WexCast: Sanctuary Night Residency Artists April Sunami & Aimee Wissman

Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager

Mar 01, 2023

Side by side images of women artists at work. On the left, the woman is captured from the left side. She sits outdoors and looks at the camera, with a partially painted canvas in front of her. On the right, the woman sits on a stepladder in front of a mostly completed wall mural. She smiles and flashes the peace sign at the camera.

For this episode, we sit down with April Sunami and Aimee Wissman, two highly respected Columbus based artists who've been working with Wex Art & Resilience Director Tracie McCambridge and the leadership and staff of Sanctuary Night, a sacred space for vulnerable women. 

Sanctuary Night has opened the doors of its location on the west side of Columbus to artists through a residency program run by Art & Resilience. Sunami was the first residency artist, followed closely by Wissman, and together they talk about their experience working on site and learning how their work could best serve the organization's goals.

A transcript of the conversation is below.



Melissa Starker: This is WexCast from the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University. I'm Melissa Starker, Creative Content and PR manager. And for this episode, I got a chance to sit down with April Sunami and Aimee Wissman, two highly respected Columbus based artists who've been working with Wex-Art & Resilience Director, Tracie McCambridge, and the leadership and staff of Sanctuary Night, a sacred space for vulnerable women.

The nonprofit service organization opened a drop-in center on Sullivant Ave in 2022, and they recently expanded services to the Southside and Linden Neighborhoods. And at the Sullivant location, Sanctuary Night has opened its doors to artists through a residency program run by Art & Resilience. Sunami was the first residency artist, followed closely by Wissman, and together they talk about their experience working on site and learning how their work could best serve the organization's goals.

Aimee Wissman: Hello, my name is Aimee Wissman. I'm a visual artist and the co-founder of the Returning Artists Guild, which is a network of currently and formerly incarcerated artists, mostly here in Ohio.

April Sunami: Hi, I'm April Sunami. I'm a visual artist and starter of a few things. Not the Returning Artists Guild, but starter of a lot of things.

Melissa Starker: Yeah, I think that's fair to say. A generator. How did the two of you become involved in the work with Sanctuary Night?

April Sunami: Well, this came about. Tracie and Hannah Estabrook, who founded Sanctuary Night, had worked together for years. And Tracie had approached me a while ago and said, "I wonder what you could do in this space." And so, that became the question. What would it look like for artists to operate in this space? What does that even look like? So, I guess my involvement just started off with a question. It was just an inquiry of what can we do?

Melissa Starker: How about you, Aimee?

Aimee Wissman: I think that April and Tracie both knew me separately from other things. And April had already been working in the space for a while, and we had a conversation around the importance, I think, of putting artists with lived experience or similar experience or that kind of capacity in the space. And I think that that's why I was invited, and also why I was excited.

Melissa Starker: Did you know much about Sanctuary Night prior to connecting?

April Sunami: Well, when I first got involved, it was before the space was actually completed. And I had heard of a little bit of their work of what they were doing out in the community. And I guess there was actually a couple of different spaces like Sanctuary Night along Sullivan Avenue, drop in centers for women. But I hadn't stepped into the space. Nobody had at the time. When they opened their doors, we were there in that space. And I don't think they quite knew yet what it would look like, actually, inhabiting this space and really transforming their program. Their program started off, it was one or two nights a week, and now they have their own space and they're expanding hours.

Melissa Starker: Yeah. And expanding locations, too. So, how did you prepare for this? I mean, personally, but also I know that there were certain requirements that the organization had for anyone working in this space.

Aimee Wissman: Yeah. So, Sanctuary Night has a really great volunteer training that is a requirement that has a lot of information about human trafficking in terms of what you maybe think you know and what's actually happening. So, it's really nice to get some of that education. And then, in terms of personal preparedness, I think my main task has been to just stay open to what's happening there. The initial projects that we talked about have had different levels of success or engagement. So, it's been about being present in the space and trying to evolve what I'm doing there to meet their needs.

April Sunami: Actually, I think you and I probably went through the training around the same time. But yeah, we both did the training around the same time. So I was like, "Yeah, I'm doing this, and you should come to the training." And it was two days before the training.

Aimee Wissman: Absolutely.

April Sunami: You were there.

Aimee Wissman: I was like, "Absolutely. I'm so invested."

April Sunami: And you were there. It was really interesting. I think, same as Aimee, I think the training was really interesting. But then also, it was just really just coming in empty, really. Just coming in with no agenda, no perceptions, no judgment, nothing. Just coming in the space open, ready to receive whatever, and then going from there.

Melissa Starker: Did you get any initial guidance from Hannah Estabrook or any of the other staff that worked on site?

April Sunami: I would say so. They opened in, I think it was, May. Then, myself and Tracie did a retreat with the staff up in Delaware, I want to say, a couple months before they had opened up. And that initial retreat was just an introduction to the staff. And I think there, I don't think anybody knew what to expect. Everybody was just saying, "Well, this is what we do. And I don't know what you guys are going to do, but we're here. We're open for it, and we're here to support you with whatever it is you want to do in the space." And so, I guess that was really it. That was the introduction. And really, I don't know. For me, whatever ideas I presented to either Hannah, the staff, or Tracie, they're like, "Yeah, go for it."

