FROM a distance, the colorful T-shirts hanging on Rachel Carey-Harper's clothesline could be just another load of laundry flapping in the October breeze. But step closer, and the shirts reveal heartfelt messages that remain unconventional even by today's anything-goes standards of T-shirt design.
Some shirts refer to violence and abuse. Others include words like "courageous" and "survivor." Still others feature such encouraging phrases as "Reach out and trust" and "Surround yourself with love."
Whatever the message, the purpose is the same: to increase public awareness of the effects of domestic violence on women. Created by women who themselves have been abused, the T-shirts form the centerpiece of the Clothesline Project, a nationwide effort to publicize a problem that the United States Census Bureau says results in a million reported cases of abuse a year - and three times that many unreported cases. Public displays around the country sometimes feature as many as 300 T-shirts.
This week marks the second anniversary of the project. It was founded by Ms. Carey-Harper, a mural artist who says she likes to think in terms of "large, visual statements." From its simple beginnings, the project has spread to 40 communities, stretching from California to Cape Cod and Alaska to Florida.
Hanorah Goldstein of Brewster, Mass., whose involvement with the Clothesline Project grew out of her work at a rape crisis center, explains the impact of the display by saying, "I can give you a bunch of statistics about domestic violence. Five minutes after I reel them off to you, you may remember only one or two. But you cannot walk away from those shirts without being visibly moved."
Many women who design T-shirts remain anonymous. Others, like Christine Martell, a bookstore owner in Orleans, Mass., include their name on their shirts. By speaking up about her earlier experience as a battered wife, Ms. Martell says, "I can be a model for women who are still in those situations. They see that they can get out of the situation and can prosper."
To underscore that possibility of change, Carey-Harper selected two dozen T-shirts offering "positive messages of love and support" for her second-anniversary display in Hyannis, Mass., yesterday. "For me," she says, "perhaps the most important purpose is to connect women, line to line, shirt to shirt, heart to heart."
Even so, she and other organizers emphasize that the shirts pinned to those clotheslines must do more than connect women. "Most of the work [to eliminate domestic violence] really needs to be done with men, but they're not motivated," observes Ed Harper, Carey-Harper's husband.
Still, the Clothesline Project is based upon faith in nothing less than a change of heart. Perhaps the most hopeful design on the clothesline shows the silhouette of a young woman watching a sunrise, followed by the words "Beginning again..."