Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Red Tent: How a Book Launched a Healing Space for Women

By Margo Hammond

    It started with a book. 


In 2012, after reading Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent, Barbara Rhode was inspired to launch a unique program of healing at the Pinellas County Jail for women prisoners Now 10 years later, Rhode’ Red Tent Women’s Initiative, a program that combines group therapy with classes of arts and crafts, has helped over 1,000 incarcerated women work through the trauma that landed them behind bars in the first place, cutting down on their recidivism rates and saving the county a lot of money in the process.

     No wonder Pinellas County Circuit Court Judge Kimberly Todd is talking with Rhode, a licensed marriage and family therapist, about starting a Diversion Program that would allow the court to mandate attendance at Red Tent sessions in lieu of sending these women to jail.

     “The Red Tent,” set in Biblical times, imagines a space where women who were menstruating or about to give birth were quarantined. In the novel the women use the space — which they dub “the red tent” — to support each other through difficult times. Reading Diamant’s novel, Rhode began to ask herself: Where was the red tent for incarcerated women? Where were the safe places where women in prison could go to share their stories and heal?” 

     Rhode decided to build one — incorporating the work of two researchers who specialize in trauma: UCLA scientist Shelley E. Taylor, author of “The Tending Instinct: How Nurturing is Essential to Who We Are and How We Live(a book Rhode had been using in her private counseling practice) and Bessel van der Kolk, a Boston psychiatrist and author of “The Body Keeps the Score.” 

     Taylor’s studies conclude that women and men historically have handled stress and trauma very differently. Since prehistoric times, Taylor says, women have been “tending and befriending” when they are in need. While men are programmed to just suck it up, women appear to be hard-wired to heal their trauma by talking out their stories with other women. Van der Kolk discovered that trauma interferes with the brain circuits that involve focusing, flexibility, and being able to stay in emotional control. He found that bodily activities — sewing or yoga, for example — can heal those circuits by releasing chemicals that relieve stress. 

       Rhode adopted both of these findings and designed an 8-week program that would include both talk therapy and hands-on crafts.

     The arts and crafts, she decided, would come first. “Instead of the women seeing us coming in and and thinking, ‘Oh, here come the therapists, we’re going to be therapized,’ we engaged them first in activities using their hands,” says Rhode. She hung quilts in the space where the women were to meet to create a safe and nurturing environment. “I wanted the women to feel at ease.”

To put women prisoners at ease, Barbara Rhode has hung quilts in the healing space at the Pinellas County Jail where the participants of the Red Tent Women’s Initiative meet. These quilts hang just outside Rhode’s Central Avenue office in St. Petersburg (Photo above & below by Margo Hammond)


     The Pinellas County Jail has placed several copies of “The Red Tent” in its library.  From time to time, Diamant corresponds with Rhode, tracking the progress of the project that bears her novel’s name. Temporarily interrupted by COVID, the Red Tent Women’s Initiative program is scheduled to start up again at the jail on July 5. 


     I am talking to Rhode in her third floor office on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. Beside her is a lamp sculpture donated to the Red Tent Women’s Initiative by local artist Robin Roth Murphy. Made from repurposed, reconstructed objects, the life-size piece in the shape of a female figure is entitled Sangha, which, appropriately, means community in Hindi.  “Sangha represents the women in our community who have suffered trauma from past abuse, addiction, and incarceration but have risen to the light,” says Rhode as she sweeps her hand up the sculpture, past its head (a globe) to the lamp shade.

     The reactions from the women who have been in the program, she tells me, have been heartening.  “I never was in the company of other women who wished me good,” one woman said.  “I have never been with women who talked with me so respectively and openly.” One brash, heavy-set woman lumbered into the healing space on the first day and made it clear that she planned to be there for only one session, Rhode remembers.  “I’m not doing any of those damn crafts,” the inmate announced. “I just want to get out of the pod where those women are driving me crazy.”  The prisoner ended up completing the whole eight weeks, embroidering a gift for her 11-year-old daughter. She became one of the programs greatest advocate.

