Jessica Caldas tackles domestic violence with her art

IN her home town of Atlanta, Georgia, Jessica Caldas combines her art practice with a commitment to understanding the issues surrounding domestic violence.

As a long-time volunteer with the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation - she is also paid as a contractor to crunch data - the 28-year-old has helped countless women navigate the court system.

"Working in the area only made me realise how little I knew about domestic violence," she says. "There are so many myths and misunderstandings."

Caldas is visiting Newcastle for three weeks as a recipient of The Backyard Bus residency, established by Emma Cother. The artists enjoy free accommodation in a restored vintage bus in Cother's leafy Maryville backyard and are obligated to engage the community during their stay.

Caldas has spent much of her visit liaising with local organisations that support victims of domestic violence. She is collecting data that will become the foundation of a number of public artworks.

"What I'm going to be building from the statistics is a series of paper-based murals," she says. "I'll print on paper and slap them on a wall. There's a connection between the work and political activism and advocacy that's been a long tradition in street art.

"Originally I'd hoped to do a larger installation on one wall, but that hasn't worked out so now there'll be about six to eight works in public spaces around the inner city."

Caldas concentrates on printmaking and uses a wallpaper pattern as a motif, exposing what is largely kept hidden behind closed doors. She spent this week printing her work at Newcastle Art School on Hunter Street. Statistics underpin the work, but it is the scenes of domesticity and family intimacy that add weight to the numbers.

"I'm interested in family. I have a very big family, it's very modern, and we're all very close. To watch something so vital to people deteriorate is heartbreaking, but I feel compelled to help people understand."

She knows the question most people are fixated on is also the one question that should never be asked of a victim: Why didn't you leave?

"It's the most ridiculous question in many ways, but I understand why people feel compelled to wonder. I've learnt that there are different reasons - there are a number of barriers for women. Sometimes the abuse is financial and the partner controls the money. In Atlanta, we have women who have to borrow money to catch a bus to see us because their partner knows how much gas and mileage is in the car."

It is the impact of emotional abuse that most distresses her.

"The physical abuse is horrifying, but there's something so disgusting about watching someone break another person," she says. "When dealing with clients we often have to send mail to a friend's house in case their partner finds out and there's no way these women can request assistance via email. I don't think people think of that kind of behaviour as abuse because we tend to focus on physical abuse."

During her residency, Caldas has met with domestic violence survivor and Newcastle's 2014 Woman of the Year Helen Cummings. The artist has read Cummings' book Blood Vows, which details the six years of emotional abuse she endured while married to Hunter doctor Stuart Wynter. Wynter went on to murder his second wife and their toddler daughter before killing himself. Quotes from Blood Vows are incorporated into Caldas' work including: "There were rules, his rules, and I had to obey them even when I had no idea what they were".

Of all the subjects to focus on as an artist, why domestic violence?

"I've always been conscious of issues affecting women, whether it's reproductive rights or issues of equality, and in America these are big issues. Domestic violence is challenging, it's something people don't like to talk about, but it happens on such a pervasive scale and the statistics haven't really changed. It's not a faceless crime and I feel strongly that if I can focus on individual stories, it might create awareness and start a conversation about the issue."

Caldas has been surprised by domestic violence statistics in the Hunter given the size of our population. She has learnt that in Maitland, police receive between 250 and 300 calls a month about domestic violence incidents. In the past year, the Victims of Crime Assistance League has seen 1000 clients who have been victims of domestic violence.

"In Atlanta, the office where I work sees about 2400 people and the city has a population of more than five million," says Caldas.

"The statistics in NSW aren't shockingly high, but they show that domestic violence is as significant an issue here as it is back home."

One big difference, though, is that in the United States there is little media coverage of deaths caused by domestic violence. "There seems to be more focus in Australia," observes Caldas, who is aware of the advocacy work of Rosie Batty, whose only child Luke was murdered by her ex-husband, his father.

Caldas doesn't appear cynical or worn out despite what she witnesses through her voluntary work in Atlanta. Passionate and talented, she is committed to creating art that makes us stop and think - and join the conversation.

Jessica Caldas will be attending the Hunter White Ribbon Day Breakfast on Thursday at Wests Leagues Club. Tickets $30. Phone 4935 1287 for bookings.

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