The artist LydiaEmily, known for her outspoken political work as well as her street art, knows something about survival. A survivor of sexual assaults, life-threatening diseases, and unhealthy relationships, LydiaEmily has kept up her fierce output of paintings while being a single mother of girls. Her tireless advocacy for cultures under siege, women’s issues, and MS deflect from her own health struggles and caring for an autistic daughter. Nonetheless, LydiaEmily always works to bring attention to other’s travails, as in her new show at Garboushian Gallery in Beverly Hills, “The Faces of Survival,” running now until October 14th. The collection features ten survivor stories through portrait and story, offering profiles of inspiring resilience, while the artwork itself was created by an MS sufferer that needs to tie a paintbrush to her hand because it is painful to grasp.
As a young child I was sexually abused by a friend of our family. In my early twenties, I was raped by a stranger in the early morning behind a convenience store -- it was my first day working there. In 2009 I fought clear cell adenocarcinoma and uterine cancer caused by DES exposure. In 2012, after a year of pain and suffering, I was finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Then, in 2016, I was sexually assaulted by my spouse.
I have decided to look at these hurdles as gifts to my loved ones. Statistically, one of my close friends or family members will get MS, two of us will get raped, and another will get cancer. I learned at an early age that our time here on earth is short and that I should help as many people as I can, while I can. For me, that means with paint. In my self portrait, I painted an S on my hand for Survivor. It faces away from me because, at the time, I didn’t feel it completely. But I knew one day I would -- and that when that time came, I would turn my hand to face me. I am a survivor.
What I have really survived is living with a debilitating panic disorder that most people do not understand. As an adult I have gone through phases where I was unable to venture from my neighborhood for years at a time, without intense fear. I always fight to get better, because I want to have a long life, and I need to work to survive and to make my family happy. I grew up in lower Manhattan in the ‘70s and ‘80s and starting in eighth grade, I took the subway to Brooklyn to attend private school. The subways were very dangerous back then, so my mom had me travel with a female classmate to stay safe -- but the men did whatever they wanted nevertheless. They jerked off in front of us or right up against me if the train was packed. They stuck their hands up my skirt and in my underwear and did any number of disgusting things when the trains were packed, shoulder to shoulder.
I would freeze with adrenaline and fear and not be able to move. This happened more times than I can remember.
In eighth grade, I went to a bar with a girlfriend and met some punk guys in their twenties, whom we went home with. My friend got raped in the next room while I managed to fight off the guy I was with -- but I couldn't leave without her and I was trapped there with this guy crawling all over me.
To this day, I don't remember all of it. I remained in a state of panic for years, unable to turn off the obsessive thoughts of all the gross things that happened. When I moved to the West Coast for college and lived on a small campus, I was able to move on from the thoughts; but as soon as I graduated and had to commute by bus to get to my job, I had such bad panic attacks I couldn't take the bus. I eventually moved back to NYC and had acute panic attacks whenever I had to take the subway. I truly believe that when the train just stops sometimes, I might never be able to leave. I hate that about all public transportation. I can't control leaving if I have to.
Most people don't understand my limitations with panic attacks, claustrophobia and travel, but I have done a lot of work with different types of therapy and I now take medication that helps me. I’m also lucky to have a job working with people whom I help (not with panic attacks, obviously) and this, in turn, helps me to keep perspective. I teach high school to learning disabled teens in a low-income area and most of my kids have had trauma in their lives. They can relate to my claustrophobia, and they love coming to school where I make them laugh every day, which I'm pretty good at. That's how I get through each day -- being around young survivors whom I don't need to explain myself to, knowing that I can help them by just offering strength and as much laughter as possible.
Charlie (as written by his brother)
On 11/14/08 around 9am in the Diyala Province of Iraq, Charlie McMillan was checking a house in an abandon village to ensure insurgence had left the area. The house had been cleared by a bomb dog that travelled with the group. Upon contact with the front door, an IED was triggered. The explosion destroyed the front of the building and nearly ended my brothers life. We were contacted by his commanding officer and notified of the incident later that day. We had no idea how severe the injuries were until he arrived in San Antonio. He survived.
