Courage Within Exhibition at Monterey Museum of Art incorporates artwork created by homeless women, collaborating with local artists


By Kathryn McKenzie

A new exhibition opening this week at the Monterey Museum of Art doesn’t just call attention to the problem of homelessness — it also helps the rest of us gain deeper understanding of the emotional cost that unhoused people experience.

Courage Within: Women Without Shelter” is a journey through the feelings that accompany homelessness, the deep pain and longing and grief that comes from not having a place of one’s own.

The project, a partnership between MMA, the artist collective Critical Ground and the Fund for Homeless Women, has been more than three years in the making. Spearheaded by four local artists, “Courage Within” features both their work and conceptual pieces that were made with the help of some 50 Monterey Peninsula homeless women.

The exhibition opens with a private event on Jan. 27 to which this group of women are invited in addition to the artists. “Courage Within” can be seen at MMA Pacific Street through April 23.

In a world that brushes aside homelessness, homeless women are particularly invisible, according to Melissa Smedley, one of the artists involved in the project.

“Single, unaccompanied women are not an official category addressed by the federal government,” Smedley wrote in an exhibition statement. “Women who do not have children, are without mental illness, addiction, or are recent victims of abuse are not counted or addressed by the federal government or the funding it provides.”

Smedley noted there are more than 500 women in the area who are insufficiently housed, predominantly older, long-time residents of the Peninsula. 

Critical Ground members Smedley, Dora Lisa Rosenbaum, Denese Sanders and Amanda Salm had already been getting together for some years as a critique group. In 2018, the group’s work was featured in an exhibition at the PG Art Center, which captured the attention of Lila Staples, then MMA board president, who suggested a joint project with the museum. Due in part to the pandemic, it’s taken more than three years to bring the exhibition to fruition.

“MMA is proud to partner with these gifted artists whose works illuminate the complex challenges faced by women without shelter in our region,” said MMA executive director Corey Madden.


'Address,' artwork by Amanda Salm, part of 'Courage Within' exhibition

‘Courage Within” combines modern conceptual art pieces with more traditional figurative work, for an exhibition that packs an emotional punch. In one installation, for instance, more than 500 printed socks — representing the local unhoused female population — that twist and turn with the slightest air current. Or the long line of shredded and molded paper houses, suggestive of the overwhelming amount of paperwork and time needed to get into housing. They are linked, literally, with red tape.

The installation with the printed socks, created by Rosenbaum, shows how tenuous these women’s existence is, and how easily disrupted it can be by seemingly small actions. At the same time, “The prints are fragile in appearance, yet the thin paper is exceptionally strong,” according to the description of the installation.

Why socks? Because they are the most requested item at homeless shelters.

Some of the works were made in partnership with unhoused women, who were offered the chance to participate at one of several local sites serving the homeless. Rosenbaum, Smedley, Sanders and Salm had to set up tables and materials at each location, “like a traveling art studio,” said Smedley. Over the course of two months, the artists made presentations and showed the women a variety of art techniques, including book arts, printmaking, drawing and painting.

“They felt honored that someone was paying attention to them, and that they could freely express their creative side,” said Smedley.


Concrete backpack, part of 'Burdens,' by Dora Lisa Rosenbaum

But the art these women made wasn’t solely for the exhibition. They also created items for themselves, such as uniquely decorated journals that they could keep.

And as the project continued, the artists learned more about their subjects’ lives. “We got to see them over and over again,” said Sanders. “We became part of their community.”

As they gained the women’s trust — not an easy thing to accomplish — Sanders was able to paint several women’s portraits for the exhibition, using oil paints on wood panels. Smedley inteviewed some for a video installation that is part of the exhibition.

Most women didn’t want their likenesses represented, Sanders said: “They always feel like they’re being looked at a lot and being judged, but at the same time, not being seen at all.” So Sanders would paint just their eyes, and the vulnerability inside.

What really struck Smedley was that the women’s desire for community is thwarted by the constant shuffling from place to place that they must do to exist. Smedley interviewed some of them for a video installation that is also included in the exhibition.

Said Salm, “It’s been eye-opening for all of us, to get a grasp of what they go through daily. Older women have enough difficulties in living even when they’re fully housed and fed … these women used to have a regular life, now they’re living this one.”

The four artists also say they’ve grown much closer as a result of this experience.

“They’ve shown up for me in so many ways,” said Sanders, who underwent treatment for ovarian cancer in 2021. “They have been really supportive. It’s meant so much to me.”


Artists who created the new MMA exhibition, 'Courage Within,' from left: Dora Lisa Rosenbaum, Amanda Salm, Melissa Smedley, Denese Sanders

The four Critical Ground artists will provide context and insight into their work each Thursday, Feb 3-March 31, from 2-3 p.m. at MMA Pacific Street, with a different artist available to answer questions each week.


| COVER ART: Detail from Denese Sanders’ artwork, “Witness”

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About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites. She and husband Glenn Church are the co-authors of "Humbled: How California's Monterey Bay Escaped Industrial Ruin" (Vista Verde Publishing, 2020).