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Border Crossing

Program teaches local and immigrant women artists about the art of business.

Tayseer Shibrain has been painting since she was a child growing up in Sudan, following the lead of her father. She’s always had the passion for art — it was the aggression she lacked.

“I don’t consider myself an established artist. I consider myself an emerging one,” said Shibrain, who immigrated to America in 1996 and who now lives in Alexandria. “If you want to go down that path, you have to be really, really aggressive.”

Shibrain and over two dozen other women artists participated in this year’s Empowered Women International’s (EWI) entrepreneurial training program — a three-month series of workshops and classes geared towards helping immigrant artists learn the basics of business, marketing and legal aspects of art.

“I wasn’t really into selling [my art],” she said. “It’s been really beneficial for me, all the information we got out of that class: how to do a business plan, how to do a marketing plan, pricing your artwork.”

The culmination of the program is Women without Borders, a mixed-media exhibition and graduation ceremony scheduled for Thursday, June 15 from 6-9 p.m. at The Art League Annex located at 1 Duke Street. “The exhibition is the final piece of the training program,” said Marga Fripp, president and CEO of EWI. “It’s a show to honor their success, but also gives them a chance to showcase their work and talk about their work.”

The exhibition — made possible in part from support from The Giving Circle of Hope, The Washington Post and the Alexandria Commission for the Arts — will be juried by Trudi Van Dyke, an independent curator and a teacher in the Masters of Arts Management Program at George Mason University.

Works by the EWI artists will be available for sale during the event, which is free to the public, and on www.ewint.org until July 16.

FOR THE WOMEN who have nearly completed the EWI program, the skills they’ve learned have literally changed the course of their careers.

“Marga says everyone’s an artist. All of us draw, dribble, do something,” said Wynn Creasy, a painter from Alexandria. “But what separates an artist who’s making a living from someone who works at home for fun…this class is about that difference.”

Creasy was an opera singer for 40 years. “I learned how to make a pretty noise, and I struggled to make a career for years and years,” she recalled. She gave up performing for teaching, and then took up painting about five years ago. Creasy sold a few paintings here and there, but admitted she “had no ideas how to make a business out of it.”

With few other educational options, she turned to the EWI art business program — one that was geared towards emerging immigrant women artists.

“The scariest thing for me when I first signed up for the class was not being accepted because I am an American woman and there’s such a focus on immigrants. Marga herself is an immigrant, and her focus is on getting immigrant women into the mainstream,” Creasy said.

Fripp said the classes expanded to include American women from the D.C. metro area because there was no comparable program for them.

The EWI program embraced the cultural differences in its students, but stressed that uniformity in language was important to further an artist's career.

“Part of this class is to really make the [immigrant] women understand that they do need to be fluent enough in English to communicate,” said Creasy. “It’s a hard thing for a lot of people coming here to make a phone call to someone about showing their work.”

Whatever language barriers existed among the classmates, Creasy said the artists were able to bond over their shared passions.

“As Marga has always said: the arts break down all kinds of walls,” said Creasy. “When we start talking about what we create, there’s none of this ‘Well, you’re from Africa and you’re from Sudan.’ There’s a little bit of a language barrier at first, but we all got through that.”

TAYSEER SHIBRAIN, a Sudanese painter who came to America in 1996, said she hadn’t considered how to maximize the selling potential of her art until enrolling in the EWI program. “It’s been really beneficial for me, all the information we got out of that class: how to do a business plan, how to do a marketing plan, pricing your artwork,” she said.

The classes began in March at the Torpedo Factory, and each week featured three different speakers from all walks of artistic life. There were entrepreneurial artists and artist representatives. There were functional workshops on putting together portfolios and how to package a product that would draw interest from galleries. There were special classes on the financial aspects of the business, from bookkeeping to writing grant applications.

Fripp said the classes worked towards making the artist self-reliant when it comes to technology. Learning current computer programs, using digital cameras, making CD copies of portfolios for galleries — all of these skills help maximize exposure while decreasing costs to the artist. “They start to realize that instead of paying somebody to do it, they need to do it for themselves,” said Fripp.

Creasy said her career as an artist has taken off this year, mostly due to her education in the EWI program. Since March, she’s had a solo show at the Burke and Herbert Bank and Trust in Old Town; has hooked up with an artist rep; and has been accepted in several juried shows, including one coming up in Bethesda, Md. She said the perseverance the program stresses had made a difference. “It’s cold calling in a lot of ways, which isn’t fun for anybody, but it’s something that you have to do, and it’s paying off,” said Creasy. “I can’t tell you the difference [the program has] made in my life."

REGINA BARKER-BARZEL, a Russian-born painter who lives in Arlington, said Fripp works tirelessly “towards getting our backs out of the chair and to start promoting ourselves.”

She said Fripp is a maternal figure to the class, offering constant encouragement and guidance along with an education. “She makes me feel ashamed of myself,” Barker-Barzel said with a laugh, “someone tells me to do something, and I just have to do it.”

Fripp said this year’s program — the second for EWI, after last year’s pilot program — targeted an enrollment of 25 people and 35 artists initially signed up. Interested parties filled out application that indicated where they are in their careers and what they desired to get out of the EWI classes.

“We have some really, really beginners in the program. It’s not that we want to have the best — it’s that we want to have [artists] with the potential to be the best,” she said.

Fripp hopes to expand the program next year. “We would have had a huge attendance if we could have been able to meet these people in their communities instead of having them all come to Alexandria. We really want to have this program developed in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. Funding is the issue here,” she said.

No matter its size, Fripp feels the program has achieved its objective: empowering women artists with proficiency and support.

“Beyond the knowledge and the skills we provided, we put together a network for them,” she said.

“They’re not alone anymore. There’s someone who knows their name.”