Sumaiyah Yates paints in the gallery. (Photo by Stephanie ‘Turtlebery’ Chapman)

In 2012, the last year for which complete data are available, there were 17,615 reported domestic violence crimes, and 1,236 reported forcible rapes in the state of Maryland. These statistics were compiled by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, and the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. At a gallery in Charles Village, artist and domestic abuse survivor Sumaiyah Yates is using art to help women who have endured crimes like these heal from the trauma of their e xperiences.

Yates, born and raised in Baltimore City, began exploring art in 2005. What began as a love for paper and scrapbooking transformed into a tool for healing, as Yates learned it could aid her in moving beyond an experience of abuse, which she acknowledges but does not discuss in detail. “We all have issues,” Yates said, “so I started using [art] to relieve myself of the stress
from my past and move forward into the present.”

In April, 2014, Yates moved her studio, named the Soulful Emergence Art Gallery, to the 2100 block of N. Charles St. from Canton, where she opened the studio in 2013. “Soulful Emergence Art Gallery is dedicated to the positive image of women,” said Yates. “I am a survivor of domestic violence, so the things that I’ve learned, I try to reach out to other women in similar situations, domestically violent situations, victims of sexual trafficking and rape, that sort of thing, to teach them to use how to use art – in conjunction with all the other therapeutic things that they may be doing – to use art as their go-to thing when they’re feeling bad, to get it off.”

To this end, the gallery holds classes and events on art journaling, painting, mixed media, creative writing, and poetry. The courses emphasize intentional creativity, the production of art not for art’s sake but for a specific personal purpose, whether healing, confidence building, or some other end.

Sumaiyah Yates displays one of her paintings. (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)

The biggest challenge in working with women who are survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault, Yates says, is getting them to realize that they had no fault in the trauma they suffered.

Acutely aware that she is not a therapist or medical professional, Yates looks to bring the healing power of art to bear on lives who could benefit from it the way hers did, but refers anyone she feels needs more clinical assistance to Turnaround Inc., a local non-profit that works with adults and children affected by intimate partner violence and sexual violence, according to their website.

Stephanie Chapman, who goes by the pen-name of Turtleberry, teaches creative writing at Soulful Emergence and serves as house photographer. She also hosts the gallery’s 3rd Eye Thursdays, an open-mic poetry slam held on the first, third, and fifth Thursdays of every month.

For her, one of the challenges as an instructor is getting women to present their work without adding disclaimers, such as ‘this isn’t quite finished’ for example, excuses that minimize their own work before anyone even has a chance to see it.

“A lot of times you see women who come in and there are more disclaimers; their inner critic is worse than the male inner critic,” said Chapman. “Sometimes it’s a level of confidence – even the most confident woman you’ll meet, typically, is not on the same level as the most confident man you’ll meet.”

The gallery, in addition to helping women heal from abuse, is also intentionally oriented towards building up the confidence of those who walk through its doors, looking to build women up to push back against the limitations society often places on them. “I always look to empower women,” said Yates. “You can do and be anything that you want to be, don’t let anybody [say] you can’t.

Don’t let society [say] you can’t, don’t follow society’s rules. I’m not a rebel – obviously I go to work every day and I have a gallery – but I feel like society puts caps on people who really want to go out and express themselves better.”