Photo of a mural depicting the story of a mother's struggle to leave behind a life of domestic violence.
A new mural by artist Joel Bergner has been painted on the side of the Brookland Cafe. The work, which portrays one woman’s struggle to escape an abusive situation and achieve a better life, is meant to inspire public conversation about domestic violence. Photo by Mandy Toomey.

Award-Winning Washington artist tackles the questions surrounding domestic violence 

Her story wasn’t there on the surface. In fact, she confessed she hadn’t even thought of herself as a victim. But it took her seven attempts to finally break away, and it was an even longer journey to stand in front of this crowd on a sunny Sunday afternoon to tell her story.  

On Oct. 2, a domestic abuse survivor took the microphone in front of approximately 200 people standing around the grassy lot outside of the Brookland Café just blocks from the Brookland Metro station. The story of the woman, who went unnamed to protect her privacy, was part of the inauguration ceremony of a community mural designed to raise awareness about issues surrounding domestic violence.  

As the mural, called “A Survivor’s Journey,” was being celebrated, its creator, international muralist Joel Bergner, was preparing to head to El Salvador to work on another project, a mural that will portray the story of refugees returning home to rebuild their village in the midst of a raging civil war.  

Both works give a sense of Bergner’s artistic goal since he was a young artist “to talk about important societal issues” and “to do it in a public space.”  

The idea for a mural addressing domestic violence started three years ago as a collaboration between Bergner and a friend who worked for the District Alliance for Safe Housing. DASH provides housing and services for survivors of domestic violence. The mural became a reality this fall thanks in large part to Bergner’s dedication, individual donations, a partnership with DASH, and support from the Brookland Cafe, where the mural is located.  

Preparing for the project, Bergner interviewed domestic violence survivors and DASH staff members. The survivors told their stories while the staff helped outlined larger themes. Interviews with the two domestic abuse survivors took place in their DASH-funded apartments as their children played nearby. Bergner said he was struck by the strength of the women and their children, considering what they had suffered.  

Bergner was surprised the multiple complications tangled up in each account. He learned that in some cases women stay in violent situations because they have few other options. In addition to finding ways to escape the violence, the women need to also think about children, housing and finances.  

Armed with the stories of domestic violence and the larger themes outlined by DASH, Bergner created a rough sketch of the mural, which was then taken to the organization for feedback. Bergner emphasized the importance of a dialogue between him and the women associated with DASH. For example, in his original sketch, hope was illustrated in the form of a home filled with a new family.  

Feedback from the organization emphasized that hope isn’t necessarily in a new partner, but rather having a safe home and a sense of independence. In the final mural version, hope is portrayed as a strong woman standing next to her son their home.  

Bergner confessed he wished he could have interviewed more women because every story is unique. The two survivors he was able to interview painted very different pictures. Because of the impossibility of capturing the diverse stories of domestic abuse in one piece of art, Bergner set the task of “trying to get to the heart and emotion” of domestic violence, and then portraying the story of one woman’s struggle and her achieving a better life.  

According to DASH Director Peg Hacskaylo “The mural shows folks in the community that domestic violence isn’t always about pain and suffering, but that there can be a bright future for survivors who can find housing and support.”  

The inaugural event featured live musical performances from the all-female percussion band Batala and survivors of domestic violence sharing their experiences and reading poetry; speakers included D.C. City Councilmember Harry Thomas, Hacskaylo and Bergner.  

Hacskaylo, who keeps a framed print of the mural in her office, said that in addition to unveiling the mural, the event was also a celebration of all DASH had accomplished since its start in 2004.  

She said she sees the mural as a starting point for building community support to aid those who have suffered from domestic violence. For Bergner, the important outcome of the event was that it “brought people together to see the art and talk about the issues.”  

Looking to the future, Bergner said his goal is to “affect people on many different levels” with his art. He hopes to continue growing his audience, to be able to tell community stories in more places, and to collaborate with more groups and artists worldwide.  

As if to prove his point, he pulled out a list of artistic ideas for communities from Cape Verde to England, where he hopes that someday his murals will also help excite wider conversations.