Catalysts for Change: Megan Benson
By Bridget Eckert, Director of Marketing and Communications, Indiana Arts Commission
With Megan Benson, Artist
As part of her On-Ramp Fellowship, Indiana weaver Megan Benson has been learning new techniques, creating new work and launching her creative business. Something she didn't anticipate was how her volunteer work with Exodus Refugee clients would impact her life and creative work.
Exodus has a long history of welcoming refugees and asylees from many countries, cultures, languages, faiths, and political opinions. They began in 1981 with the mission to serve the legal needs of immigrants and Cuban refugees, who had arrived as part of the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Since that time, the organization has helped thousands of refugees establish their lives in Indiana.
Earlier this fall, Megan was named "Volunteer of the Year" by Exodus at its annual gala. We sat down with this incredible artist to find out what motivates, inspires, and drives her to be a catalyst for change.
You were just named Volunteer of the Year by Exodus. What does your volunteer work involve, and what has volunteering for Exodus taught you?
I began volunteering with Exodus in early 2017 in their Women’s Mentoring Program. I was paired with a high school student and, for a period of eight months, we met twice a month and worked on goal-setting, test-taking, and exploring Indianapolis. For the past twenty months or so, I have been leading a women’s sewing group where we use sewing machines to make personal items, home decor, and clothing.
It’s been a fantastic experience to teach and connect with the women in this group. The same core group of women have been attending from the start and we’ve gotten to know each other, helped care for each other’s children, and grown to truly care for each other. A few of our older participants were out with long illnesses and being able to hug and welcome them back on their return was emotional for everyone.
Working at Exodus has really highlighted the importance of community engagement for me. We have a widely diverse community in Indianapolis. Many people don’t realize that there are extremely talented Burmese weavers, Congolese basket-makers, and all kinds of artists and nationalities represented in our city. We all contribute to this urban community and staying within one little separate group, or within our own artificial boundaries, really closes us off to new experiences and new relationships that strengthen our ties to each other and our city.
What inspired you to start the art group and what is the goal of the group?
While working in the Women’s Mentoring Program, I asked an Exodus employee to meet for coffee. I was seeking more information about the legal process surrounding immigration: arriving as a refugee, being issued a green card, and eventually attaining citizenship. It was during this meeting that I discussed more of my arts background and a desire to do something creative with Exodus clients. The organization had been considering convening a women’s group of a number of recent arrivals from the Democratic Republic of Congo who were interested in strengthening their Congolese ties as well as sharing/learning about basket weaving.
Eventually, the Women’s Art Circle at Exodus was formed to allow clients to come together once a week, for three hours, socialize and learn new skills. We began with knitting, crocheting, needlework and hand-sewing, and moved on to basket weaving and quilting. The group began learning hand-sewing applique techniques, but during our quilting project, a number of sewing machines were donated and the Art Circle has been a sewing class ever since. The clients have loved learning to sew and we have created pillowcases, tote bags, girls’ skirts, as well as dresses and wrap skirts for the clients themselves.
The group is comprised of six to ten women over a wide range of ages (some have small children who often join, some are past retirement age.) It is led by myself and Exodus case manager Khin (Kim) Sain. We now have two additional volunteers to provide support and a translator as well. Project choices are presented to the clients, then we demonstrate the steps and assist one-on-one as needed. The language barrier is challenging because when there is a class of ten people and one translator, individual instruction is not always going to be given in a client’s native language. I’ve gained a few words of Kinyarwanda but can really just ask someone to slow down when they are sewing too fast or let them know they are doing a good job.
What advice would you give to people looking to connect with people who speak a different language?
I think it’s important to just get involved. If there is a community or organization you want to work with, take someone to coffee and talk about it. Finding out their needs while laying out what you bring to the table and just making connections can often lead to unexpected partnerships. I started out volunteering to support the refugee community, which is part of the greater community in our city/region/state, and eventually made my way to being a part of this fantastic women’s group where I’ve been able to share some skills, knowledge and make personal connections as well.
Exodus contracts interpreters for a wide range of languages. Even when I can’t really speak to a person we find other ways to communicate. We can usually get our points across to each other, and laugh a lot in the process. I’ve been fortunate to have a fantastic teammate (and very talented tailor) in Khin. She and I have been working together for over a year and are really on the same page as far as goals for the group and how to help it grow.
What's next for you, and where can people go to support your work?
Although my work at Exodus is mostly sewing-related, I am a weaver and fiber artist. I know a little bit about a wide range of craft media which served me well starting out in the Women’s Art Circle. I’ve always enjoyed making things with my hands and whatever I don’t know how to do, I am usually confident that I can figure out or teach myself. I bring this sense of exploration to my weaving practice. I recreate traditional patterning but also often embellish or disrupt those structures to create something that is unique to me. I picture what I want to create and then try out new techniques and play with textures on the loom.
I inherited my loom and weaving tools from my husband’s grandmother and love being able to carry on this family tradition creating art. I learned to weave about five years ago in a class at The Indianapolis Art Center and have taken subsequent workshops along with teaching myself on my own loom. I love learning in the community setting, connecting with other weavers and mirroring that type of learning in the Women’s Art Circle as well.
I’m working on a number of weaving commissions at the moment and planning explorations into three-dimensional wall hangings this Fall. You can view some of my past work on my website, or on Instagram @loomlarge.