Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber, the Founder and Executive Director of Tehom Center, is a dedicated educator, clergywoman, artist, activist, award-winning author, mother—you name it. She holds a Ph.D. in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union and through her work at her non-profit organization, Tehom Center, Yarber has created an inclusive community and retreat center for empowered women on the Island of Hawai’i through her teachings on religion and intersectionality. With her expansive insight on religion, gender, and sexuality, Yarber draws from these topics to create artistic, visual representations of historically esteemed feminist icons and other prominent spiritual beings. Her avant-garde approach to amplifying issues of social justice and female empowerment paired with her outstanding leadership as an influential feminist has earned her features on NPR, Maya Angelou’s Memorial Celebration, and she was a finalist for the International Penelope Niven Creative Non-Fiction Prize.
Yarber and her wife, Dr. A. Elizabeth Lee (also the Administrative Director of Tehom Center) decided to travel the world with their 18-month-old toddler after uprooting the lives they had built in North Carolina and found themselves in a moment of awe when they discovered what would be their new home base in paradise on the Big Island in 2016, but were well aware that their move could not be taken lightly.
“I flew out for a work exchange on the Big Island and fell in love with the island, the culture, and the people. We tried really hard to do research before our move and had to ask ourselves, ‘Would this be OK for us, as non-natives to Hawai’i, to move here?’
We wanted to come to Hawai’i responsibly to be an ally, not a burden,” she continued, “We wanted to be sure that we could give back and contribute to the community that we’ve grown to love so dearly, and were prepared to leave if we couldn’t do that.” With this intent and dedication for a respectful move, their dream came to life—and thus, Tehom Center was born.
Established in 2017, Tehom Center (formally known as The Holy Women’s Icon Project) has served as a safe space for marginalized women on the Big Island that focuses on topics in gender, sexuality, race, revolutionary women in history, and more, and incorporates the intersectionality of these topics within the artwork that is produced by Yarber and the Tehom Center community.
Tehom, the Hebrew word for deep or watery depths, takes many meanings for Yarber’s non-profit—deepening justice, deepening creativity, and deepening spirituality. With this new enriching outlet, Yarber no longer had to choose between work and her passion for art. At Tehom Center, she can be an all-encompassing author, an artist, and mentor.
“Opening Tehom Center was always a long term goal for my wife and I, so it made sense to incorporate it as a nonprofit for our new community,” Yarber explained, “One of my most reflective art pieces is Tehom Goddess, as Tehom is the feminine and beautiful embodiment of women of color. This was one of the first experiences with a really large canvas again after I finally built my studio and was a beautiful way of capturing [my interpretation of Tehom Goddess] in one piece,” she continued.
Creating art is one of the ways in which Yarber promotes and funds Tehom Center. When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the nation, Tehom Center was one of the many non-profit organizations that was hit hard with decreased funding and opportunities to serve marginalized women in Hawai’i.
“$100,000 in funding was lost, so I started to focus more on selling my art to generate support in order to continue these programs at Tehom Center,” Yarber shared. “It was during this time that I was able to dabble in collage—something I’ve wanted to do for a long time—and ended up creating another one of my favorite pieces, Goddess of Radical Imagination.”
“I remember we were three weeks into this pandemic, and the more I dove into my own process and saw what my colleagues were creating, the more it gave us hope for the future,” Yarber continued. Although we were speaking over the phone, her smile radiated through her words of optimism.
A common theme throughout each of Yarber’s art pieces is how the women she paints often have their arms outreached towards the sky, encouraging viewers to hold their heads high. “In my teens and early twenties, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of women’s representation in positions of power. Whether it was politics, religious leadership, business, or the public square, I always found myself asking, ‘Where are all the women?’,” Yarber added. It was this realization that urged her to offer an empowering remedy to this long-standing battle through iconography.
It wasn’t just women that Yarber wanted to amplify through her art, she specifically wanted to use her platform to depict women of color and queer women. “That became more of my focus, so we can know our history and see reflections of ourselves in art,” she explained. “It deepened the style of art and the intention behind it.”
Not only does Yarber depict archetypal visual manifestations of powerful women in her paintings, she has explored the powerful avenue of painting influential women and sacred goddesses such as Pele (Goddess of fire), Hina (Goddess of rain and moon), Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Khalo, Maya Angelou, Mother Teresa, and many others. Yarber mainly takes commissions to paint historical women, but recently she’s been asked to create paintings of the actual women who have commissioned her to do other work in the past, including those who were about to be ordained and wanted to commemorate their accomplishments. In total, Yarber has created over 150 pieces that each take anywhere between 20-40 hours to complete, depending on level of detail, that have helped women of all backgrounds see reflections of themselves within her artwork.
Yarber shared a quote by author bell hooks that has always resonated with her, “The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is, it’s to imagine what’s possible,” for she believes it’s a way of saying, “You don’t have to settle. We can envision a world where all are surrounded by beauty. To have access to what is just and beautiful. It addresses things in a way words often can’t.” There was a moment of silence as we both reflected on the enriching conversation we just had.
“In a word, I hope my artwork continues to empower women as we work towards a brighter future.”
Visit Tehom Center’s website to learn more about the great work Yarber and her team are doing and to purchase art pieces and other merchandise to ensure that they can continue to offer program scholarships for marginalized women, temporary housing in their retreat center (not currently offered due to the pandemic), and healing and restorative services for women in Hawai’i.