The women gather in the back room of an art supply store in East Brainerd. They sit amid long, flat art tables covered with brown paper.
The artists — 15 altogether — have been working for more than a year on a mural that tells the story of a barren Chattanooga cityscape being reborn. Some plan the artwork, some paint it and some make adornments from crinkled deli paper. The nearly finished mural is a riot of sunflowers and thistle blooms.
Together, the women have created a work of art to inspire survivors of human trafficking, for whom the actual landscape is often bleak. Studied left to right, their mural turns from gray to green to magenta to shades of yellow.
"We started with a desolate urban world," explains Sandra Washburn, instructor of a mixed-media art class and project leader. "Then, just as women are taken away from the [trafficking] lifestyle and start to feel better, the mural begins to bloom."
The mural is made to represent the path from darkness to light, like a survivor recovering from trauma.
The artwork is 48 inches tall, 90 inches wide and will soon find a home inside a safe house for victims of human trafficking in an undisclosed Chattanooga neighborhood.
Trafficking is defined by the government as children involved in the sex trade, those over 18 who are coerced or deceived into commercial sex, or forced laborers.
Many months ago, the Mixed Media Inspired Artists group that meets inside the Art Creations store on Commons Boulevard near Hamilton Place mall coalesced into the project group. They decided to create the mural for Second Life, a Chattanooga-area nonprofit organization dedicated to housing and counseling survivors of human trafficking.
"Human trafficking is the second leading type of crime, after drugs," says Jeanne Brice, the member of the artists group who suggested the mural. Brice said she learned of Second Life a couple of years ago through her church, and she suggested to her art class that it could be the focus for a group project.
Jerry Redman, CEO of Second Life Chattanooga, says a wall has already been picked out for the mural, which will be presented at the group's "Unite, Wear White" annual event Jan. 27 from 9-11:30 a.m. at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel on Chestnut Street.
"We at Second Life have been intentional that art play a role in our work," Redman says. "Beauty is important for healing and recovery and finding peace."
So far, Second Life has opened two residences, and more may be on the way, Redman says. In 2016, Second Life helped 48 human trafficking survivors and the same number the year before.
According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Human Sex Trafficking study, sex trafficking is more common in Tennessee counties than gang activity. Each year in the United States about 50,000 women and girls are trafficked into the country for purposes of sexual exploitation, according to the government.
The main visual metaphor in the mural is thistle, which represents the renewal of hope.
"Thistle is a powerful weed. It can push up through the streets." Brice said. "These girls are fighting to survive."
The artists are resigned to the fact that because of privacy safeguards they may never get to see their mural hanging. But coming together to help women in need has been a powerful experience nonetheless, they say.
"It's overwhelming to see their situation. We thought a lot about the other women. For me personally, it's so difficult to imagine their plight," said Lorraine Perkins, an artist from Cleveland, Tenn.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645.