The Red Tent Women’s Initiative combines hands-on crafts which have been scientifically proven to relieve stress with talk therapy to provide women inmates whose sentences are nearly up the tools to cope with the trauma that landed them in prison in the first place. (Photo above and below from the Red Tent Women's Initiative website)

    Rhode, who grew up on Long Island, has been involved in prison programs since her college days at Hofstra University when she volunteered for Friends of Fortune (an agency that no longer exists) which bused family members up to see their loved ones in upstate prisons. “It was my first introduction to the social justice system,” she says. She also worked at Goodwill Suncoast Residential Re-entry Center, helping women who were serving jail time on drug charges transition back into society.

     According to the Sentencing Project, the number of incarcerated women exploded between 1980 and 2022, rising nearly 500 percent (750 percent in the last decade alone, according to Rhode). Mandated sentencing and the opioid crisis are major causes, says Rhode. Most are mothers with young children, points out Rhode who herself is a mother of three and grandmother to five. The vast majority have a history of abuse, trauma and mental health problems. A report by the Vera Institute of Justice concluded that 86 percent of women in jail have experienced sexual violence and 77 percent have experienced intimate partner violence.

      In response to this crisis, programs promoted during the Clinton and then the Obama administrations, have encouraged a shift in the way these women in prisons have been viewed, says Rhode. “We are not asking women what they did, but what was done to them,” she says.

     Rhode’ staff includes a part-time instructor (Diane Distelcamp) who teaches the women sewing skills. Most of the work is done by hand, but there are some sewing machines available (donated by PTEC) for those who become particularly proficient. Two full-time facilitators (Meg Hogan Scott and Katherine Coulson) provide the women with tools to handle trauma (using a program called HeartMath) and help them connect the dots between their past abuse and their present behavior.

    Rhode, who in 2020 was one of ten women honored by L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth for her “selfless” philanthropic work, now spends most of her time promoting the program (she currently is seeking space and funding for that Diversion Program). 

     Inevitably when Rhode talks to groups about the Red Tent Women’s Initiative, someone in the audience will ask, “Why are you helping criminals? Why don’t you help their kids?” “What I try to make them see is that by helping the prisoner, we are helping their families,” says Rhode. To underline that point, she tells the story of a day in Panera’s when a young woman shyly approached her.  “Miss Barbara?” the young girl asked tentatively. “I don’t know if you remember my mom, but I just want to thank you for helping her.” The young girl had spent most of her childhood in foster homes as her mother returned again and again to jail for substance abuse. Until her mother went through Rhode’ program, that is, and she got her mom back for good.

      Rhode also likes to tell the touching story of when she bought a copy of The Red Tent at an estate sale near her house. “It didnt take me long after arriving at the sale to realize that something felt odd about this particular sale,” she writes on the Red Tent Women’s Initiative website. “It was as if the owner had left one morning and never returned and they were now selling every single thing she had owned; the comb that still had her hair in it, her worn-out teapot and even a 1/2 bottle of her favorite perfume. I asked my neighbor if he knew what had happened. He explained to me in a low voice that the owner had killed herself recently and that the young woman sitting by the front door managing the sale was her daughter. Before I turned to go, I felt pulled to walk through her bedroom to understand better why she had taken her own life. And, there on her nightstand was a copy of ‘The Red Tent.’”

     If that woman had had a red tent to go to when the world closed in on her, would she have made a different choice? Rhode asks us. “Since that day,” she writes, “I have worked to provide women with a safe place to come together; my attempt at creating a red tent where women could reach out for help, share stories, and mentor the young and in need.

     “In other words, a nurturing, healing place where they could come to tend & befriend.”

Barbara Rhode, the founder of the Red Tent Women’s Initiative, stands beside a poster with a testimony from one of the female inmates helped by her program

Want to help? Donate to the Red Tent Women’s Initiative here.

This article originally was posted in Arts Coast Journal, the online magazine of Creative Pinellas, on June 27 as part of its June Arts and Healing Focus.

Sunday, May 29, 2022


Houses, Chairs, Toilet Cubicle Doors and Tearoom Menus… Oh, and Book Covers, too

By Margo Hammond

When I say Charles Rennie Mackintosh, what comes to mind? High-backed chairs?

