July 22, 2021

Building Nests for Survivors

by joeyphoenix

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by Joey Phoenix
Images courtesy of Debbie Baxter and The Survivor Nest Project

Content Warning: The article mentions sexual and inter-familial abuse. 

Five collaborators from across the country are creating a sacred experience for survivors – an experience centered around an unusual space where people can step inside, be at peace, and shed some of their burden in a safe way. The space? A handmade human-sized nest made of intentionally gathered twigs, branches, and floral materials. 

Applications are open for survivors to participate in this unique project – Click here to access the application or here to donate to the kickstarter campaign. The photo sessions and writing workshop will take place in September, with the gallery opening to come in the following months. 

A Nest Fit for Survivors

This fall, artist and community organizer Carla Beatrice (she/her/hers) of The Ladies Entrance, photographer Debbie Baxter (she/her/hers) of The Nest Project, writer Donna Jenson (she/her/hers) of Time to Tell, Sound Healer Lisa Kawski (she/her/hers) of Sound Healing for the Soul, and filmmaker Katie Bourgeois (she/her/hers) of Bourgeois Films are teaming up for a special offering created with survivors in mind.

The Survivor Nest Project offers a transformative healing arts experience for survivors of incest and sexual abuse. Taking place on the North Shore of Massachusetts, survivor artist and energy healer Carla Beatrice invited Portland, OR artist and author Debbie Baxter to build a nest together and offer Nesting Experiences to survivors of all backgrounds and identities*. 

Image by Debbie Baxter

“This is open for everyone, for all kinds of bodies,” said Baxter. “Our bodies have lived through these experiences, and we hold onto these things in them, and the nest invites people to just leave that all behind.” 

“I want this to be representative of all people,” Beatrice said, “all races, all genders, all sexual identities because I feel so strongly that this affects everybody. This is a global, universal issue.”

Alongside this offering, author and playwright Donna Jenson will lead virtual writing workshops for the participants, giving them tools to process what came up through their nest experiences and allow them to share what they’ve been through. 

“Knowing other survivors helps you realize you’re not alone, that you’re not the only one,” said Jenson. “And building community with other survivors around using our voices is very empowering.” 

“I feel a deep sense of connection to the participants involved in this project. I am blessed to offer my healing modality of sound to aid in the experience, and to be able to connect with each on a very personal level, touching their hearts with love,” said Kawski.

The images and words created through this experience will be displayed in a gallery exhibition in early 2022. Members of the public will be able to view Debbie’s photographs and read the stories written by participants, view a documentary, and experience a sound healing with Lisa Kawski of Sound Healing for the Soul. 

*Survivors who participate in this experience will be photographed nude, but reasonable accommodation will be provided to those for whom this vulnerability isn’t accessible. 

Photographer Debbie Baxter in her nest

Creating the Nest Project

Debbie Baxter found inspiration for The Nest Project through self-portraiture and self-reflection early in her career. She had found herself returning to the trauma she experienced as a child, seeking out ways to sort through and heal the wounds that kept playing themselves on repeat in her mind.

“I had this inspiration to build myself a nest and have that represent a nurturing and loving and safe home,” Baxter recalls. “So my son and I went around the yard and we gathered up all of these sticks and twigs, and we built a nest.” 

Once in the nest and planning the self-portrait, Debbie felt that the only way this could work would be if she were in the nest nude, in her most vulnerable state, because only when she was stripped bare from all that represented that trauma and those wounds would she feel safe to let them go and leave them to the nest. 

“When you’re in a nest you feel truly held and contained,” she said. “And I knew right away that I wanted to be able to offer this to other people.” 

Soon after, she started seeking out other survivors who also wanted to shed their burdens and step into the protection of the nest to be photographed by Baxter. Some of the people who stepped into the nests she created included a former professional basketball player who lost his mom, a 65 year old Jewish man from Brooklyn whose daughter had been murdered, and many diverse women from the D.C. Women’s March, to name a few. 

“I photographed about 400 people for the project, both in America and in Indonesia. I built 50 nests in different locations and I also collected stories that I turned into a book along with the photographs,” Baxter said, and you can buy her book here, “and it just continues to evolve.”

She hopes to bring this vast experience to the chosen 10 survivors for the Survivor Nest Project, helping to guide them through this sacred healing and create a timeless piece of art for them to honor and celebrate that journey. 

Supporting Survivors Through Art 

Meanwhile, Carla Beatrice, another artist and lover of nests, embarked on her own project of self-exploration and healing through the interaction with a sacred “nest” space in Beverly, MA in the mid 20-teens. Beatrice’s first nest, crafted for her by her family from downed wisteria branches, was a safe space where she could begin to process her own childhood trauma. 

This experience brought her into contact with Debbie Baxter’s work, and in 2017, Beatrice created the Inner Nest fundraiser to support The bIRch House: a supportive community dedicated to healing for female adult survivors of incest and childhood sexual abuse through programs, resources, education and advocacy.

Carla Beatrice in her nest
Image by Tabi Boots Photography

“At that time I was an ally, a supporter of survivors, but I wasn’t out as a survivor myself,” Beatrice said. “So it was through my own quest for healing that I got in touch with Debbie and invited her to come to Boston, not just so that I could have help with my own healing, but also so that we could create an offering for other incest and sexual abuse survivors as well.” 

Beatrice plans to build her personal survivor nest for this project in a special location in Rockport, a place where she has connection to her familial roots. She will be surrounded by chosen friends and family who will support her in this healing, and Baxter will photograph her in this space. 

For her, part of this need was born from her own desire for healing, but another part stems from a recognition that support for survivors can often be difficult to find. As an artist and community organizer, Beatrice realized that one of the best ways to usher in this support would be through artistic expression. 

“My big vision is that every town and community would have support groups for survivors so we can help each other and support each other,” she said, “So I’m using the arts as a way to bring this out and offer that support to others like me.” 

Telling Brings Healing 

Donna Jenson is a playwright, author, and survivor who has spent many years helping survivors process their trauma through artistic expression and the written word. Creator of Time to Tell, an organization with a mission to spark stories from lives affected by incest and sexual abuse to be told and heard, Jenson has helped countless people find the words they need to heal. 

“I’m an incest survivor and a feminist activist, and after many years of healing and feeling strong enough to come out as a survivor, I decided I needed to find a way to confront, what I felt, was the vast amount of silence surrounding childhood sexual abuse,” Jenson said. 

She wrote a play called What She Knows: One Woman’s Way Through Incest to Joy which she performed at correctional facilities, colleges, police departments, conferences for mental health professionals and sexual assault advocates, and in communities. The play would eventually become a book, Healing My Life from Incest to Joy, which is available for purchase through her website. 

For her, being able to talk about what you went through is one of the major steps towards healing. 

“When I first started coming out, it was hard enough to deal with my own story without having to hear others,” Jenson said. “But over the years, I came to see that knowing other survivors helps you learn how to tell your own story, to heal.”

Jenson’s mission with Time to Tell is to help people to find their own words and to tell their own story, which is an offering she hopes to bring into the workshop for the Survivor Nest Project. 

“There’s no critiquing, there’s no questioning, it’s very raw writing,” she explained, “but by writing, hearing your own voice, reading your writing, and hearing people’s reactions, about how your writing can touch them, is extremely empowering.” 

Joey Phoenix (they/them) is an interdisciplinary artist and the Director of Brand Strategy and Innovation at Creative Collective. As the resident storyteller and town crier, they encourage you to send story ideas, inspiration, or pictures of adorable critters to joeyphoenix@creativecollectivema.com.