Louise Grant Blog – I’ve been gifted with joy, seeing creative artists being born, as the jailed DreamWeave women gain deep-moving pride for what they’re creating with the talents of their hearts and hands. Operating DreamWeave, I’ve watched 80 incarcerated women these past 10 months gain unique artisan skills crafting handbags out of renewable paper materials.
At first blush, it may not appear that there is detailed creativity involved, but I’ve seen what it takes for those 15 to 50 hours of hand-craft work for each artisan purse. It’s more complex than anyone would imagine! I myself have learned the beautiful skill, having created four handbags of my own, and I use at least one of them every day. I’m continually amazed at how often I’m stopped by passersby who comment on the creativity of the purse.
Inside the jail, I watch these women in their red jail uniforms each day thoughtfully select recycled paper from a large variety of magazines, music lyrics, comics, bibles, and gift wrap paper that Amanda and have brought into the correctional facility. The women spend their first class minutes thoughtfully deciding which style of paper would create a high-fashion and memorable purse design. They each want to make their own unique statement with their handi-work. This opportunity for individualism feels like a rarity for them behind these locked gates, where each woman is a number and must dress the same, eat the same and generally participate in the same routine as every other cellmate. Now, within the construct of DreamWeave, each woman is free to find her own expression.
After settling on a unique purse design, each woman then expertly cuts nearly 700-800 small pieces of paper and cellophane and gently folds, links and weaves them together in craft fashion into long rows. Next, she skillfully hand-sews each of the hundreds of pieces of paper on each linked row. She has taken time to write her personal life story and an inspirational quote to be printed on a tag on each purse. And, importantly, she has written a personal life dream for each particular purse. A dream, perhaps, about drug recovery, renewed motherhood bonds, career opportunities that once seemed impossible to achieve, or an aspiration, simply, for peace and joy. She has carefully woven this dream into the inside bottom of this individual purse that she loving and determinedly crafting. She has worked on the purse during the daytime hours in our class-like work setting. And she also likely has spent time in her inmate cell, sitting on her bunked-bed in the evenings, folding and sewing, and folding and sewing. There is quiet solace in the creative space of her purse-making. She is adeptly able to place her full intention on her craft, rather than placing it mindlessly on a loud TV in the housing unit or being in a worried or frenetic state of mind about the legal and family issues that await her on a next phone call home. For this simple moment, she is, simply, creating. All the rest of “it” can wait. And with that, comes ease.
In the crafting of her one-of-a-kind handbag, she knows it will be a representation of her own essence. She understands, with a sense of responsibility, that it will eventually belong to a woman, who has purchased or it has been gifted it, and who now will now be connected to this DreamWeave artisan in a surprisingly meaningful way. This Dreamweaver is exposing herself – as a woman and as an artist. There’s a vulnerability that comes.
This DreamWeaver now beams with a newfound pride in herself. “I created this!” she shares with deep excitement with all of us in the jail program, once she is ready to give the purse as a finished product to our trainer Amanda or to me.
“Are you proud of it?” I’ll ask each woman.
“I love it,” each one usually exclaims. “I can’t wait for my family to see a picture of it. I can’t believe I made this.
Each woman and I will spend minutes, carefully admiring the creative detail of the purse she just crafted – noticing the rounded edges that require such skilled patience and talent to perfect, eying the firmness of the sewing that maintains the handbags tightness, critiquing the design of the paper with checkerboards or stripes, or with one color on the outside and a separate pattern on the inside. If it’s a magazine, it may have the individual pictures of a face or a landscape. If it’s a Bible, it may have the red-lettering messages of Jesus delicately placed so that the words can be deciphered.
And so it goes, each day in the jail as the DreamWeavers complete their artistry handbags. One beaming smile after another. And deservedly so.
These women are finding within themselves an artistic beauty and a sturdiness they may not have experienced before. The sturdy determination of completing a creative project, despite its intimidations.
When any of us – regardless of our life circumstances – is willing to tap into our creative spirit through visuals, words, music or any other skilled craft, we become more than we were. The expanded “us” has a deeper knowing of what beauty feels like.
I look at each of these incarcerated DreamWeavers. I see these women, as young as 20 and as old as 65+, serving hard time for poor past choices. They are locked here to be accountable, and they ask themselves if change is ready to occur within. These women often don’t feel beautiful, safe or worthy. They often don’t feel smart or creative. Instead, they may feel battered, shamed, unvalued and remorseful. Those bitter emotions may bring deep inner scars of darkness.
As a witness, how remarkably marvelous it is for me to see the light open up within them when they move into the essence of artistry. Light in their eyes, in their cheeks, and in the grace of their uprighted posture. A lightened and enlightened heart. These women, these DreamWeavers, have chosen to become a dreamer in the deepest sense, daring to weave a new story for the life that is theirs.
What emerges on their faces and throughout their bodies when they stare at the handbag held in their hands is a state of pure joy. A state of humble pride and new eagerness for more. More of everything that feels good.
This is the Art of Life. And it’s beautiful to behold.