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Powerful photo gallery in Calgary captures women’s strength through struggle

Powerful photo gallery on display in Calgary captures strength from struggle
WATCH ABOVE: In hopes of creating a thought-provoking conversation around pain and trauma, a Calgary woman created a travelling gallery. She collected nearly 100 images from women who submitted their own self-portraits. Jill Croteau reports.

The Uncommon Woman Gallery is a powerful collection of self-portraits that showcases women sharing their stories of strength coming from struggle.

The art installation is giving voice to women who have experienced pain, loss and grief.

READ MORE: Alberta photography project highlights beauty in scars

The visionary behind this black-and-white gallery is Marlo Ellis. She recognized a need to allow women to share their own journeys without having to say it out loud.

Uncommon Woman visionary, Marlo Ellis.
Uncommon Woman visionary, Marlo Ellis. Jill Croteau

“It was like a tsunami of people stepping forward and sharing their stories.

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“They do want to speak and be heard and seen but they’re just not ready to share through language or don’t have the words to express how they feel yet,” Ellis said.

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The pictures reveal these women with words they’ve written on their own bodies. Words that represent a part of their life.

“We have stories of mental illness, depression, all the way to the murder of a child, suicide of a daughter, kidnapping. There are domestic abuse stories,” Ellis said.

READ MORE: Young Quebec woman finds beauty in her scars after hit-and-run crash

“Although there are 100 stories here, there are thousands.

“These women represent everybody, every story.”

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Krista Kokot is part of the gallery and shared her black-and-white photo with the word “hush” scrawled across her mouth.

“When I was six, my dad kidnapped me from my mom and in that moment he said, ‘Don’t say anything. We will be on the run,’ and we were,” Kokot said. “Years went by and I found my mom when I was 30 and even then it was, ‘Don’t talk about it,’ so the hush was back again, just this overpowering feeling of me not being allowed to speak my truth.”

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Self-portraits of Krista Kokot and Madonna Mayfield.
Self-portraits of Krista Kokot and Madonna Mayfield. Jill Croteau

The action of marking their own bodies with a word, phrase or label is a symbolic journey.

“Putting it across my mouth was very intentional for how I had to be quiet. I cried through the whole thing. We went into a dark room, took a picture and the process of taking it off was also tough.

“But every time I stroked it off it was like: this is no longer who I am. It was beautiful,” Kokot said.

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Madonna Mayfield is also part of the gallery. She felt privileged to be included in this collection.

“It feels epic. It’s very moving, powerful and emotional. So much strength,” Mayfield said.

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The hope is to inspire more photos, more stories, to show the resilience from trauma and tragedy.

“Ten years ago there was an accident that shifted me. It broke me. It broke my body. It broke my marriage. It left me feeling abandoned and unworthy. My life shattered,” Mayfield said.

“Now I realize I am not broken, I’m not abandoned and not unworthy. I am a warrior because I came back.”

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The Uncommon Woman Gallery is open all day Tuesday, June 25 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the McHugh House. All proceeds go to the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter.