Healing Through Art
[Trigger warning: The following essay contains information about sexual violence which may be triggering to survivors.]
Sexual assault is an all too regular conversation on college campuses. Every April, colleges and universities across the country commemorate Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), hosting educational events and renowned speakers, screening documentaries, speaking out in solidarity with survivors, and channeling their voices and experiences through art. These events raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual violence, and work to unite the campus community in their commitment to its end.
But this work cannot be done alone. It requires many voices, and many hands to move it forward. This same philosophy is embodied in the work of the Culture of Respect Collective, a campus mobilization that bring together voices from across the campus to improve the prevention of and response to sexual violence. The more than sixty schools in the Collective share best practices and innovative ideas, like the Against My Will art project and panel hosted by Culture of Respect Collective participant Alfred University to commemorate SAAM. We hope you are inspired by the account of Traci Molloy, the artist, education activist, and alumna, whose art and advocacy was embraced and celebrated by Alfred University.
In March of 2017, I returned to my alma mater, Alfred University, to give a lecture and generate imagery for a collaboration. During this visit, I met a young woman, then a junior, who was a sexual assault survivor. We talked about her experiences, how she was raped during her freshman year, and the struggles she’s had since then. I thought about my own experiences with sexual assault, which coincidentally had occurred during my freshman year. I recalled the narratives of so many women I knew that had graduated from this wonderful institution, survivors who had kept their experiences silent for decades for a litany of reasons. Our stories are not unique.
I promised this young woman that I would come back the following year, that we would create a large-scale public art installation with survivors that would openly and honestly address sexual assault, and that we would work together – all of us – to help educate and transform the culture of sexual assault on Alfred’s campus. To accompany the installation, we would stage a performative panel, bringing together generations of survivors to share their experiences, and work with the university to generate change for the current population of students. This would not be an easy task. We needed funding, institutional support, participants, and a public space to install the work.
Over the next 6 months, I worked behind the scenes with members of the administration and staff at Alfred University to establish protocol for the project. The support from the administration was overwhelmingly positive. This project required tremendous courage and trust from everyone involved. Funding was coming from both private donations and university resources. We determined a venue for the public installation: the center of campus, known as Academic Alley, would serve as the location. By the end of January of 2018, I had 22 women interested in participating in the collaboration. The collaboration was titled Against My Will.
As the project was coalescing, the #MeToo Movement exploded. Women began to share their stories on social media. The country was taking notice as powerful men were fired from their positions for sexual assault violations. Criminal investigations were being initiated. Women felt empowered to speak out. They had a platform.
On April 18, 2018, after more than a year’s worth of work, the collaboration went public. Against My Will is a site-specific installation featuring 22 double-sided vinyl light post banners made in partnership with individuals that experienced trauma due to sexual assault. I created the image in collaboration with 10 current Alfred University students and 12 Alfred alumnae. The participants, all cisgender women, are survivors of rape, sexual assault, and/or sexual harassment. The sexual violation could have occurred while the women were students at Alfred, or at any juncture in their life. Many of the project’s participants have never shared their assault stories with anyone prior to this collaboration.
Against My Will depicts gouache portrait paintings of each participant. Aspects of the individual’s features have been omitted. The reasoning is two-fold: to ensure privacy and protect people’s identities, and to visually illustrate the psychological damage that occurs after a rape – you feel like your body is forever altered, that parts of you are missing. Each participant provided a handwritten, supportive text describing their personal assault experience. The narratives all begin with the same phrase, “I was.”
On the evening of the premiere of the collaboration, Alfred University staged a 90-minute performative panel on sexual assault, including four current undergraduate students and three alumni, all survivors of sexual violence. The panel began with an audience participation component, where everyone that identified as a woman was asked to stand. The participants then counted off by fives. Everyone was then asked to sit, except for the number ones. The statistic, that 1 in 5 women are assaulted on college campuses, was personified.
The panel was a profoundly moving, empowering, deeply emotional, celebration of the resiliency of the human spirit. All of the panelists demonstrated enormous courage. Their honesty and vulnerability provided the compass for the discussion. It enabled the audience of nearly 150 students and faculty members, many of whom were also survivors, to understand the depths of trauma that sexual assault causes. The panel concluded with a performance by women from Alfred University’s choir singing Milck’s moving anthem, “I Can’t Keep Quiet.”
Against My Will would not exist without the help of so many people. Thank you to President Mark Zupan, Kathy Woughter, Norm Pollard, and the extended administration at Alfred University who’ve provided institutional support throughout this entire process; Chief Diversity Officer Dan Napolitano, whose dedication to social justice and art has empowered the creation of this body of work; Benjy Davies for his digital art expertise and guidance; AU students Summer and Savannah Markajani, who designed support materials to advertise this project; Amanda Khodorkovskaya, the staff at the Wellness Center, and SAVE for all their support and guidance; Dr. Luanne Crosby and Dr. Sandra Singer for their assistance with the panel; and to Alfred University alumni Kristen Klabin and Carolyn Clark for their incredible generosity and patronage. This project wouldn’t have come to fruition without their assistance and support.
Most importantly, thank you to the 22 women that courageously shared their stories and experiences with me for this collaboration. The project exists because of them. Their resiliency, bravery, and determination to speak their truths is humbling and powerful. Against My Will is dedicated to them.
To all the other survivors out there - We hope this collaboration gives you the strength you need to find your voice and speak your truth. You’re not alone.
- Traci Molloy
Artist and Education Activist