From mayhem to masterpiece
Irvine woman, now a successful artist, tells her story of abuse.
By LORI BASHEDA
Until now, no one in the art world, and certainly none of her customers, knew.
"I was still ashamed," said Georgeana Ireland.
But something a pastor said one Sunday kept sneaking into her thoughts: "Turn your scars into stars."
So when Ireland bumped into Terry Zwick at a church picnic at Salt Creek beach, she found herself telling the director of the women's shelter Hope's House that they had to talk.Ireland, 36, whose paintings are hanging in galleries on Rodeo Drive and in Laguna Beach and Portland, Ore., told Zwick that she was once a battered wife on the run. And now she was at a place in her life where she was ready to somehow lend a hand to other abused women.
Wonderful, Zwick said. You'll make the perfect guest speaker for our Hope's House black-tie fund-raiser. You can talk firsthand about how the safety of a shelter helped you go from battered woman to successful artist.
Ireland hadn't told a soul about her former life since moving to Irvine two years ago. Everything was going so well. She was afraid people would judge her.
The funny thing is, Ireland's heroes are people who have publicly struggled through adversity and gone on to live incredible lives.
It took her until the night of the fund-raiser to see that she could be her own hero.
Ireland told her story to 650 people and was met with tears and thunderous applause.
"Just taking that step, even though it was really scary ... I can't even believe everything that's happening in my life right now," she said.
This week, Ireland is juggling a show in a Sheridan, Ore., gallery with painting murals on the walls of the newest Hope's House shelter in south Orange County.
In the next couple of weeks, four women fleeing their husbands will move in, most likely with children. And the first thing they will see is a foyer of grape-covered arbors and topiaries in soothing colors.
"We want to make this a home, so that when they walk in they know people really care about them," Zwick said. "And when someone asks about the artist, we can say 'There's a story behind this. She's walked in your shoes.' "
Zwick also has walked in their shoes. Now married to a lawyer and living in Nellie Gail Ranch in Laguna Hills, she came out of the domestic-violence closet four years ago to start Hope's House from scratch.
"It's an overwhelming feeling," she said. "It reminds you where you came from. And the pain and the heartache."
Her nonprofit organization already has paid off its first two duplexes, used as transitional housing for women who are ready to leave the shelter but need to build up savings or learn job skills before striking out on their own.
Ireland was one of those women.
She was just 18 when she married her first boyfriend. He started hurting her three months later.
"He called me horrible, horrible names. Every day," she said. But she saw her dad do it growing up in a small Oregon town. "I thought it was normal," she said. Her husband's friends treated their wives the same way.
It wasn't until the day she saw an "Oprah" show about domestic violence that she realized she didn't have to live like that. "I remember, to be honest, I was shocked," she said.
Experts on the show explained how to escape. She began saving grocery money and gathering important documents such as birth certificates. She buried them in a can in the back yard.
"I was so afraid of getting caught," she said. Her husband liked to tell her he might just take her hunting one day and she might just disappear.
Months later, one day in November, she waited until he left for work, packed their children, then 2 and 4, into the car along with whatever belongings would fit. He found her after only a week, living about half an hour away. He swore he was a changed man and begged her to come home.
"And I did," she said. "It's a very hard thing to leave the life you know and go into the unknown. And you don't have the self-esteem hardly to leave."
In just a few days, she said, he turned on her. She left again the day after Christmas. This time she and her children drove 200 miles to a shelter in Portland. There was no space, so they told her to drive north to a shelter in Vancouver, Wash. It was the first time she felt safe in years. "(Abusive husbands) are on a mission," she said. "To get you back."
After a month, the typical amount of time shelters allow women to stay because there are always others waiting, she went to transitional housing.
"They basically held my hand and said, 'It's gonna be OK. You can get through this. You're gonna make it.'" They also helped her develop survival skills. She was 23 and, while she had been painting since she was a teenager, had never held a job.
After two months, she had enough money to afford an apartment. Four years later she was painting frescoes for major hotels and estates.
Now her abstract landscape paintings are selling for $1,200 to $10,000. Ireland's children are teenagers. Her ex-husband has found another wife. She is in five galleries and expects to be in 12 by January. And Ireland is one of five artists just hired to replicate 51 frescoes, including parts of the Sistine Chapel, at a newly built 17,000-square-foot Italian "palace" in San Juan Capistrano.
Without the shelters, she believes, she wouldn't have moved on to this place in her life.
So here she is at Hope's House, painting with an artist's flair the words "joy," "love," "peace," "kindness" and "patience" above bedroom doors that women will soon walk through, hopefully following in her footsteps.