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'There’s More Than Just Surviving': How Survivors Of Trauma Are Using Art To Become Thrivers

Living with trauma and injustice is undoubtedly difficult. Those living with these experiences find different ways of overcoming them, and one way is through art and writing. That’s what the Milwaukee exhibit Rise and Thrive: A Lives in Landscape series is all about.

Now in its second year, the exhibit combines survivors’ stories with landscape paintings. Visual artist Brianna Seipel collaborated with the “thriver” writers from Lotus Legal Clinic’s writers’ workshop to create corresponding landscapes for each essay. New this year is filmmaker Michael Snowden, who documented the creation of the paintings to overlay the film with audio recordings of the essays.

A "thriver," as they call themselves, is someone who has been a survivor of trauma and is now more than simply surviving — and Lisa McCormick is one of them. She went through the creative writing program and is one of the authors included in the exhibit. 

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Credit Brianna Seipel
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The Sun Will Rise Again is Lisa McCormick's inspired landscape that will accompany her reading of her essay in the Rise and Thrive exhibition.

McCormick says before the program she felt alone, and that this opportunity provided her a network of people that she now considers family. “I learned about the word thriver and I learned about that there’s more than just surviving and sometimes just being upright, there’s a lot more to that,” she says.

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Lisa McCormick reads her essay written for the landscape piece, "The Sun Will Rise Again."
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Credit Michael Snowden
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Artist Brianna Seipel works on one of her landscape pieces.

Brianna Seipel’s goal was to honor the writing and stories of each participant while bringing in new ideas of healing and transformation by adding her paintings of the outdoors. Last year, she worked with six participants to bring their landscapes to the canvas.

“One of the things that a participant said last year, and it captured exactly what we were going for, is she said that these paintings are a tangible representation of who we are as thrivers. On this journey from victim to survivor to thriver,” says Seipel.

Lotus Legal Clinic interim director Kate Knowlton says that providing both these creative outlets and proper legal assistance is all about putting people in control of how they are defining their lives.

“It’s a defining moment of their life but they can still be in control of how that definition moves them and we want to help with that — we want to make sure they have all the professional resources they can to do that,” says Knowlton.

You can now see the Rise and Thrive exhibit in person and socially distanced through May 10 at the Northwestern Mutual Art Gallery on the Cardinal Stritch University Campus in Fox Point, Wis. The gallery is limited to 14 visitors at a time, with masks and social distancing required.

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Jack Hurbanis started as the WUWM Digital Intern in January 2020, transitioning to Assistant Digital Producer in July and Digital Producer in January 2021.