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Box exhibit giving women a powerful voice

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Salt Lake resident Ruby Chacon Hurst recently finished painting a tiny box with images of her mother, grandmother, sister and a nephew who tragically died.

The box ties important people in Hurst's life to the heartbreaking folk story of "La Llorona" or in English "The Crier," about a woman doomed to wander the rivers looking for her lost children.

In 1991, when Lorraine Serena of Santa Barbara, Calif., decided to provide an artistic outlet for women around the world, she didn't have Hurst specifically in mind per se, but women everywhere like Hurst who have a statement to make or story to tell.

"I had an idea of how to open conversation with the community," Serena said in a telephone interview. "There is a need for building communication and creating dialogue. . . . Someone once told me art is more than something you hang on a wall."

The fruits of Serena's idea is the Women Beyond Borders exhibit coming to the Art Access Gallery in Salt Lake City as a part of the Cultural Olympiad for the 2002 Winter Games. The free exhibit begins Jan. 18 and runs through March 17.

In the exhibit, the artists take a simple uniform box and use it to express themselves however they want.

Serena said in a phone interview that the exhibit is a natural fit with the nature of the Olympic spirit.

"It talks about breaking down borders philosophically and becoming aware of the universality of mankind," Serena said.

The Women Beyond Borders collection includes more than 450 works by women from more than 36 countries. Serena said that once the project started rolling, word of mouth took off between curators from all over. Pieces of the exhibit have now toured Israel, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Kenya, Italy, United Kingdom, Yugoslavia, Nepal, Croatia, Toronto, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Japan, Ireland and Australia.

The Cultural Olympiad Women Beyond Borders exhibit will consist of 125 of the 450 pieces, including at least one piece from each country participating in the Winter Olympics. Also, 20 of the boxes to be on display are by Utah artists.

Each piece begins as a miniature cedar box that measures a mere 3.5 inches by 2 inches by 2 inches. The box, though, is only meant as a starting point from which the artists can leap into any direction their imaginations take them. There are some restrictions on size and weight of the finished pieces.

Artists have made their boxes into puzzles and cages and cut them up and reassembled them as heads of cats. One woman made hers into a puppet to show the political constraints of her society.

The idea of having the artists work with miniature boxes happened when Serena and her group spied a small cedar gift box from the '50s on a desk during a brainstorming meeting. Serena said the symbolism of a box is what drew them to the object.

"The box is a very powerful symbol of many women's lives. It's reminiscent of the womb, a tomb, a gift, a shrine or a treasure," Serena said.

Ruth Lubbers of Art Access said the international nature of the project is a powerful aspect of the exhibit.

"Women are so creative, and so many women, especially in Third World countries, don't have a voice," Lubbers said. "This project slash exhibit has given these women a voice, whether it be symbolic or a totally artistic creative voice.

"I love it because it's so grassroots. When it started, a group of women artists got together and said, 'We want this to be an international project. How do we go about doing this?' and so it basically was who they knew where and who they had access to individually."

Things started slowly, as they tried to get the boxes out to women all around the world. One organizer had a son who was doing an internship in Israel and she sent him with some boxes to give to women artists there. Others were sent to friends and friends of friends around the world.

Lubbers said that when looking for 20 women in Utah to do boxes, organizers made sure to include all regions of the state, but more importantly, they looked for artists who could bring something to the project.

"We wanted artists who were very articulate both verbally and artistically and were able through their art to really have something to say and we were not disappointed," Lubbers said.

One Utah artist who made a box, Blanche Wilson from Ogden, incorporated two important parts of her life for her box.

"I have done woodcuts for many years and also used to be a teacher for the blind, so I made my box into a woodcut of a teacher of the blind holding the hand of a blind girl, showing her the world through her senses," Wilson said.

Other boxes by Utah artists show Japanese heritage, the myriad household duties of a mother and a metal prison around the box, which was done by a woman who works with prisoners.

For each artist, it's a personal journey, Hurst said, but "the common ground brings them all together."

"It's a very powerful thing to be interconnected with women across the world," Hurst said. "There has to be chances like this for women to express themselves and let their ideas be known."

Women Beyond Borders will be at Art Access at 339 W. Pierpont Ave. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and admission is free. For more on Women Beyond Borders go to www.womenbeyondborders.org.

E-MAIL: pthunell@desnews.com