Windows between pain and healing

When a victim’s pain is too heavy to articulate, art can draw out the trauma and leave behind a legacy of healing strength. Malibu women who have suffered the pain of domestic violence or sexual assault will have the opportunity to explore this idea firsthand through a program called “Art for Healing,” sponsored by the women’s advocacy nonprofit, A Window Between Worlds.

The new workshop for women in Malibu and the Pacific Palisades, which begins meeting Thurs., Jan. 24, will “provide a safe place for women who have been abused to allow their thoughts to go to these amazing, healing places” through artistic expression they might not know they possess, according to former Malibu resident and “Windows” volunteer Gretchen Hays.

“I’ve been able to watch how some women who are completely broken come into these workshops and simply transform,” Hays said. “The Windows staff is so well trained, they know how to draw out the fear and shame and it’s put into the art. Things come out you don’t expect.”


A Window Between Worlds was launched 22 years ago by Cathy Salser, herself an abuse survivor, and has since provided artistic expression workshops for more than 74,000 battered women and children across the country in crisis shelters, safe houses and outreach centers. She said that frequently it is very difficult for domestic abuse or sexual assault survivors (she prefers that term to “victims”) to come forward and talk freely about what happened to them. 

“Fifty-three percent of women leaving abusive relationships feel they are themselves to blame,” Salser said. “Even when you’ve left, you still feel threatened and somehow shameful. We help women who have been physically abused, but the verbal and emotional abuse is what hurts the most and lasts the longest.” 

Salser had always been interested in art. But she grew up in a Pacific Palisades household with tremendous violence between her parents and it left a mark. She said art classes gave her a safety zone where she could listen to her heart, and became aware of the healing that evolved from pouring her emotions into painting and sculpture. She decided to try outreach. 

“I thought I would just visit some women’s shelters during the summer and see what happened,” Salser said. “It just grew and grew. I trained other volunteers in how to empower women who didn’t know anything about art and we developed workshops for collages, watercolors, clay, all kinds of mediums. And we watched these women change.” 

Eventually, they began to include children who had watched their mothers be beaten up by their fathers and found similarly healing responses. Hays said one boy wrote on the back of a drawing, “My anger is no longer in my heart, it’s on the paper.” 

Their successes have been startling. Cynthia Maldonado is a domestic abuse survivor and ongoing participant in Windows. For years she lived in a violent relationship with a man so controlling he would monitor the mileage on her car and threaten her if it seemed she had driven beyond her usual route. Finally, he beat her so badly, she lost seven-month-old twins she was carrying–all witnessed by her two daughters. 

“One day, I just said to my daughters, take whatever you want with you now, because we are leaving and never coming back,” Maldonado said. “My oldest daughter just said, ‘I don’t need to take anything if I have you, Mom.’” 

Maldonado left behind car, jewelry and clothes and took her daughters to a shelter in another city where she could not be traced. Shortly thereafter, she was urged to attend a Windows workshop by her counselor. She resisted, thinking she was “bad” at art and didn’t see how it could help. 

“Finally, I went and then I didn’t want to leave,” Maldonado said. “It just brought out so many emotions! Now, I paint or draw every day.” 

She also got her daughter involved in Windows’ art projects, who eventually felt so much stronger, the youngster wrapped two dolls in a blanket and ceremoniously buried them–and the memory of her trauma. 

Today, Maldonado has her own home and works at a continuation high school teaching childcare to teen mothers. She keeps a careful eye out for young girls who show up with “that look” and urges them to leave abusive relationships and try healing through Windows. 

The artwork that comes from the workshops has also been noteworthy. One exhibit, titled “Pearls of Wisdom,” and created by artist Kim Abeles in collaboration with Windows and 800 survivors of domestic violence, has been presented at the Skirball Cultural Center and the Santa Monica Art Center. 

“Our workshops are completely confidential and held at a safe, secret place,” Salser said. “Women who are interested only need to email us. Even if the abuse occurred long ago, this will give them a window to a safe place to honor themselves and heal.” 

To find out more about the Windows Between Worlds art workshops beginning Jan. 24, email Pam at or call 310.396.0317. 

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