Tucked in a sunlit room just off the square at the back of St. John’s Lutheran Church, is a place full of hope and lots of art supplies.
It’s a place where incarcerated women on Huber Work Release from the Dane County Jail can make art and get respite from jail life.
The program is called the Backyard Mosaic Women’s Project, and since 2004, incarcerated women have been learning how to create mosaics, fiber art, grow vegetables and flowers and learn about themselves in a safe setting.
The project began at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church by then Pastor Mary Pharmer. She saw a need for incarcerated women to express themselves through art and to receive pastoral care out of the jail setting. Julia Weaver was the facilitator of the project. In 2009, the project moved to St. John’s Lutheran Church at 322 East Washington Ave., Since then, hundreds of women have walked through the doors.
According to Weaver, every Wednesday, from two to eight women walk over from the Dane County Jail and meet from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. for a few hours of art and pastoral care. A few continue to come after being released from jail as well.
Weaver co-facilitates the project. She is an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ and a fiber artist. Up until recently, she served as the chaplain at the Dane County Jail. Other co-facilitators and volunteers are Maria Yapp, mosaic artist, Cara Erickson, graphic designer and grant writers Sara Jordan and Lisa McGuire.
Weaver said that the mission of the project is growing in community, not to create great art.
“But great art happens anyway,” she said.
“The women bond as a group and they get to see themselves as part of the larger community. Women agree to work on community art projects, participate in a monthly meal, donate their individual art projects to charity and help with the maintenance of the workspace,” she said.
“I didn’t realize how much is done for the community while we are rehabilitating ourselves,” said Kristin Kirby, 41. She has participated for 3 weeks and is learning how to weave and is working on making paraments for the church. She will get out of jail in 10 days and will continue to come if she’s in Madison.
The group’s first project was a large mural at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church which featured mosaic self portraits of the women who worked on the project.
When they moved to St. John’s Lutheran Church, they created a variety of mosaics in the entryway to greet visitors. In 2016, they created and had installed a sparkly mosaic for E.V.P. coffee shop that has been mounted to the outside of their building at 1250 East Washington Ave.
“Tracy Danner is the owner and a fabulous woman,” said Weaver.
Currently, the women are finishing up a commission for the church that includes a stole, an altar cloth and a lectern drape. Other projects include a Peace Weaving Project, which is a prayer weaving that will be sent to a place in the world to foster peace. Future projects include creating mosaics for the outdoor courtyard.
Finally, Weaver pointed out a series of mosaics that will be installed inside the Public Safety Building — the site of the new jail — hopefully next spring. The set of mosaics feature the core values of the Dane County Sheriff’s Department: Integrity, Respect, Professional Excellence, Courage, Leadership, and Knowledge.
Joanne (not her real name) said that she didn’t feel respected while incarcerated, and this opened up a conversation about core values and how sometimes humans fall short of the ideal.
“I’m not perfect because I’m human,” said Weaver. “These are ideals. Everyone falls short.”
In addition to mosaics, the project has four looms that the women take turns using.
“They practice on individual projects before working on the larger looms,” Weaver said.
“To be a participant in the project, you need to have experienced incarceration, either now or in the past, or be a friend of the project,” Weaver said. “Women don’t have the ability to make art and get spiritual care like those who have money.”
Kristle Lina Leach, 25, started last week. “I like that I can let my problems out and feel safe and comfortable. Usually, I’m private, but here I can talk.”
“Women inspire me every day because they rise above their circumstances,” said Weaver.
Alicia Padilla, 36, has been a participant for four months.
“Working on art redirects my thinking into positive things like weaving and mosaic. Plus, I like talking to Julia. She gives me encouragement, faith and helps me to stay positive,” she said.
Weaver said the group also shows their art to raise funds. She is busy fundraising and also coordinates with Project Respect, run out of ARC House Treatment group on human trafficking issues. “As a minister, I hear a lot of trauma, and human trafficking is a problem,” she said.
“We will have an appeal letter coming out soon to help with the stabilizing of our funding. We are doing one more Advent services and a holiday meal on December 20. The meal is a fun time for women who have participated in the project to reconnect and we always welcome visitors. In June of 2018 we will have a fundraising concert at Lakeside Coffee and hopefully, an art show to go with it,” Weaver added.
More information can be found at www.backyardmosaicwomensproject.org.