Transformative Arts Project

Dr. Laura Sherwood is Empowering Communities Through Art

Article by Kristen Wojdan

Photography by T. Kowalsky Photography and Dr. Laura Sherwood

Originally published in Frederick Lifestyle

Living between California and Hawaii for most of her life, Dr. Laura Sherwood has found Frederick to feel most like home as she sets out to create spaces for healing through the arts. At the age of nine, Laura lost her brother to a motorcycle accident. The shock and trauma of this great loss led her family to move to Waipio Valley (The Valley of the Kings) in Hawaii, known for its dramatic tropical beauty and important Hawaiian history and culture. This move to Hawaii proved to be another layer of trauma for Laura at a young age. 

Laura recalls, “This was a beautiful place. At that time, it was very ‘Hippy.’ We didn’t have electricity and we used outhouses. During this time I really connected with nature.” 

But this new life in Hawaii was not as beautiful as it appeared. Being from the mainland, she was teased for being an outsider and called ‘Haole’ (the Hawaiian term for individuals who are not Native Hawaiian). Laura remembers being hypervigilant, shy and aware of the culture there, “I loved to sit and watch the hula dancers after school. They would be practicing and it was so beautiful. I wished I could do that.” 

Fast forward many years, Laura’s daughter became an accomplished hula dancer. She joined the hula team and traveled with the Hawaii Club. Laura said, “It was so beautiful seeing her do what I had wished I could do.” 

When her daughter graduated in 2018, Laura moved to Baltimore County with her brother as she was working on her dissertation. She left her belongings and traveled to India to do her research. 

This was not the first time Laura had traveled to India. She recalled, “I had a photography studio in Hawaii and served local businesses and celebrities. Then the recession hit in 2008...I traveled to India for the first time in 2009, and it changed my life. The people were so kind and loving. I felt my heart open as I had many human experiences with the people of India…For example, I met a Tibetan monk. He shared his story of being in prison and beaten. It changed my perspective from wanting to just focus on pretty pictures to wanting to do more humanitarian photography.”

Upon returning to the U.S., Laura pursued higher education all the way to earning a Ph.D. in Human Development with a Focus on Leadership Studies at Fielding Graduate University. Her dissertation was titled: Why Art Matters: Dismantling Dominant Narratives through Art and Digital Feminist Activism.

“I feel that the arts are a way to bridge communities and help people to understand differences,” Laura explained. 

Using the Photovoice research method, Laura put cameras in the hands of community members to share their own stories. Laura said, “I got to work with women and young girls in the Dalit (the lowest caste in India) and see their lives...They were using art. They were using storytelling to elevate their voices and get their stories to the community to get support and raise awareness and create social change.”

Laura moved to Frederick in 2020. She said, “When I explored Frederick it reminded me of Hilo, where I am from. Hilo is a very small, historic community—a friendly small town that felt like home to me.”

Laura has wasted no time getting involved in the Frederick community. During the Covid19 lockdown, she and her friend from India, Kalki, met online daily for about six months to do art and dancing together. They invited others from across the globe to join them. 

“When Kalki and I were meeting daily, we saw the benefits of art,” Laura elaborated, "I began to see the healing power of just playing with the arts, just having the experience. I knew that sharing that with different communities is such a healing experience...especially for women who have experienced any kind of trauma.”

Laura is passionate about working with vulnerable communities. She wants to help them to have their voices at the forefront. Laura said, “When I first started, I reached out to the Community Foundation. Then, I started working with the Housing Authority and different non-profits. 

As Founder and Executive Director of the Transformative Arts Project, Laura has received funding from the Delaplaine Foundation, the Frederick Community Foundation and the Maryland Arts Council to do more programming. 

Laura shared, “We have the Photovoice project where I’m working with different non-profits to create a new exhibit that will be displayed at the Delaplaine throughout May. The big kickoff event is scheduled for May 4th. I hope to raise more awareness."

“Another project that we’ve been doing is bringing the youth and seniors together,” Laura said. "This co-generational work gives youth the chance to act as mentors for the seniors and to help them use and access technology. It’s a co-learning experience because they are learning from each other.” The funding for the program is through the AmeriCorps Seniors Program at the Asian American Center of Frederick.

When asked, “What do you want people to know about you?”, Laura replied, “I’ve got so many different hats and interests. I love creating a space for people to see their own light. That is what I think my gift to the world is. I love to create opportunities for people to reflect on themselves and see how great  they are.”

"I love creating a space for people to see their own light. That is what I think my gift to the world is. I love to create opportunities for people to...see how great  they are.”

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