His injuries included: Shrapnel injuries across his entire body, loss of sight in one eye, hearing loss, spiral fracture below the knee, multiple broken ribs, broken ocular bone, a collapsed lung, crushed facial bones, internal respiratory burns, a severe concussion and the emotional trauma that comes from such a horrifying experience. He survived.
Charlie is medically retired from the Army and taking care of his 4 kids and loving wife in Texas. He will always live with the physical and emotional aftermath. Every day offers a different challenge. He survives.
There are currently 32,000 children living in orphanages in Haiti. At least 80% of these children have one or two living parents who want them back. Sadly, lack of access to proper healthcare, education, social services and disability support has rendered them unable to care for their children. Currently there is no waiting list to adopt a child from Haiti.
Jacques Ribons (Jakub Meir Rybsztejn) as told by his family
Jacques' early years were marked by poverty, prejudice from Polish society, scorn from the non-Jewish community and an absent, indifferent father. The war brought a magnitude of hate and murder unthinkable in modern, westernized society. He traveled through the abysses of the Holocaust. He survived the labor camp Blechammer and a "Death March" of over 200 miles during one of the coldest winters recorded in Europe. He saw near death close to the end of WW II while at the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald, where he lived in the infamous Barrack 66 with Eli Wiesel -- but he persisted nonetheless, surviving starvation, forced labor, the death of loved ones and complete indignity. No one really knows where his spark to survive came from, yet he was a survivor in every sense of the word. His love of life and family would become his legacy. He was a business owner, a successful, beloved father, a man of honor and our hero for all times. His soul sings "Beautiful" by Carol King.
Nour And Livia
Nour painted with her best friend, Livia, who is an illegal immigrant from Mexico.
It is unfair that my family’s life is in jeopardy just because we are Christians. It is pathetic that we almost got killed for believing in the same God as our persecutors, just described differently.
I was born in Abuja, Nigeria, and the village where I lived, Nkwerre, was bombed because we are Christians. We weren’t safe -- I had to stop going to school for one year because they were kidnapping girls and questioning their religious beliefs and if they were to answer Christian, they were killed in front of the other girls.
There were times that we couldn’t go to sleep because my mom would go to work and the BokoHarams would announce that they were going to bomb the place near where my mom worked or literally the place she worked. One day my mother didn’t come home and we started to worry about her. We called her at work and she didn’t answer and our worries started to grow even more. By nightfall, she still wasn't home and there was no sign of her. I remember that we couldn’t go to sleep because we didn’t know what was going on until the next day. She came home and explained to us that she slept at her job because the BokoHarams had surrounded the place and it was dangerous for them to venture out. Whenever things got really dangerous, my mom would take us to our grandparents home in the village and we would stay there until we knew that everything back at our home was alright .
My dad decided to move us to the United States to have a better and safer life. He brought my siblings and I to the U.S. and the only problem was that my mom stayed back because she didn’t wanted to start all over again with finding a new job. Thanks to my parents’ decision, we are safe; but I never forget that my mother is still in danger. I know she’s safe when we talk on the phone and when she comes and visits us. Abuja Nigeria is a wonderful place and I hope that one day I will be able to return when things are better.
I’m a survivor. I survived death’s door due to drug and alcohol addiction. I was dying on the inside and out. I was addicted to cocaine, marijuana and alcohol at the age of 23 -- I couldn’t stop. At first I didn’t want to, but when I tried to stop I wasn’t able to. By the age of 25, just 2 years into my addiction, I was so skinny, my skin was grey, my hair was falling out; I was sick. While my addiction took place I took on several jobs working with children. I worked as a substitute preschool teacher and during nap time, I used to take naps with the kids. It was the only time I ever slept. Eating their leftover food was the only food I ever ate. I finally sought help through a rehabilitation center in Los Angeles, as I was completely unable to stop on my own. I was taught to go to meetings and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. This was in 2001. I’ve been sober ever since.
