Ana Leonard, small in stature with a shaved head, is a student, artist, and documentary photographer. Creating art centered around togetherness and gathering became difficult among a pandemic causing division and loneliness. Leonard began to experience this difficulty when it came time for her Senior Thesis Exhibition at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Laura Johnson answered the door with her goldendoodle, Willow, resting on her hip. She invited me into her home in historic St. Elmo, and took me into her studio. Each wall was filled with plans, pots waiting to be fired, and finished creations of her own design.
As soon as you set foot through the door, one’s senses are tested with a wild, colorful array of paintings and sculptures. After a few seconds, the soft jazz starts to reach your ears and by this time, Keeli Crewe, gallery director at Area 61 is probably excitedly showing you her new favorite piece.
“The revelation that exists within art is, to tell the truth. You have to be able to be expressive, to be able to project but also to be vulnerable. Good artists can’t be cagey and have walls up. Being vulnerable is the revolutionary heart of every art form, says Melissa.”
Melissa Miller is a professional dancer, choreographer, and teacher at the dance studio located in Chattanooga Tennessee named “Ballet Esprit”. Growing up, Miller played soccer for some time, however, women do not have their own soccer league in Europe. That is when she decided to partake in something that women could have as their own, so she became a dancer at the age of 11. Miller danced all through middle and high school and traveled back to the states to earn her degree in dancing. She then moved to New York where she danced professionally for 5 years. After having her daughter, she came to the south where her husband’s family is from, thus landing her at Ballet Esprit.
“I grew up in a very artistic family.., so I always knew that my path would be in arts in some way,” says Miller. “ I think the reason I connect the most with dance is that it is an all-encompassing experience; it takes your mind, spirit, and body. It is also a relational experience, it requires an ability to project and communicate with people,” says Melissa. Miller says, “ I try less to share a message, but to ask a question, as honestly, humbly and with as much humanity as I can.”
History reveals that dance has always been a form of protest. “Dance is the only form of art that is directly tied to our bodies and physicality. This is important because as women, we can protest with our bodies against the social norms of how we are supposed to move and how our bodies are supposed to look,” says Miller. The studio Ballet Espirit’s, next appearance will be The ALTER- Nut, their annual winter benefit. All proceeds go to their “ Hold Our Space SPOT Venue Covid-19 relief campaign”. The event will be held on December 5, 2020, at 5:30 P.M. at Lookout Lake, 3408 Elder Mt. Rd.
A massive wooden door waits to be opened as friends and participants gather around a fire burning in the alley way. Alice Waller, with her poodle Fin in hand, greets everyone warmly and opens the door to not a room, but to some place ethereal, some place where magic lives.
Hundreds of pink and white roses, eucalyptus and baby’s breath are entangled and bursting out of over five hundred body castings–a visual representation of sexual assault survivors and their journey through healing.
The name of the installation is a call to victory, as well as a call to action, “I Will Not Let Him Win in Death,” urging onlookers that the fight is not over and there is much more to be discovered and reclaimed beneath the surface.
“I wanted it to look overgrown,” Waller says, “as if it had been here for a really long time. People speaking out has been around as long as injustice has been around. It’s listening that is new.”
Alice Waller is a local Chattanooga artist and voice within the community, fighting for the liberation of female bodies.
Waller sits in the dead center, with her back to her creation and explains the origin story of how this intimate installation came to be.
“I wanted to do something that was an homage to how my body has experienced sexual trauma but then re-experience it through physical pain. So I started that during quarantine and then I asked my close friends if I could cast them,” Waller says.
Waller began this journey by casting the breasts of 200 women, for the 200 dollars that Jeffrey Epstein paid his victims to recruit other minors to be subject to sexual abuse. While originally, the installation was fueled by Epstein’s crimes, she says that she could never give Epstein that much credit.
On a post made from her Instagram, she says, “the installation is a part of my heart and a part of theirs.”
“Anytime something like Kavanuagh, or R. Kelly, or Weinstein comes up, you feel this universal groan of survivors — that I have to do something and so it felt really urgent that I had to involve other women and other survivors and make it something where, ‘this is what has made me feel empowered, here you try’ and it grew naturally. After that I hit 200 which was my original goal within 2 months and doubled it within the first month of viewings.”
As Waller looks towards the final viewings of her installation, she offers insight on moving forward in the healing process of being abused, “it was about feeling safe in my body again because I think what people don’t talk about with sexual trauma specifically is that everytime you see your own body — you’re revisiting the ways that it’s been abused.”
Waller says that the whole project was to help women who may also feel that way, and to redeem that and feel safe again when they look at themselves. She weighs in that there is something deeply spiritual about having a cast done, as well as physical, once the cast has been lifted off.
“Each woman who sits across from me shares something that they have never shared before,” Waller says, as she revisits her meetings and interactions with survivors, “they spiritually and mentally get something off their chest and then by the end of the experience they are having something taken off their chest.”
Waller says she isn’t angry anymore, but a dominant emotion of peace, rest, and joy has taken its place. She believes that people must have grace and patience with oneself during the healing process. She says, “have grace for the ebbs and flows. I’ve just grown in grace and flow through the periods of time where we’re gross and we’re angry and I just allow that now. I’ve developed ways to still include people in my life and not shut people out but let them know that this is a season that I’m in and I allow space for the joy and the laughter.”