'Old souls telling stories': AICHO exhibit features works from Duluth, Cloquet, New Mexico youth

Monday's Brave Art opening reception leads January events raising awareness of human trafficking, exploitation in the Twin Ports

Patience Thompson and her painting "Confidence," left, and Pearl Swanson with her work, “402 Years of Silenced Thoughts."<br/>
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Twin Ports Trafficking Awareness Month kicks off in January, and while this work has been underway in the Northland for more than 11 years, this is the first acknowledging shared efforts on both sides of the bridge.

Leading a list of events that includes webinars on human trafficking and exploitation, discussions with survivor experts, a viewing of the documentary "Bring Her Home," and much more, is Brave Art, a youth gallery exhibit featuring work from 18 youths in Duluth, Cloquet and New Mexico.

An opening reception is scheduled from 6-7:30 p.m. Monday at the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center, 202 W. Second St. The event is free and open to the public.

"One of our big goals for this exhibit is making sure anyone who wants to be part of it can be," said Deanna Reder, legal advocate at American Indian Community Housing Organization / Dabinoo’Igan (Domestic Violence Shelter).

The youth are putting value into their work, the organizers see the confidence-building. “This is where their voices can be heard,” Reder added.


The show theme is Healing Through Community, and 18 youth, from Duluth, Cloquet and New Mexico, submitted paintings, poetry, metalworks and more that visually communicate what bravery means to them.

“They’re like old souls telling stories,” said Jennifer Davey, director of Dabinoo’Igan and member of the Duluth Human Trafficking Committee.

pearl swanson art.jpg
Duluth artist Pearl Swanson, 16, created “402 Years of Silenced Thoughts" using watercolor, acrylic and markers. This will be on display during the Brave Art exhibition during January at the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center in AICHO.
Contributed / Ivy Vainio

Duluth artist Pearl Swanson, 16, grew up attending classes at the Duluth Art Institute, and for this piece, she took her creative background, mixed it with excerpts from “The 1619 Project,” and made one of her favorite creations.

The 11th-grader at Marshall School used watercolor, acrylic and markers for her painting, “402 Years of Silenced Thoughts,” and it features a Black body with chains across the mouth and a lock on their lips. Their eyes stare out strong, hard, with the words “If not now, then when?” painted across the top and bottom.

Pearl Swanson mug.jpg
Pearl Swanson
Contributed / Pearl Swanson

Swanson said she considered who she considers to be courageous and she thought of her ancestors.

“This piece makes the case that Black people have been silenced and continually are silenced throughout history,” she said.

While Swanson had had her work displayed at school in the past, this is her first time submitting for Brave Art, and she’s grateful for the opportunity. “I hope people like and feel inspired after seeing it,” Swanson said.

Brave Art began in 2016. Three peer educators and advocates on the youth advisory board at PAVSA (Programs For Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault) were trained on the issue of human trafficking, and they conceived of the idea for an art show. East High School in Duluth hosted the first exhibit, with donated food and a large turnout of folks and art.


After that, the event moved to AICHO, where it could be in a more central space. And from there, it expanded into a youth resource fair, performing arts showcase and art exhibit.

During the shutdown, Brave Art moved virtual and evolved into an interactive scavenger hunt with art from Lincoln Park and Lutheran Social Services’ Together for Youth program showcased in business windows.

The name of the event came from a trafficking survivor, recalled Mel Alvar, Safe Harbor Regional Navigator at PAVSA. “We asked her to describe herself in one word, she said ‘brave,’” Alvar said.

And this event’s history is rooted in asking youth to consider and reflect what it means to be courageous in the face of adversity.

Ivy Vainio
Ivy Vainio

Ivy Vainio, AICHO’s Cultural Arts Coordinator, worked closely with this year’s artists, who “really shared their deep and creative connections to what it means to be brave relating to cultural and racial identity, ancestral values, and healing from trauma through their impressive and beautiful works,” Vainio said.

While Brave Art doesn’t specifically address human trafficking, it’s intentionally part of the month’s awareness activities. “We don't have to have it in January, but we do want a youth-specific event to keep them connected to the issue, and while it can be scary to talk about trafficking, it’s a very real thing youth in our community are facing,” Alvar said.

The event offers a safe space “to process our humanity,” she continued, and youth voices are important in local efforts to address human trafficking, which are more effective with input and relationship-building.

Mel Alvar.jpg
Mel Alvar, left, Safe Harbor Northeast MN Regional Navigator at PAVSA, talks with Tatiana Bergum, mental health practitioner, at the PAVSA office in Duluth on May 21, 2021.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Efforts to educate and combat trafficking and exploitation run deep in the Northland, with the 2011 passing of Safe Harbor legislation, decriminalizing prostitution for folks younger than 18.


AICHO has hosted Brave Art for years, but Davey and Reder joined the Duluth Human Trafficking Committee (formerly the Duluth trafficking task force) and the Safe Harbor multidisciplinary team’s efforts to streamline protocols so survivors of trafficking or exploitation can receive consistent care, response and connection to services.

It was a natural fit, said Reder.

AICHO’s Dabinoo’Igan offers emergency shelter for survivors of trafficking, physical and sexual violence, and stalking; legal advocacy, child and family advocacy and more. And, the pandemic highlighted an opportunity to join forces with more local agencies, said Davey.

"It’s important to have offerings like Brave Art for youth. We want to keep providing those safe spaces and open doors that help keep community healthy, vocal and involved," Davey added.

Rachel Dickenson of Cloquet is proud her niece, Patience Thompson, is contributing to this month’s efforts to raise awareness. “She gets to be a part of something that is raising awareness to something that affects so many families in our culture as well as a whole,” Dickenson said.

And: “It’s really beautiful to see how much she has progressed and is growing artistically.”

Patience Thompson painting
Cloquet middle-schooler Patience Thomspon's painting "Confidence" will be on display during the Brave Art youth exhibition at AICHO this month.
Contributed / Ivy Vainio
Patience Thompson mug.jpg
Patience Thompson
Contributed / Patience Thompson

Thompson’s painting “Confidence” will be on display at the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center. The split image shows a person wearing a crop top, a skirt and a strong stance. One side shows the impression of curves, the other side does not.

The Cloquet Middle School student said she wanted to draw someone who wasn’t society’s standard of beauty, and who still carries themself confidently.


“Feeling comfortable in yourself, in your surroundings, loving yourself as who you are … Being confident is my way of being brave,” she said.

If you go

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346,
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