This 1898 chair from the Argyle Street tea rooms was the first high-backed chair Mackintosh designed

. . “By the age of 31, he had designed tea room interiors, a major newspaper building, a church, a church hall, a public school, a university college, an art school, an art club gallery, private homes, furniture and more,” according to the exhibit’s curators.. . .

Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed everything from houses to book covers. Above and below are two works he created for Miss Cranston’s Argyle Street tearooms – a toilet cubicle door and a menu.

. . .
The special show — which closes on June 5 — includes 166 of works of art and design, including watercolor paintings, textiles, floor-to-ceiling posters, ceramics, a toilet cubicle door, even the menu for Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearooms (built in 1907).

But my favorites are the Glasgow Style book covers on display.
. . .

The cover of The Political Works of Robert Burns (1909) designed by Talwin Morris for Gresham Publishing

. . .
“The Importance of Books” – that is the bold headline on the wall in one room of the exhibit emphasizing how intricately linked the literary arts and visual arts were in Mackintosh’s time: “In the late 19th century, ideas largely spread through the printed word in books, journals, and magazines. The visual arts were closely tied to the literary ones, as books were often illustrated and publishers used attractive color designs to market their volumes.”

Among the most beautiful books on display at the MAACM special exhibit are the ones designed by Talwin Morris, the art director of the Glasgow-based Blackie & Son. Influenced by his friendship with Mackintosh and “The Four” who helped define the Glasgow Style, Morris designed dozens of covers for Blackie and other publishing houses, breaking away from the humdrum narrative style commonly used on books in the Victorian era and moving to the more modern Art Nouveau emphasis on lines, curves and repeating motifs.
. . .

The book cover of Queen Victoria: Her Life and Reign, Volume 1 (1901) designed by Talwin Morris for Gresham Publishing

. . .
“The Four” was a quartet of designers and painters who had met at the Glasgow School of Art – Mackintosh, his wife Margaret MacDonaldHerbert MacNair and his wife Frances MacDonald (Margaret’s sister). In this exhibit, there are stunning examples of all of their work. Morris, whose wife Alice was a children’s books illustrator, became regarded as the fifth member of “The Four.”

It was Morris, in fact, who linked Mackintosh forever with the publishing world. In 1902 at Morris’ suggestion, Walter Blackie, the founder of Blackie & Son, hired Mackintosh to design his home in Helensburgh, west of Glasgow. Mackintosh, with the help of his wife Margaret, designed most of the house’s interior and furniture as well, even prescribing the color of the cut flowers on the living room table. The private home, known as Hill House, is considered Mackintosh’s finest accomplishment.
. . .

Mackintosh created this chair in 1904 for the writing desk at Hill House, the private home he designed for publisher Charles Blackie

. . .
After Morris’ death (Mackintosh designed his tombstone at the behest of his widow), Blackie invited Mackintosh to design his own book covers for the publishing house. He is said to have designed three covers, including one for The Saucy May by Henry Firth (c. 1921).
. . .

The book cover of The Saucy May (c. 1922), designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

. . .
A copy of The Saucy May is currently offered at Etsy for $39.30. It certainly is one of the more economical ways to own a Mackintosh design. In 2002 one of the original high-backed chairs Mackintosh designed for the Argyle tearooms in Glasgow sold at auction for more than $450,000.
. . .

Above, is a spot at Designing the New where museum goers can try their own hand at stenciling, an art form used extensively by Mackintosh to decorate walls with his bold, graphic designs. Below are two striking posters he designed, for the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts (1894-95) and for the Scottish Musical Review (1896)

NOTE TO MY TAMPA BAY SUBSCRIBERS: Designing the New runs through June 5 at MAACM, 355 4th Street North, St. Petersburg. Tickets are $15 on top of the museum entrance fee. Details here.

This article originally appeared in Arts Coast Journal on May 26, 2022

Friday, April 8, 2022

DEAR ME: Postcards Inspired by Picasso

By Margo Hammond . .

Have you ever written yourself a postcard?

I did — at a workshop last month at the Dalí Museum offered by The Paper Seahorse and the Tampa Bay Letter Writers.

The Paper Seahorse is a Tampa-based stationery store that addresses what its founder, Tona Bell, calls “the digital dilemma” – the fact that these days so many of us are constantly in front of our computers.