In my first year of sobriety, I wanted to continue to work with children. I found a job working with children with autism. I fell in love with this profession. I learned how to work with kids with autism, went back to school for my Master’s Degree in this field and became a board certified behavior analyst. I’ve been working with children with autism for the past 15 years, helping with behavior modifications, among other interventions, and working alongside wonderful people in the field. I love what I do, being of service and helping this community in the best way I can.
Missy grew up in a religious cult with her family. She was isolated from society and was unable to live openly as a lesbian. She found her way out through a traditional marriage. Her story is below.
This survivor story is about me being really, truly awfully sick in my teen years and, well, really, the cult stuff and religious abuse and insanity in my family is all linked to the years of illness. So I’ve found myself wondering: have I really survived?
I’m still alive, so in the most literal sense, yes, I have survived. I haven’t been suicidal in years, but in the way of old wounds, one of the twinges I occasionally deal with is a deep desire to not be here, to be done, to escape and say NO MORE PAIN. And then I feel really angry about being here, in existence, at all.
I had my first religious experience at the age of three or so. I had my first crush on a girl at 7. I killed all of my feelings to really be an adult at the age of 11. At the age of 13, the pain started. Well, the physical pain anyways. I was the oldest of four, and my parents should have divorced many, many years before they did. I lived in Mesa, Az, in a dominantly Mormon community.
The anxiety started soon after. I remember breaking down, grieving, weeping, heart breaking, that I wasn’t perfect. My mom, very concerned, asked what’s wrong. I said ‘the bible says I have to be perfect like Jesus and I’m not. I was born and bred to hate. I was also trained to please and obey men (my father and future husband, as if I were obeying Christ, God himself); and thus, to be powerless in attitude and socio-economic position. Most of the girls in our community were being raised to be housewives. There was a general trend towards college education and valuing education, at least through an extremely Christian lens. So basically I had a really abusive relationship with god for a really long time. I received a sense of safety and security and rightness in exchange for complete allegiance
I was raised to believe it was my god-called duty to NOT work and that homemaking was more godly than secular work, that I would be selfish if I worked out of anything other than dire necessity---kid you not, my mom wasn’t allowed to work. Wasn’t. Allowed. To work. So holding a job has been a struggle for me, work is hard. I feel a burning, tight feeling in my belly writing that, that I would call shame. Debilitating anxiety and depression with occasional suicidal tendencies. PTSD. I literally can’t show cleavage without feeling anxious and wrong. I dress conservatively to this day and while I do dress sexily on occasion, it takes intention and presence of mind. Everything always constantly feels wrong. Like I'm failing. Self loathing and self hate by the bucketful. Deep sense of distrust of self.
My parents decided when we were little that, in accordance with their faith, they would homeschool, to shield us from the world and it’s corrupting influences. My mom gave up her career to teach my sister and I and then, later, my brothers. Because, you know, you can’t really date or be physical, even if you are dating; lots of energy goes into NOT dating, into praying over your sinful sexual thoughts--and that which we resist gains power, so it’s a nasty, nasty cycle. Obsessed, but with no outlet or release.
So I start reading conservative Christian writers on the subject of marriage and dating and decided that in order to truly honor god, that courtship is the best choice for me. Courtship is where you test each other out for marriage. No dating, less fun--you are trying to find god’s chosen life partner for you, so why not get the whole family involved? They know you best, they’re part of your life, and so seeing how your future partner fits into your life is a big deal. So: family dates were born, along with the idea that my dad was the best person to choose who I dated and of course, has 100% veto power.
Which I did agree too, willingly and enthusiastically at the time because I wanted to honor god by obeying my father. Because god said so in the bible. Then of course, once my dad chose my husband, he would pass on his god given authority over me and my life to my husband and I would continue my god honoring obedience with my husband.
