April 18, 2013

Art depicts sexual violence survivors as 'thrivers'

Meghan Witherow '14 with art she created for the exhibit "We Step Into the Light Ithaca 2013."
Jason Koski/University Photography
Meghan Witherow '14 with art she created for the exhibit "We Step Into the Light Ithaca 2013."

People who have experienced sexual assault are often called “survivors.” Several women recently replaced that term with “thriver,” with the help of the Cornell Women’s Resource Center.

Its April art exhibit, “We Step Into the Light Ithaca 2013,” aimed to empower thrivers and provide them with a safe place to express themselves.

Maureen, a thriver and postdoctoral researcher at Cornell, said she was prompted to participate in part by the recent Steubenville, Ohio, rape case, in which two high school football players were convicted of raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl.

“As the years go by, and I read about assault in the news, it’s becoming increasingly clear how important it is to make the public realize that this happens to people all the time, so that people don’t feel so ashamed, like I did,” Maureen said.

Resource Center members brought together 13 pairs of volunteer artists and thrivers who collaborated to create a piece of art based on the essence of the thriver, who goes on to live a full life beyond the experience of sexual violence.

“It’s imperative for the Resource Center to think of creative ways to spread awareness about and engage conversations on sexual violence. We also believe that the project’s emphasis on the survivor as a thriver is a unique way to empower those for whom these programs aim to advocate,” said co-organizer Nevena Pilipovic-Wengler ’13.

Maureen was sexually assaulted when she was 18 by someone she knew. The incident was alcohol-related, and she didn’t realize until many years later that it was a sexual assault – and that it wasn’t her fault. “I repressed it for many, many years,” she said.

It’s only in the last few years that she’s been addressing the incident. Recently she’s been pushing herself out of her comfort zone, by telling a family member and participating in the art project.

She collaborated with artist Meghan Witherow ’14, a nutritional sciences major. “My prelim will not matter to me 10 years from now, and I was searching for something that would. Academic life has also left me without time for art, a lifelong passion, so I wanted a tangible deadline to paint,” Witherow said.

After exchanging a few emails, she and Maureen met for about an hour and a half. Witherow asked Maureen about what she enjoys doing, her preference for colors, her ambitions, what brings her peace. ”Meghan seemed very creative and interested in creating something to reflect me,” Maureen said.

Witherow painted bright yellow orchids, Maureen’s favorite flower, surrounded by splashes of pink against a black background. “I wanted something that evoked a feeling of excitement and confidence. I envisioned something moving from compact to expansive, to both help remind Maureen of how far she has come, and to inspire her to continue blooming,” Witherow said.

The process has helped Maureen make progress in her personal life, she said. “It’s been really formative in how I deal with my past and moving forward,” she said.

The project has inspired Witherow too, she said: “Academics are important, but just an hour spent on something that makes you contemplate the lives of others, or even the span of your own short life, is time well spent. Suddenly, my homework does not seem so desperately urgent.”

The art, including a mirror mosaic, photography and pastels, was displayed April 8-12 at Mann Library. The exhibit moved April 12 to Willard Straight Hall for a closing reception, at which the art was given to the thrivers.