“I had such deep feelings about a lot of things. I thought that I needed to start putting them down on paper.”BENITA ALIOTH
Benita and I became friends at the Wednesday Bingo/Luncheons. I noticed how welcoming she was when she and other women from the Jantzen Beach RV Park and Hayden Island Mobile Home community situated me to play with my bingo cards and a few pennies. During the game, she was a bit of a jokester, calling out the numbers with expression in her voice, in different ways: “Sexy Sixty!” or “Fifty-five! Five-Five!” I was drawn to her energy.
When I asked Benita if she would allow me to draw her with the art she valued, she asked, “Will my poetry work?”. The project that I was working on was an ongoing socially engaged art project called The Art We Value. I interviewed and drew twelve residents from my community with the object or artwork that they valued from their home and talked about “art” and “value”, asking each participant to define it for themselves and recording our conversations.
Before that day, I didn’t know she was a published writer. I was intrigued. When I came to her house, I noticed she was in a wheelchair. Benita explained that when she came to our Wednesday Bingo/Lunches, (A weekly community event at the Northshore Community Clubhouse in the neighborhood) she had to endure a lot of pain to stand on her feet, and at home, she sat in her wheelchair to take the pressure off. She told me: “I want to take my photograph in my wheelchair.” Reflecting now, I realized that she was making a statement to the community. She was exposing a part of herself, showing a vulnerability that many did not see. This became Benita’s special talent, her calling card.
In February 2022, I hosted a local art show to display the portraits to the public called The Art We Value Art Show: Northshore Clubhouse. I invited Benita to share her poetry publicly for a share-and-tell version of the show. I had asked people to come prepared for a social engagement however as the night went on, I had overlooked the time. Benita took it upon herself to initiate the sharing event. In that way, I feel like she stopped being a participant, and became a collaborator in the success of the project. Benita’s empowering openness shifted the environment of the show and the project with it. When you read her story, you will understand why her words carry so much weight.
Shelbie Loomis: Benita, can you tell me about your story? Then can you share what the art you value is?
Benita Alioth: In 2008, I was in a house fire and it consumed me and left me in a different way. When I came out of the hospital after 12 weeks of induced coma, one of the nurses asked me if I would like to write. They had a group coming together from an Emmanual hospital, and they asked if I would like to be in the group. It was a 10 week course on writing where they gave me prompts, and then I could share if I wanted to. The first year that I did it, I didn’t know exactly what it all entailed. I just knew that I had to do something different. I lost my career in accounting where I worked for the Housing Authority Department. I had taken time off to take care of my elderly mother when we had the fire. I was at my wit’s end and thought, What am I gonna do?. I lost all feeling and I have nerve damage in my fingers and I could no longer do a 10 key, or a typewriter, or do anything other than just using my finger to plunk on the computer. So I thought, Well okay, I’ll give writing a try and see what I got.
In December of 2009, I got a call from a nonprofit agency in Portland that was conducting these writing courses all over Portland. They said, “Benita, we have a surprise for you. We want to use your story as the title of the book.” It was my first time ever writing and it gave me so much inspiration. I had such deep feelings about a lot of things. I thought that I needed to start putting them down on paper, just to have something I could look back on to see how much I’d moved forward from where I was. That was the first inkling of thinking I could write. I’ve written short stories and poems for nine books. I love writing poems. In 2010, about two years after the fire, I wrote a poem called “Inside Out.” It’s about 11 or 12 years old. [Reads poem aloud]
Benita: [pauses, and pats Shelbie] I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry. I realized that I thought to myself, How am I going to get through this?
Shelbie: [Laughs, clearing throat, blinking tears away] I’ll cry with you.
Benita: I’m giving this poem to you.
Shelbie: Oh, thank you so much. [pauses, looking down at the piece of paper] I think that you are so inspirational. Especially just to share the vulnerability. I feel very touched. This last year, I’ve been going through a lot of grief and loss. But, you know, through our grief, we find people who are compassionate to that grief.
Benita: Another thing that helped me out tremendously is, I got involved with the burn community. So I volunteered at the hospital, and visited patients who had been burned. To me, that’s inspiring, because there’s somebody out there that has been hurt badly, and you can walk into a room sometimes, and they realize, Hey, I’m not the only one that this has happened to. That’s really important, to look at other people this way, even families. When I go to the burn center, if I see a large family in the waiting room, then I know somebody new has come in and I’ll just go in there and I’ll tell them my name and let them know that I’ve been burned and they’re in good hands. The success rate, these days, of burn victims surviving this, is tremendous. It’s really gotten to the point where they can really help burn survivors. That’s my forte, helping people when they’re in their darkest moments. I have the ability to be compassionate, and deal with it that way.
There was a time in my life when I was married to my children’s father— he was a Vietnam veteran, and he had PTSD. While I was a Nothing makes me sick, nothing hurts. I go, go go. I move on. And why don’t you? type of attitude. And I wouldn’t acknowledge that he had problems. And then he died. And since then I say, I wish I would have told him I was sorry that I didn’t understand that. Because until this happened to me, I didn’t understand what trauma could do. What’s happened to me has given me a new heart with more compassion and more love for people. That’s why I volunteer. I’ll help with whatever I can, whether I’m in a group or in the community, I want to help. I want to be a part of giving back, which is important to me. I continue to do that. I give that in the hospital and I do it also at the Northshore Clubhouse for our lunches. Even though it’s not that much, it’s part of the solution. That keeps me going. And my friends here, the people here in the park, they’re wonderful. If they don’t hear from me for a day or two, they come knocking on my door. I am one that likes being alone. I like being alone. I have lots of things to do. As you can see, I’m an avid reader.
Shelbie: That makes sense because you’re a writer.
Benita Alioth (she/her) is a volunteer in her community lunch program and burn survivors community. She has published several stories/poems through the Oregon Burn Center and Write Around Portland, and is an alumni of the Oregon Council of Humanities program, Humanities in Perspective.
Shelbie Loomis (she/her) is a socially engaged artist and illustrator. She makes projects and drawings with her communities about complex grieving, alternative housing, and exchange culture through times of crisis. Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico she now lives in Portland, Oregon.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
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