Aimee Wissman: Yeah. They're definitely not interested in micromanaging an artist.

April Sunami: Which we appreciate.

Melissa Starker: Yeah, I would say.

Aimee Wissman: Yeah. It's important in that space because the women are typically focused on getting needs met and resources that they need just for daily survival. So, it's nice to have, essentially, a blank canvas. They have this new space, and they're really open to ideas. And it's allowing us, I think, to think about all the different kinds of ways an artist can work in a space, not just making with people, but also beautification and things of that nature.

Melissa Starker: I'm wondering how your work evolved as you spent more time in the space, and how you settled on the projects that you started with, and if you could talk a little bit about those.

April Sunami: Well, I think what was really dope is just when I started off in the space, and then just actually having Aimee bringing her energy. And she just had some different projects that I think were really, really engaging. And again, one of the things they tell you in the training is you just meet people where they're at, and that's it. I already knew off the bat that I wasn't going to come here, like, "Let's make art guys," as people are coming through the door.

Aimee Wissman: Right.

April Sunami: That was not the way. Again, like Aimee has said, people, when they come in the door, it's about shower, food, clothes, and get back to doing what I need to do. It's really about survival. So, again, how do artists engage people when someone's in survival mode? And one thing I learned is that sometimes part of survival is just being still, taking time to do something creative for your soul.

I think that was very clear for me, how important art is in terms of self-care. I also found that a lot of our staff, I discovered a few artists through the staff. I won't name any names, but there's some really creative folks who are like, "Yeah, I really like that project," or whatever. And again, Aimee had brought in some really beautiful... I remember the beads we did. Oh man, women loved making the bracelets. And they were like, "I'm going to give this to such and such." And I mean, it was just something, it's deceptively simple.

Aimee Wissman: Right. Right.

April Sunami: But it impacted somebody that day. It was a form of somebody's self care, somebody's respite, somebody's break, somebody's sense of peace for that day.

Aimee Wissman: Yeah, it was so good.

Close up of a work table covered in light green paper, decorated plastic cups, and various color markers used to decorate the cups. In the background, women captured from the neck down work with the cups. One uses a heating tool to alter the shape of one of the cups.

Melissa Starker: So, that's awesome that you did actually get to do some art making activities. And then, I know that you also, both of you, focused on a beautification element, as well. And I'll start with Aimee. Could you talk about your piece?

Aimee Wissman: Yeah. So, there have been a few things on the take and make level that were successful. Sticker graffiti was really fun.

Melissa Starker: Oh, nice.

Aimee Wissman: The bead work was another one. I think we're scheming some ideas for a Galentine's Day party, and I think there'll have to be some kind of make portion of that. But after chatting with some of the women that work there, and also thinking a little bit about my own experience, so much of that world is swallowed up in loss. And the butterfly is a symbol for their community and feels hopeful and the right kind of energy for this space. So, I'm doing a chalkboard mural that they can use and write on and leave mementos. One of the workers—shout out Mandy—was like, "Please put a rainbow on this." So, I'm working on adding a rainbow element where we're going to write the names of people that have been lost. And I think that that's a really nice way of, not so much memorializing, but more actively remembering for everyone. And now, I'm building this cool, I think it's going to be a chakra tunnel, some kind of beaded sculpture that you can stand under.

And my hope is that when you stand under and look up, that you'll feel some vibes. Because I think that's the way to go. It's something about trying to be in there and help shift the energy and stay open to what they want to share and to the connections. I've run into a couple of people already that I was incarcerated with. So, that's been an interesting thing. And also, I think there's an awareness. If she can be in here just painting a butterfly all day, surely there are a lot of ways out or forward, maybe.

Melissa Starker: Yeah.

Aimee Wissman: So, that feels good, too.

Melissa Starker: And tell me about the huge piece that you're working on, April.

April Sunami: Yeah. Well, it's a mural that is going to go on the back fence. So, there's an outdoor area in the back of the space. And usually in the summer, definitely not right now. I'm guessing nobody is spending any time outside at all. But usually in the back in the summer, women go back there and just hang out. I just wanted there to be something beautiful there, something to add on to the space as they continue to build out and think about gardens. I just wanted this piece to be just really a focal point. So, it was a collaborative piece. It started off with the face, of course, and then had the women spray paint different things around it and brainstorm with the staff what kind of things they wanted on it. They brought in stuff. They found things for me. So, I'm actively putting that stuff on the board that I have with space allowing.

Melissa Starker: Nice. So, you're thinking once things warm up, you'll have a chance to install that?

April Sunami: Install it, yeah. Yeah.

Melissa Starker: Excellent.

April Sunami: I'm hoping March or so. Whenever I get a warm break, which could actually be next week. Who knows.