No one knew I was seriously queer. I barely knew. I knew that my mom had made a very weird and concerned face when I told her how very super much I wanted to be Kelly Etz’s friend when I was 7. And by the time I was feeling turned on by boobs when I was hugging my girl friends, I knew enough deep down to know that it would be extremely dangerous to admit these feelings to anyone, including myself. This was the beginning of the serious depression and suicidal thoughts. The latter never got too bad at this point.
I started dating John, my now husband of 12 years. I left family church for a slightly larger but still ultra conservative church. My family freaked out, took the car, took all of my things, moved me out of my friend’s house, told my church on me. The Pastor at church asked me to leave because I was sinning by having sex.
Had I stayed, I could not have done the bodywork training I received as part of my training in massage therapy. Becoming aware of the truth of my own experience, of who I really was and what I was really feeling, was instrumental to my shift.
The thing is, my faith remained. So here I am. Making the best of where I am. I treasure the gifts my legacy has given me for they are many and precious. But I’ve been asked to talk about the darker parts here, and know that they are parts and not the entirety. Some days the darkness seems darker than others, some days it’s negligible in the sunshine and beauty of this amazing life--what a privilege to have dishes and laundry and a curious mind able to voice his ten hundred million thoughts and questions. I have had healing and allies and support and friends arise from all sides, all the time and especially when in need. And here I am talking about how my heart was broken by good hearted, well intentioned people. I was a higher suicide risk due to my closeted sexuality, not to mention the depression from other sources.
Here’s how I’ve survived: day by day. Deciding to be OK. Deciding to accept myself, against all comers. Deciding to trust whatever it is that I trust. Deciding that it’s OK to be really, really human.
My name is Jessica and I am a survivor of Human Trafficking.
My life, overall, had been a living hell spanning over 20 years. I had experienced almost nonstop physical, mental, emotional and spiritual abuse beginning as a small child. It grew into the most violent forms of abuse as a teenager and adult.
I used to think that my situation was normal. It never occurred to me that there were many people in the world that were genuinely nice and gentle. I remember finally being able to pick up the pieces in my life. I had gotten back custody of my daughter, who had been stolen from me, thankfully! I managed to obtain my GED after not being in school since the 9th grade, completed a cna program, went back to school to work toward obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Sociology (still in progress), managed to land a job with a program I was once a client for and eventually moved into doing work, with support from a grant, for L.A. County Probation serving survivors of Human Trafficking.
While in the midst of doing all these things, I was contacted by Libby Spears who wanted me to take part in a campaign showing the resiliency of women around the world who had overcome obstacles that were attempting to block their happiness. It was great for me to know that there were others like me in the world that felt empowered and secure to share their stories and show themselves on camera for the world to see in hopes of assisting someone that may be going through the same things they had once gone through themselves. I felt honored to be amongst these incredible people.
I remember speaking to Libby on the phone and taking her step by step through the background of my tumultuous past. We were finishing and getting ready to close out for the evening, when she told me that there was something else she’d thought would be powerful. In addition to being filmed, she thought that it would be even more empowering if this amazing artist by the name of Lydia Emily would paint me.
I thought to myself: “Why would anyone want to paint me?” I thought it was a dream that I had been given a platform to tell my story for the world to see. I had been so overwhelmed with happiness over the news that all of a sudden, after hanging up the phone, I felt a wave of anxiety take over my whole being. What if I don’t have the right look and what if she decides to opt out due to my not having the same youthful look I managed to preserve through years of abuse? I swallowed my fear and anxiety and decided to work through it.
I ended up meeting Lydia in a studio and she was the strongest, most vibrant and inviting woman I had ever met. She told me that she was ready to paint me and she didn’t want to show me the painting until she was completely finished. I happily agreed and we all began the process that would inevitably change my life and lead me to being and feeling completely empowered.
Lydia, Libby and all the filming crew made me feel safe and comfortable. I believe to my core that meeting everyone involved in this process gave me a new understanding that all people are not evil, and all people are not selfish but selfless. Lydia Emily helped me to appreciate myself inside and out. When I saw the mural she’d created of me, I do believe she captured the essence of my soul.
