Artist’s dolls evoke emotion

Minnesota visual artist Shirl Chouinard stands next to her piece, “First Strike,” a doll made of wedding dress material, wearing a veil and a big, bold black eye to represent when domestic abuse often first starts in a relationship. Chouinard and the 12-piece doll display was featured at the Pearl Crisis Center’s Fashion Show last Sunday.

Minnesota visual artist Shirl Chouinard stands next to her piece, “First Strike,” a doll made of wedding dress material, wearing a veil and a big, bold black eye to represent when domestic abuse often first starts in a relationship. Chouinard and the 12-piece doll display was featured at the Pearl Crisis Center’s Fashion Show last Sunday.

The featured artwork at this year’s Pearl Crisis Center Fashion Show drew plenty of attention and evoked much emotion this past Sunday at the Northern Lights Ballroom and Banquet Center in Pease.

That’s exactly what artist Shirl Chouinard was going for when she created the several-piece installation of dolls that represent victims of domestic violence.

“It’s thought-provoking and conversation starters,” Chouinard said of the art.

The dolls, which range from representations of shaken babies to a bride in her wedding dress with a big, bold black eye, demand more than the typical passive consumption of art. Yet, unlike many advocacy-driven art, the pieces are digestible by people of all ages.

“It’s a softer touch than the angry art from the 80s,” Chouinard said. “My idea is to just get it out in front of as many people as I can, especially in rural areas.”

Chouinard received her training in master of arts administration from St. Mary’s University and her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the early to mid 90s. But it wasn’t until recently that she has put those skills and talents to use in speaking out and raising awareness for domestic violence.

“My mother died in 2010, allowing me the freedom to tell our family secret,” she said of her personal experience with abuse.

Since then, Chouinard has been featured in dozens of group exhibitions and three solo displays, including a recent exhibition at the Cambridge Center for the Arts. She has earned several grants in the past few years, including the 2012 Bush Fellowship Fellow and a 2013 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative grant.

The dolls, which Chouinard creates using materials she finds and re-purposes from garage sales, online vendors and thrift stores, have followed her across the state of Minnesota.

“I do a lot of research before I do the piece to decide what types of materials to use,” she said. Sometimes, she spots a certain fabric or piece of furniture that gives her a new idea for a doll.

It’s hard not to think of the dolls as real victims, the poses and circumstances Chouinard places them in come from realistic situations of abuse.

“They do get their own personalities and they come alive for me,” she said. “Sometimes it gets overwhelming for me.”

The positive responses she’s received from displaying the dolls, however, keeps Chouinard motivated to continue creating and displaying the pieces.

“I feel that my responsibility is to enlighten and educate,” she said.

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