards photography, but his photography is well informed by his film background – vibrant storylines are pervasive throughout the body of his work. His images let you in just enough to make an emotional connection, but leave you wanting more. Through Joseph’s critical eye for light, form and composition, his work conveys alienation while simultaneously encapsulating intimate moments.In his Birth Write project, Joseph explores the controversial 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States. By photographing women he finds interesting on the street and documenting their words, Joseph brings together a range of authentic experiences that pepper the continuum of this highly polarized issue. But Joseph shows no signs of favoritism in his images. Complex by their very simplicity, his portraits reveal just enough of his subjects to be real, yet engender a mystique that plies the imagination with questions. Unpretentious, candid and poignant, his portraits are powerful in their ability to draw the viewer in closer, as if by a whisper.
Joseph conceived the project as a social portrait survey in response to his own questions about the role of lawmakers and the state in women’s reproductive issues. Motivated by South Dakota’s battle last year over reproductive rights (when Governor Mike Rounds signed the controversial Women’s Health and Human Life Protection Act that would have effectively banned abortion in the state), Joseph was fascinated by the public referendum that eventually overturned the legislation when the issue was brought to a vote. In contrast to New York’s enshrinement of legalized abortion in the state’s legislature by Governor Spitzer, Joseph began putting the project together.
“I started this project as an artistic interpretation - preserving a glimpse of how things are right now. Through the subjects’ images and their words [Birth Write] addresses Roe vs. Wade and the intentions to overturn [the legislation]. It addresses where this culture is going with us living in an open society.”
Joseph’s intention with Birth Write is, as he says, “to find a common ground.” It’s also about freedom of expression. “It’s not about categorization. There is no right or wrong answer.”
By taking a step back, Joseph manages to give the subjects just enough room to simply be. “The topic is really loaded so I set myself limits because there’s no need for me to impose.” Paired with their words, the images offer an intimate window into the minds and hearts of the women who have agreed to be documented for the project. Each vignette is powerfully charged – an honest call and response exchange that guilelessly opens a dialog on a long-held cultural taboo.
Joseph was met with a range of responses when he approached women in South Dakota and New York City. The political climate was so hot in South Dakota that most women he approached instantly had something to say. In contrast, in New York City, Joseph was met with reserve and suspicion. Women there were more cautious and wanted to know how the image would be used. But despite their hesitation, they too offered equally intimate pieces of themselves. Joseph is always grateful; he feels privileged to be given the chance to see inside these women’s experiences and document them, even if the exchange only lasts 15 minutes. As he says, “When you’re doing something you love and following your passion, the right people just seem to materialize.”
Joseph acknowledges that Birth Write will take years, if ever, to complete. In many ways, he feels he’s just gotten started – countless women throughout the country have their own stories to share if just given the chance. He plans to compile enough material for a book, one sure to offer a unique view of women’s inner thoughts. While the debate of abortion has swirled endlessly in political, legislative, theological and medical circles, it has yet to be addressed in something as accessible as a pictorial anthology.
In the meantime, Joseph can be found with his camera and notebook, combing the streets of Los Angeles for new subjects.
Both Kim and Joseph are drawn to the edges in life as evidenced by their projects. Whether the edge is between light and dark, clear and blurred, conscious and subconscious – both projects illuminate two controversial and taboo issues in modern American culture. The Rita Project and Birth Write draw on highly subjective, personal experiences, which in turn speak loudly to the collective unconscious of human emotion. And both projects are opening up conversations on suicide and abortion respectively, that these artists hope will help lead to an understanding of the complexities embodied in these emotional social issues. They are a dynamic and inspiring couple; Los Angeles is lucky to have them.
For more information on The Rita Project, visit the website for a list of studio locations and opportunities to participate. Birth Write can be seen on Joseph’s website, listed with his many projects.
About the Author
Sarah McGowan helped create The WIP as the founding Features & Photo Editor and is now a Contributing Editor based in Los Angeles. An avid traveler, photographer and writer, her work reveals a desire to empower the human voice, recognize the complexities of the human spirit and her dreams for a healthier global existence. Her background in social and juvenile justice allowed her the unique opportunity to educate thousands of teens in the San Diego urban area about social justice and how to become advocates for change. She is also the founder of P.A.I.N.T. (Public Art Involving Neighborhood Teens), a mural program that pairs vandalism convicted youth with adult mentors in an effort to transform destructive behaviors into pro-social expression.