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Creativity: Artist Mary Hamill's art becomes a change-agent. Part 1

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Mary Hamill was not always a pioneer of participatory photo-based art regarding social issues. Nor was she idle prior to developing an installation based on her service as a Public Affairs Officer on the hospital ship USNS Mercy in the South China Sea. In Cambodia she and a survivor, Chath pier Sath, of the Khmer Rouge killings, directed the Cambodia War Widows Project. Her recent presentation before the UN's two week conference organized by the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) described how they recorded elderly widows traumatized by the Khmer Rouge genocide redirect their grief into fabric printmaking.

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Before this Hamill's career focused on educational reform for poor and marginalized Americans with four national awards and a U.S. legislation (PL94-142) to alleviate their burdens. She was a senior Research Scientist in the New York Mental Health system, a tenured Associate Dean at Brooklyn College as well as Dean of Babson College in Wellesley MA.

Hamill calls this work The Cambodia War Widows Project and works with Chath pier Sath, an artist who endured the Khmer Rouge killings. They dialogue with fourteen older impoverished widows about their memories about past atrocities and present hardships. Their fabric prints pay tribute to their dead husbands and will be presented through a multimedia installation in Phnom Penh, New York, and in cyberspace. The names of the widows are Uy, Pan, Rom, Hach, Sok, Yeay, Doeung, Phan, Khem, Chea, Bon, Kor, Kok, and Im.

As Public Affairs Officer of Project HOPE an endeavor that is 50 years old, she writes of the crew’s ” strong sense of pride about having delivered much-needed services and a stronger sense of humility about our place on this earth.“ She was part of an orchestrated effort “alongside the Cambodians, PP-10 provided medical care onshore to more than 29,000 patients via Medical Civic Assistance Projects that ranged as far as 300 miles inland. In addition the hospital ship saw 536 patients who came by boat for medical treatment, including 286 surgeries. In addition to the medical work, Seabees provided three water wells and two water towers; and community service volunteers gave 1700 hours of service at eleven different schools and orphanages.” Cambodia today still suffers from past ravages of war and present hard scrabble living.

In an interview at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, where she is a resident scholar, she classifies her own work as being “in a way public art . . . not meant to be looked at from afar; the enter-ability of a more profound engagement of the viewer.”

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