MIDTOWN — A wall of an exhibit inside the Museum of Modern Art is papered in lace and covered with embroidered quilt patches, each stitched by hand by a different artist with a different past.
But all have one thing in common — everybody who worked on the project has a prior arrest for prostitution.
The artists, whose work is on display as part of the museum's 2012 Community Partnership Exhibition, have all taken part in the Midtown Community Court’s Women’s Independence, Safety and Empowerment program, an alternative to jail for women who have been arrested for prostitution in Manhattan.
As part of the 10-session counseling program, the women created artwork for the MoMA exhibit, which is now on display inside the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building.
“Most of them had never been to a museum, or not since they were children,” said Rachel Isreeli, an advocate counselor with Steps to End Family Violence, which works with the Midtown Community Council.
“Creating the artwork was just another way to express themselves,” Isreeli added. “To share experiences that they never get to share.”
In the patches, those experiences are translated into messages that can seem positive but often hide a darker subtext, Isreeli noted.
For example, a swatch bearing a smiley face and the phrase “Have a nice day” is one woman’s artistic interpretation of how she confronts a potential customer she doesn’t want to work with, usually out of fear for her safety, Isreeli explained.
The woman said she often steels herself with a fake smile and brave face to survive those difficult situations, Isreeli added.
“That’s specifically relating to the work that she does,” she said.
Another piece, sewn by a different woman, says simply “100,” and the artist created it to convey her belief that prostitution is her only option for survival, said Miriam Goodman, clinical director of the Midtown Community Court.
“She had so many convictions on her record for prostitution that this is probably one of the only ways she can ever make money,” Goodman said.
Goodman said the women participate in eight group sessions and two individual sessions throughout the program, and they develop a comfort level that allows them to discuss their lives with people who understand their situation, fellow prostitutes who help them feel like they're not alone.
Program supervisors also take the women to museums to view artwork that is likely to relate to their lives and their experiences, much of which is rooted in past trauma, Goodman said.
“Trauma reactions can make people feel crazy,” she explained. “[But] for four hours a week, [they’re] not judged by anyone.”
“They’re wonderful women who are so creative and have multiple abilities,” she added.
The exhibit, which includes work from other community programs across New York City, is now on display inside MoMA’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building at 4 W. 54th St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues.