Q&A: Bobbie Crews, Creator of "The Survivor Project" on Permanent Display at the City County Building

In partnership with Child & Family Tennessee, the city of Knoxville, and Knox County, Bobbie Crews' art installation "The Survivor Project" became a permanent display at the City County Building Oct. 10. It was created as a response to women who have survived abusive relationships.

Who taught you art?

I've been doing it since I was a tiny little girl and I'm mostly self-taught.

Do you ascribe to the idea of art as therapy?

Art has always been therapeutic for me. I guess that's my Zen zone—everything else falls away and I'm really in the moment in my art when I'm creating.

How did you create these paintings?

I would sit with each survivor, just me and her, no one else to listen in. I would listen to each for an hour and a half. And I wouldn't just hear—I could see each woman's face and hear the tone of her voice and sometimes the fear. I could see the emotion.

Did you sketch them?

I was sketching with watercolor, there was no type of pencil involved; that allowed me to move quickly.

And the sketches became the art work?

I did the art right on the spot. Everything was spontaneous. I was recording not only what I saw but how I responded to what they were saying and how they were saying it. In the portraits, they look like people, but not like people identifiable to the public—I did that to protect them. As I painted, I would do a whole series. Each one would be just a few minutes and then I would throw it down and start another and then another. When they tell their stories, it is very chaotic. Emotions go all over the place; the images needed to change with that.

Were any parts of the story happy?

Yes, yes. Because in the domestic violence story it's like a circular pattern. Emotions go up and down and all around and kind of build, until an explosive event occurs. Then the perpetrator is all kind and nice until it builds up again—it goes around and around like a merry-go-round.

Did the harshness ever overwhelm you?

No, because I was trying so hard to document in my way—to affirm them and to show other people how difficult it is, how chaotic it is, and that these people are real people just like everyone else.

Why you?

Because I can do it, and it makes a difference. I try to be a good listener, and I've met a lot of people who have been in the middle of this. I really wanted to affirm them and also let the public know these peoples are their neighbors or their sisters or other people that they know—or it could be them.

You first completed the project in 2007.

Yes, and I displayed it in the Emporium that year. Then in 2012 I was asked to display it for Child & Family Tennessee's Founding Families fund-raiser. When I got into that, I needed to add to it, and I interviewed a couple more people. They're not hard to find.

Have you ever gotten a grant or anything for this work?

Nope, I did it on my own. I went to people from the Family Justice Center back in 2007. They have support groups, and they would ask if people would like to participate.

How do you feel about the City County Building as a home for your art?

I'm really happy, because I wanted to reach out to other women besides the ones I interviewed to let them know they're not alone. A lot of women go through the building, and a lot of those experiencing domestic violence may be there for orders of protection. This just gives them a chance to realize they're not alone.

For more information about Crews: en.bobbiecrews.com

East Tennessee 24-Hour Family Violence Hotline: 865-521-6336