“My vision is for people to keep in touch with themselves and others,” says Bell. “We have the tools to help you digitally detox.” Her shop offers a curated collection of stationery, writing tools, notebooks, letter writing sets, gift wrapping, writing accessories and letter pressed goods as well as creative classes that encourage people to slow down and writer a letter. Or a postcard.

. . .

One of the inspirational postcards included by The Paper Seahorse in the packet handed out at the Art of the Postcard — Picasso Style workshop . .

For years members of The Tampa Bay Letter Writers, co-founded by Bell and Tammy Wright (who actually holds bachelor’s degrees in Pulp and Paper Science and Chemical Engineering), have gathered at the store to do just that. They turn off their screens and take time to type missives at the store’s “writing bar” on vintage typewriters from the ’20s to the ’70s — or write letters, thank you notes or cards out by hand in one of the shop’s writing nooks. Members swap ideas (and materials) and by the end of their day, stamp their creations and mail them. Although lately the club’s sessions have been online, the spirit is the same – Long live snail mail!

At the Dalí workshop, it was “phones off, pens up” as well. The evening began upstairs in the galleries showing the special exhibit Picasso and The Allure of the South. The Spanish artist was himself an avid fan of writing, illustrating and sending postcards. There is a lot to be learned from Picasso’s playful approach to art.
. . .

The Art of the Postcard — Picasso Style workshop held by The Paper Seahorse and the Tampa Bay Letter Writers in the Raymond James room at the Dalí Museum, overlooking the Avant-Garden

. . .
After touring the special exhibit, we headed to the spacious Raymond James room whose windows overlook the museum’s Avant-Garden. At each of our work tables, which we shared with one or two others, there was a packet of postcards, stickers and quality papers in various sizes. Also on the table was a lightning whelk, a unique Florida shell that, in contrast to most conches, unusually spirals to the left.

For more Picasso inspiration, Tammy Wright showed us some examples of the Spanish artist’s postcard creations. The first was a card Picasso sent to his friend, artist and writer Jean Cocteau. In the space where most people write a message, Picasso had painted a floor-to-ceiling window looking out onto a balcony, specifically the balcony at 10, Rue d’Anjou where Cocteau’s mother had an apartment. The postcard is addressed to Cocteau at that address.
. . .

. . .
On another postcard Picasso had drawn an ink pen sketch of his portly friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who is credited with naming the Surrealist movement. Sporting a bowler hat, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and his hands filled with books and notebooks, Apollinaire is walking his tiny dog. Picasso’s message? “Je ne te vois plus. Tu es mort?” (I don’t see you anymore. Are you dead?).
. . .

. . .
The third one had the longest message and no illustrations. Picasso sent it to Gertrude Stein, famous for her writings but even more for her apartment on the Rue du Fleurus in Paris that she shared with her partner Alice B. Toklas which became a magnet for avant-garde artists. Picasso obviously was addressing Stein’s concern that there were flies in the South of France where Picasso was spending the summer. He writes –

“Mais non Gertrude,
il n’y a pas des mouches et je n’ai vu encore qu’un moustique,
que j’ai tué d’ailleurs. Ecrives si le coeur vous dit.
Milles bonnes choses de nous deux a vous (et mlle Toklas)”

Translation: But no, Gertrude. There aren’t any flies
and I have only seen one mosquito which I have killed.
Write me if your heart tells you to. A thousand beautiful things
from the two of us to you (and Miss Toklas).

That postcard was signed “votre Picasso” (your Picasso).
. . .

. . .
On the fourth, Picasso includes a pen and ink drawing of a plump turkey surrounded by wine bottles, glasses, grapes, bread, bananas and a pear under the year 1919. He and his wife Olga signed it and sent it to their friend Henri Defosse, an orchestra conductor who was living and working in London with a message, written in French, that translate as “My friends here with this well filled table our best wishes.” At auction in 2013 it sold for $27,600.
. . .

This illustrated postcard by Picasso sold at auction for $188,000, a record for a postcard.

