Lucy Gans works on some of the 400 faces that make up her thought-provoking “In Our Own Words” exhibit.
At first glance, the stark white wall dotted with silent faces presents a striking but somber impression of order and serenity.
But take one step closer, and the soft voices emerge, recounting tales of beatings, of brutal fights that end with bloodied faces, and a seemingly endless cycle of forgiveness and further abuse.
The installation, titled “In Our Own Words,” dramatizes the experience of domestic abuse, etched in the pained faces of its victims, and captured in their often-halting words.
It is the creation of art professor Lucy Gans, who teaches sculpture, drawing and Women’s Studies and who blended those diverse disciplines in an exhibit that presents the literal face of domestic abuse.
Of the 400 heads mounted on the wall, several are wired to project the voices of the victims of domestic abuse. The recordings are the result of a series of interviews Gans conducted with women reached through Turning Point of the Lehigh Valley, the local organization that provides a safe harbor and resources for women and children impacted by domestic violence.
The exhibit opened in late August in the Zoellner Arts Center Multimedia Gallery, and will continue through the end of October. Several programs are planned to coincide with the exhibit, including a domestic violence awareness discussion titled “In Our Own Words” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11 that will be moderated by Gans.
That panel will feature Michelle Issadore, Lehigh’s Sexual Violence Prevention coordinator and assistant director the university’s Women’s Center; Pam Russell, executive director of Turning Point; and two of the survivors interviewed for the project.
“That’s the power of the visual arts,” says Gans. “It’s one of the aspects of it that has always been very important to me: the ability to provoke a reaction and to motivate people to talk about it.”
Gans has conducted research into violence against women for several years, and has focused her efforts on rape, incest and domestic violence. Although her investigation of that subject matter has provided much to mourn, she says she’s been inspired by the resilience of the human spirit.
“It’s amazing to me that women can go through some of the most horrendous experiences, and somehow manage to pull it back together and survive,” she says.
A pervasive problem
Many of the victims of abuse were reluctant to discuss their experiences and have their recorded voices become a part of the exhibit, Gans says. They gradually came to realize not only the benefit of reflection, but the power of their communal voice.
“At this point,” Gans says, “they are no longer dealing with the raw immediacy of the abuse. And once they start to realize how pervasive the problem is—how it crosses all lines of age, of ethnicity, of economics, of race—they realize the power of sharing their experiences and their wisdom.”
To convey a sense of the issue’s pervasiveness, Gans painted and glazed the ceramic heads in her exhibit to suggest various skin tones and ethnic heritage.
“The faces I work with are iconic, archetypal,” she says. “The idea is that any one of these could represent someone’s mother, daughter, sister, a friend, a classmate, or a co-worker. If there is a lasting message to emerge from this, it would be to listen to their voices.”
Gans’ next phase of this project involves taking the exhibit to different communities and recording the experiences of women in those areas.
“Throughout my academic career at Lehigh, I’ve been involved with the Women’s Studies program and that relationship led me into research into women’s lives that I might not have encountered as an artist,” she says. “Each installation that I envision somehow needs to deal with some of these issues out in the open, for all to see. This will be the direction of my work for the next few years.”
The “In Our Own Words” installation will be in the Zoellner Arts Center Multimedia Gallery through Oct. 28. A domestic violence awareness panel titled “In Our Own Words” will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11.
On Sunday, Oct. 28, the final day of the exhibit, a fundraiser for Turning Point will be held between 1 and 5 p.m. in the Zoellner Multimedia Gallery. All those who make a donation to the organization will be allowed to select a head from the exhibit to keep. All events are free and open to the public. For more information, contact Lucy Gans at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (610) 758-5619.