I feel honored and empowered yet again, as Lydia is catching her soul and mine in a meaningful work of art. I know it will speak to many and all I can say is thank you!!!!
Adrian Ramirez was born and raised in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, the youngest of four children born to devoutly Catholic Mexican immigrants. His parents taught him to respect and admire priests and Adrian grew up with the sense that priests were the closest thing to God on earth. So when a seminarian, Jose Samuel Adame -- or "Sam” -- took a special interest in Adrian, his parents encouraged the relationship. Sam sexually abused Adrian from the ages of 10 to 16. Adrian was sodomized. Sam orally copulated Adrian and forced him to do the same to Sam. All the while, Adrian's parents thought that Sam was helping Adrian with his problems.
Adrian dropped out of school in the 7th grade, never to return again. He couldn't control his rage and took it out on his parents. At his worst, he locked his mother in a closet when he didn't get his way. He couldn't understand why he was being abused or why his parents allowed him to spend time with his abuser. By the time the abuse ended, he was on the streets and addicted to drugs for the next two years.
When he grew tired of living on the streets , Adrian moved back in with his parents. He got a job at an auto shop, but he was still addicted to drugs. At the age of 24, he met Nancy and knew right away that he would marry her. But he had never told anyone about the sexual abuse and was still abusing drugs and alcohol. He didn't get completely clean until he learned that Nancy was expecting their first daughter, Alexia.
Years later, Nancy and Adrian found themselves experiencing marital problems. Nancy worked days and Adrian nights. Adrian's brother pestered him about his family issues. Adrian decided that it was time to talk about the abuse for the first time in his life.
In his parents’ house in front of his 3 siblings, their spouses and his parents (and his wife?), Adrian finally revealed that he had been sexually abused by the seminarian whom the family revered so much. Without being told, Adrian's dad knew immediately that it was Sam, but still told Adrian that he should leave it in the past and move on.
Adrian went to the police. They told him that since the criminal statute of limitations had passed, they would write a report but they wouldn't investigate. Adrian then went to a local Catholic school where he told the director that he had been sexually abused. Adrian was worried about additional victims because Sam, the perpetrator, was a Catholic High school teacher at the time.
The Catholic school director put Adrian in touch with the Los Angeles Archdiocese and their investigator. Eventually, Adrian met with Cardinal Roger Mahoney and other people who worked for the Archdiocese. Unbeknownst to Adrian, two gentlemen in the meeting were actually the lead attorneys for the Archdiocese against sexual abuse victims. Cardinal Mahoney commended Adrian for his bravery in coming forward. Cardinal Mahoney offered Adrian an opportunity to work with the "many" Latino victims who Mahoney personally knew. Mahoney told Adrian that he could be a speaker in Catholic schools on the issue of clergy abuse. He told Adrian that they would talk weekly to come up with a plan. The offer never materialized and six months later, Adrian received his first and last communication with the Cardinal -- a Christmas card.
Nobody from the Archdiocese ever bothered to tell Adrian that he was within the current statute of limitations to bring a civil case against the Archdiocese, or that he should see a lawyer. Adrian had less than a year before his civil statute of limitations would be closed to him forever.
Eventually, Adrian found an attorney, Anthony M. De Marco, who specialized in clergy sexual abuse. Their meeting was just in time. Adrian was one of the 500 sexual abuse victims who made history when they settled their claims against the Catholic Church in 2007.
But all of Adrian’s suffering was not in vain. He found his calling working for Mr. De Marco's law firm. As a Victim Advocate, Adrian now helps clients with whatever they may need and provides emotional support throughout their civil cases. In his free time, Adrian enjoys traveling with his wife, Nancy, and his two daughters.
The Masai of Kenya are losing their lands to other countries for tourism and big game hunting. Hunting on this land -- which they have occupied for hundreds of years -- costs between $10,000-35,000 dollars a lion. None of this money goes to the Masai.
John Wellington Ennis’s book, Where Else But the Streets: A Street Art Dossier, features LydiaEmily and other political street artists in Los Angeles.