. . .
Two years later, another Picasso postcard would break that record. Ironically, that postcard never made it to its intended receiver. Sent in 1918, Picasso had addressed it to his French friend, but he wrote the poet’s name in Spanish – M Don Guillermo Apollinaire. The French post office marked it Rebut (Scrap).

When it went up for auction in 2018, it sold for $188,000, a world record for a postcard.
. . .

Tammy Wright, co-founder of Tampa Bay Letter Writers, oversees one of the work stations at the Art of the Postcard — Picasso Style workshop

. . .
To create our own postcards, the workshop organizers invited us to use the materials at three work stations – artisan pencils; ink pens and ink pots; shells, rocks and other objects for creating interesting imprints on our paper; rubber stamps with postal-inspired images (and one of a seahorse, natch); magazines and old postcards that we were encouraged to cut up for collaging — and more quality paper products, including brightly colored gift wrappings.. . .. . .

To start, I began at the work table lined with pencils and pens. There, Randy Rosenthal, who is a member of the Tampa Bay Letter Writers (and married to Bell), introduced me to the dreamy Blackwing pencil.

You thought a pencil was just a pencil? Think again.

Palomino Blackwing pencils come in four styles – Soft, Balanced Pearl, 602 Firm, and Extra Firm. The iconic 602 was a favorite of writer John Steinbeck.

. . .
Originally launched by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company in the 1930s, the Blackwing 602 pencil quickly developed a cult following among designers, writers (John Steinbeck was a fan), illustrators, composers and more for their smooth writing, long lasting graphite, and adjustable erasers. Chuck Jones used the pencil to create Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters.

When the company went out of business in the 1990s, the price of its unused stock skyrocketed (some collectors paid nearly $100 for a single Blackwing pencil). Then in 2010 the Palomino company, which had nearly a century of experience in the pencil business, brought back the Blackwing brand “for a new generation of writers, musicians, and others seeking a more natural existence.”

They now come in four core pencils – Soft, Balanced Pearl, 602 Firm and Extra Firm. The Paper Seahorse sells them in lots of 12 for a lot less than $100. The erasers can be removed so you can put in a fresh one — or try a new color. The unique square design keeps the pencil from rolling off your desk, and contributes to the iconic pencil’s design-centric look.

And, if you need further incentive to become a Blackwing groupie, according to the Blackwing website, a portion of every Blackwing sale benefits music and arts education at the K-12 level.
. . .

An array of ink pens awaiting participants at the Art of the Postcard — Picasso Style workshop

. . .
Rosenthal also encouraged me to try out an amazing array of pens that slid across the page like butter, including an old-fashioned one which I had to dip in an ink well. I used that one to trace around my lightning whelk (named for the streaks on the shell that resemble lightning) to create my first image on one of the sheets from my packet. I then dipped the end of the conch into the ink pot and used it as a pen to write a silly message over my shell-shaped image – “Shell We Meet?”
. . .. .

My next stop was a table laden with an assortment of goodies I hadn’t seen since playtime in kindergarten – glue, scissors, tracing paper, colored pencils, wax sticks, stamps and colored tape. Thinking of my whelk, I decided to create a stylized beach scene for my second postcard. I placed my whelk under some tracing paper and rubbed it with wax sticks, creating some texture, then cut out pieces that I glued onto a rectangular card. For “sand dunes” I cut up a page of music. Then I rubber stamped some images of seahorses in my “sand” and added stamps marked “Via Aerea, First Class” to make my postcard look official. A round stamp with an airplane marked 6 cents provided the “postage.”

My postcard with seahorses playing in the “sand dunes.”. .

Tona Bell, founder of The Paper Seahorse and co-founder of Tampa Bay Letter Writers, demonstrates how to fold gift wrapping paper into an envelope

. . .
At my last stop, Bell showed me how to wrap my postcard in a sheet of gift wrapping, creating an envelope so I could mail my letter to myself.

I don't expect my postcards to break Picasso’s auction record, but I sure had just as much fun as he apparently did in making them.

And that postcard message I wrote to myself? 

                               Dear Margo,

Wish You Were Here (Oh, You Already Are)!

                  Love, Margo. . .. . .

. . .

 A version this article originally appeared in Arts Coast Journal. 
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