Aimee Wissman: Right.

Melissa Starker: That's true. How have Tracie and the Wex been supporting your work through this process? Have you been staying in regular contact with Tracie? Or has she just given you room that is, in itself, a form of support?

April Sunami: I would say both.

Aimee Wissman: I was going to say the same.

April Sunami: Yeah, she's both. I mean, Tracie's great. She's a great administrator in terms of she is always just getting us on the same page. Let's meet, let's talk, let's brainstorm next steps of what we want to do. But any idea. I'd be like, "I want to put a big old elephant," whatever. She's like, "Yeah."

Melissa Starker: Great.

April Sunami: Yeah, she is super supportive that way. And just if we have any ideas, she's like, "Well, we'll help support that financially." So artists aren't paying stuff out of pocket. That's very important for us to be sustainable.

Aimee Wissman: Extended my time in the space because I'm moving slow, and life is chaotic.

Melissa Starker: Aimee, you're still working in this space. And April, you're still working on a piece, but not in the space.

April Sunami: Correct.

Melissa Starker: OK. So, what kind of feedback have you gotten from staff and clientele?

Aimee Wissman: I think it's been overwhelmingly positive. Staff is engaged, and they are using the mural, the chalkboard mural, as it's in progress. So, I'm really liking that. And the conversations with the women are sporadic, I guess would be a word, but usually overwhelmingly positive. Really happy to see an artist working or a compliment about the work or some kind of gift. That's usually an invitation to have more conversations.

April Sunami: I also feel like, I mean, it may not be said, but I know in the early days when the space was being planned, I mean, it's just a really gorgeous space. It's got these big pitched cathedral-like ceilings. It's meant to evoke a sacred space, but it's a very safe, inclusive space. Beautiful furniture, nice, soft, cushy throw pillows, blankets, this gigantic table, and beautiful leather chairs. Oh, and the bathrooms. The bathrooms are gorgeously toweled. It's a very well done space. And I think what it says, and the intention behind it, is these women are worthy of something beautiful, of something nice. And I think the art is also, art is always seen as this luxury thing. That's not necessarily true, but this is also another way of saying you are worthy of this experience. No matter what you've been through, you are worthy of this.

Melissa Starker: That's amazing. I know the hope is that these residencies can continue at Sanctuary Night. And I was wondering, because you were the first in, and as you've noted, there wasn't even a building when you had gotten involved initially, if you have any advice or thoughts that you would want to share with artists who might follow in your footsteps in this program, might want to work with marginalized communities that don't typically have this access or program? I know that can be a hard question to answer.

April Sunami: Well, I knew immediately talking to Aimee, she would be an amazing lead artist because, I don't know, I can't speak to your experience. But I also feel like Aimee had that similar mindset as me. It's not about coming in to save anybody. I think that's the first thing. You have to take your ego out of it. And I butcher this quote all the time. I butcher this quote all the time, but I've mentioned this in the training because they're training volunteers. And it's like, "If you want to work with me, you can forget it. But if you realize that your liberation is bound up in mind, let's work together." And I felt like that's the mindset that you have to have coming in. Don't come in thinking you're being altruistic about anything. So, any artist going forward, just get on that page, and you'll be okay.

Melissa Starker: That's a really great point.

Aimee Wissman: Yeah, that’s pretty similar to my sentiment around that. And also, going where you're led and where you have a genuine point of connection outside of the ego motive. If there's real connection to community or to people, I think that's when it is generative for you, as an artist, and also for the people that you're working with.

Melissa Starker: I feel like I could ask you a whole other bunch of questions, but I'm going to stop it there and just ask if there is anything else that you would like to add or bring up?

Aimee Wissman: I don't know. Just how awesome of a place it is, and it probably benefits me the most. It's one of those things where, not on an ego level, like, "Oh, I did a good deed today." But I'm channeling my energies in the right direction, and I'm happy to be a part of this. It feels like a real gift to be in the space. So, that's all. Just gratitude for the opportunity and for Tracie thinking more broadly about access to the arts and where an impact can really happen.

April Sunami: Hear, hear. God love it. Yeah, that was good. Yeah, same. No, I just feel blessed to be there. Yeah, I'm excited to see the program going forward. Just grunted through, started it. Aimee's brought a whole new energy and connection to it, and just to see how it evolves, what other energies other artists bring to the table.

Melissa Starker: Well, I personally would think it would be really hard to come up with two better people to get this started. And I know that we all really appreciate the relationship that we have with you and can't thank you enough for participating in this. And I'm going to stop there and just say thank you so much for talking today.

Aimee Wissman: Thanks, Melissa.

April Sunami: ...Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

Melissa Starker: That was artists April Sunami and Aimee Wissman discussing their work with the Wex's Art & Resilience Program and Sanctuary Night. We'll have links with more information about the artists and Sanctuary Night in the blog post that accompanies this podcast at That URL will also catch you up with everything happening at the Wex. For the Wexner Center for the Arts, I'm Melissa Starker. Thanks for listening.