My Voice

Words by Sarah C. Rutherford
Photos by Hannah Betts

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We live entirely by the impression of a narrative line upon disparate images, the shifting phantasmagoria, which is our actual experience.” Joan Didion

I stumbled upon this quote on Joan Didion’s 82nd birthday and every word rang true. Throughout both my artistic life and my personal life I have been plagued as well as elated by this take on reality. So much of our personal truth lies in the ability to craft our own personal and collective narrative.  

When I began planning “Her Voice Carries”, I didn’t know exactly what I was searching for and yet my soul yearned for it. I let the project lead me.  


Over the past year I have been deeply inspired by each of the women I have painted. They have individually shown bravery by sharing their personal story in a public arena, thereby motivating others to develop their own voice. I have shied away from contributing my story to this narrative. It is not only because my core belief has been rooted in elevating others, but also because of my own struggle with self-worth. I didn’t believe my voice mattered.  

What I have recently come to understand is that by silencing myself I was also doing this project and each of the women featured a disservice. By being afraid to recognize my own power I have not been highlighting each woman in the manner I had originally intended. With this new awakening I wanted to yell out to the world, and yet, it was as if my hands were clasped tightly around my neck, slowly choking any audible sounds. The thought of a blog entry, an Instagram caption, or a Facebook post paralyzed me and I struggled to understand why. Media surrounding the project filled me with dread while I danced the line between wanting to promote my project and simultaneously evading the spotlight.

It wasn’t until I revisited my murals this spring that I began to look at this project in a more objective way.  

I began to appreciate the power of the whole instead of honing in on the small imperfections and the ways I fell short. I kept feeling it wasn’t enough or wasn’t perfect; however, I now appreciate that it is just the beginning of a much larger project that I hope will continue to lead me to new communities, new experiences, new levels of understanding and a plethora of voices to honor. I am grateful that I was able to begin it here in Rochester, NY, in the city that raised me as a young artist, with women who trusted me as I carved out my process. I am grateful for the support I received from the organizations I have partnered with and from the individuals who have helped grow this project into a reality. I am especially grateful to those who trusted in me, especially when I struggled to trust myself.  


Almost a year ago, a month before the installation portion of this project began, I left an emotionally abusive relationship, one where I was falling into a space of constant doubt and self-hatred, where my story was not my own, but rather my partner’s version of me. I had allowed this to define who I was. Emotional abuse does not suddenly create a lack of self worth; rather, over time, it slowly manifests itself in one’s own story through cracks that may have been formed long ago. Consequently, I have spent the past year peeling back the layers of what I own and what I do not.

“I am worthy.  I am whole. I am powerful.”  

A year ago, I was given this meditation and I could barely form the words in my mind, let alone aloud. My eyes would well up with tears as I realized how the opposite message was ingrained in every inch of my body.

I felt unworthy. I felt broken. I felt weak.

I worked as hard as I possibly could to prove to the world that I wasn’t those things, but it just wasn’t enough. I knew I had to change the way I saw myself. However, while these messages of self-hatred permeated my being, I drew strength from the strength of the women whom I was painting. I drew power from my two apprentices, Maribel and Charisse, who rose fearlessly and with levity to each new challenge I gave them. I was supported by friends and family who added their love fueled language to my story when I couldn’t form my own.  

Charisse Warnick, Artist Apprentice
Maribel Hernandez, Artist Apprentice

I believe that to some degree we all struggle with self-worth. I was continually surprised when each woman, upon viewing herself on a grand scale in public space, wrestled with some form of worthiness. The figures you see in the public sphere that appear to be cloaked in a veil of strength come with layers of complexity. Strength is not inherent; it comes from both internal and external battles. Strength is not one-dimensional; it is filled with mountains and valleys where light and shadow battle for real estate. We can be incredibly strong and yet, on occasion, fall apart. It may in fact be a prerequisite. We all have our blind spots when it comes to self, and it is in those spaces that insecurity lies in wait. If I have come to any conclusions during my years on this planet, it is that we hurt one another because we ourselves are hurting and are terrified of shining light upon our own vulnerabilities.  

It is in this space that I find forgiveness. I forgive myself for being my most relentless abuser and I forgive those around me who have reinforced the story that I am not enough. I am now able to author my new story, publicly, imperfectly, but without shame, because I am rooted in a new path of continued growth.   


Three years ago I began “Her Voice Carries”, unaware of what it was I really searching for. Our country, our city and my soul were in a completely different place. Through this evershifting external and internal landscape, I have found my most important truth. We must each use the powers we individually possess to lift up the voices of others and it is through truly seeing each other that we are finally able to see ourselves.

You are worthy. You are whole. You are powerful.

Your voice matters.    


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