Date February 1, 2024
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Artistry for advocacy: Brown students brighten Sojourner House with inspirational murals

In a new, creative partnership, the Brown student organization Art for Service and the Providence nonprofit teamed to create a vibrant mural series to inspire strength and positivity for victims of domestic abuse.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For many people, art possesses a transformative power, elevating a living space's mood, character and atmosphere.

Lisa Hoopis is someone who ardently embraces this belief.

As director of education and training for Sojourner House — a comprehensive victim service agency that supports survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking 24 hours a day, seven days a week — Hoopis values how art has the potential to transcend the physical confines of a room, shaping the ambiance, visual character and even the emotional well-being of individuals within the environment, she said.

Besides multiple Providence locations for administrative, education and outreach offices, Sojourner House oversees more than 150 apartment units through its housing programs.

"We're always looking for ways to make our buildings feel more welcoming to clients," Hoopis said. "We know art is a powerful tool that can add warmth and joy to any space."

And that’s why she has collaborated in recent months with a group of Brown University students.

Art for Service is a student organization dedicated to creating art for public good. Established in 2018, the group includes roughly two dozen Brown undergraduates who partner with local community organizations to infuse physical spaces with creativity, meaning and positivity.

In the Fall 2022 semester, Hoopis first heard from Art for Service about the potential to partner on a set of murals for one of its properties: "Because of our continuous pursuit to create a more inviting atmosphere for clients, we said yes immediately," Hoopis said.

After discussions with Hoopis and her team on the mural's purpose, potential themes and audience, the students presented an initial design.

"We were blown away by the drawing plans the group shared with us," Hoopis said. "One of our earliest conversations with the artists centered around the fact that over 85% of Sojourner House clients have children. Hearing this, the artists were inspired to create a mural series that was geared toward children and could help them feel safe and at ease while with us.”

Caitlin Rowlings, a senior cognitive science concentrator at Brown and Art for Service co-president, said the paintings were inspired by the concept of women in nature and symbolize strength and resilience.

"In our brainstorming sessions, we organized and combined various concepts into cohesive images, ensuring all five murals worked together seamlessly," Rowlings said. "The central theme focused on depicting women in nature, with representations like a woman in water, in a tree or in the sky.”

With the approved design in place, members of Art for Service immersed themselves in the project. They gathered weekly at the Brown Design Workshop, dedicating hundreds of hours to sketch and scale the design onto five 40-by-60-inch canvas paintings. Every Tuesday night, the team focused on tasks like gathering supplies, mixing paint colors, and step-by-step sketching and painting. The process included starting with the background and adding layers, details and final touches each week.

“ Throughout it all, we've relied on the passion and generosity of the Brown community who, to this day, remain deeply invested in our work. ”

Lisa Hoopis Director of Education and Training, Sojourner House

After dedicating more than a year to producing the piece, members of Art for Service delivered the mural to the Sojourner House in early December. On Wednesday, Jan. 31, it was successfully installed.

Now occupying a central space in the agency's drop-in center in Providence's West End, the mural serves as a focal point. The center is one of the central locations where individuals and families can access immediate support, including immigration assistance, temporary housing, and clinical and education services.

For Hoopis, the mural demonstrates the power of art to create welcoming and uplifting spaces.

"The paintings all utilized bright colors, nature motifs and smiling faces — and, as viewers, made us feel grounded and at peace," she said. "We are confident that our clients and their children will react similarly."

An impactful partnership

The mural crowns a long-standing set of partnerships between Brown students, faculty and staff and Sojourner House. The nonprofit was founded in 1976 by Providence residents and Brown students who were concerned with what they considered to be a silent epidemic: domestic violence. Sojourner House has now grown from a part-time volunteer hotline to a comprehensive provider of services to victims of abuse.

Hoopis credits committed individuals at Brown for their pivotal role in the organization's growth. 

"Throughout it all, we've relied on the passion and generosity of the Brown community who, to this day, remain deeply invested in our work," Hoopis said. "We have many Brown students who volunteer regularly at Sojo, and the impact of their work is immeasurable." 

Brown University students are active volunteers at Sojourner House, engaging in various activities, from organizing donation drives and fundraising events to cleaning shelters, assembling furniture, running expressive arts programs for clients, and assisting with the Sojo Kid's Club.

Hoopis considers Brown's Alpha Chi Omega chapter one of its most significant partners. 

Brown students drop off murals
Art for Service members delivered the murals to Sojourner House in early December. Photo by Sojourner House. 

"One of our newest and most fruitful partnerships with Brown has been with the Alpha Chi Omega sorority, whose philanthropy is directly tied to our victim advocacy work,” Hoopis said. “They have been a huge help with our fundraising this year. In the fall, the sisters even worked to transform a shelter building's basement into a beautiful communal space, now utilized for numerous support group meetings and craft activities for our clients."

Art for Service, as well as Alpha Chi Omega, stand among dozens of student and Greek life organizations at Brown dedicated to public service and community outreach in Providence and throughout Rhode Island. Sarah Wong, a junior biology concentrator and Art for Service co-president, said members are crafting smaller canvases to donate to hospital waiting rooms. Still, the group is welcoming new collaborations this year.

"We're eager to work with other local organizations and encourage anyone interested to reach out with any questions," Wong said.

For Wong, the mission of Art for Service is to spread positivity in the Providence community, and she's hopeful their recent work can further the mission of Sojourner House in supporting survivors: "I hope our mural can give people that reach out to the Sojourner House a sense of happiness, security and positivity."