Walls of Hope

Art has the power to be healing and transformative. For survivors of sexual assault, it can be a lifeline. The statistics are staggering. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. The perpetrator is often an intimate partner or acquaintance. Of the survivors, 81 percent of women and 35 percent of men report significant short-term and long-term effects, like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

It’s vitally important that survivors have a safe place to go for assistance, support and healing after a sexual assault. The Women’s Center of Jacksonville provides just that. The only certified rape crisis center for Duval, Baker and Nassau counties, this nonprofit organization provides approximately 300 sexual assault survivors with forensic exams each year.

Survivors thrive in a healing atmosphere where they may safely begin the long road to recovery. Every detail must be non-threatening, even inviting. The curated collection of artwork is no exception. Earlier this year, the Women’s Center teamed up with visual arts faculty members at Jacksonville University (JU) to carefully select and install locally sourced artwork in the new J. Wayne & Delores Barr Weaver Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (SAFE) Center.

“We’ve spent a long time planning out the work that goes in each room to make sure it’s appropriate for survivors, as they’re spending time in this space,” says Tiffany Leach, JU Associate Professor of Art. “It’s an eclectic collection of work because the space is divided into several different areas. One area is actually where the victims go to be examined and where they speak with police officers and that sort of thing. The other side is the more administrative side. We were really thoughtful in how we divided up the works. What work would be in the exam room? What work would be in the room where they have to talk about what happened versus what’s in the hallway or in the lobby where everyone can enjoy it?”

The Women’s Center of Jacksonville found its new location on Colcord Avenue in 2016. It took considerable vision—and a lot of elbow grease—to make the dream a reality. When the renovated facility opened its doors in May 2018, Executive Director Teresa Miles was determined to create a space that fostered a sense of peace, healing and comfort for survivors. She also wanted to continue a tradition started by the original Women’s Center of Jacksonville: providing space for local artists to display their works while benefiting survivors.

Miles approached Leach with the idea, and the Women’s Center of Jacksonville Sexual Assault Forensic Exam Center Art Installation was born. Leach co-curated the collection with JU Assistant Professor of Illustration Nicholas McNally.

“We really looked at the building from the eye of a survivor,” says Miles, who is a passionate advocate for the rights of girls and women. “So, where does healing begin? We know it’s not necessarily going to start right after the sexual assault or the aftermath of the trauma that has been experienced. So we knew it needed to start the moment they approached our building, the moment they entered those doors. Every aspect of the building needed to create an environment where they would see they could be safe here and that healing could begin.”

A team then formed to bring this vision to life. They issued a call to artists and were thrilled with the outpouring of community support. From the submissions, the team selected artwork that was soft and soothing: gentle edges, cool color palettes, not a lot of bold colors or strong angles. The works are displayed on a One Year Wall. The collection includes original pieces by local artists such as David Hansford, Sandy Hansford, Lynn Sickinger, Liz Seymour, Roselynn Imbleau and Tiffany Leach, as well as a number of anonymous sexual assault survivors. At year’s end, there will be another open call for artwork so the space remains fresh. Emerging and established artists alike will have the opportunity to display their works.

“It’s been such a wonderful journey,” Miles says. “Great people really came forward to help us with it.”

“We have a variety of work, [and] most of it is very calming,” Leach says. As the mother of two daughters, having a safe and restorative place for women to go in time of crisis is an issue near and dear to her heart. “We really looked for work that was soft and calming, and in another sense we looked for a body of work that was empowering. There are places where survivors can go and be in a really quiet and calm environment. Then, as they move through the process, there are places where we try to place works that are stronger and more empowering.”

Executive Director Miles believes that artwork has a profound ability to engage the whole person.

“I really wanted to make sure that what our survivors were exposed to when they came into our center gave them peace and not angst, things like landscapes, soft birds, flowers … things that make you feel good,” she says. “What might a survivor need to let them know this is an experience they can survive? Does this work of art make her feel OK in this moment?”

Research has proved that art inspires psychological and physiological responses, and modern healthcare facilities are responding to new findings. Goodbye, sterile, institutional medical facilities of the past. Hello, welcoming spaces that focus on whole-person healing.

Visual art is so much more than merely decoration. It gives patients the opportunity to take their minds off whatever is going on in their lives and to find moments of peace. Art can reduce anxiety and stress, decrease pain perception and heart rate, and increase both patient and employee satisfaction.

“There have been studies that show [viewing] artwork lowers blood pressure and helps people’s moods and depression,” Miles explains. ”Mood improves when exposed to something that feels positive. It’s not unlike when you’re really sad and your favorite song comes on the radio. It lifts you for that time. It gives you something that you’re searching for. Art is a powerful tool, I believe.”

For survivors trudging through the dregs of hell, The Women’s Center of Jacksonville is on the frontlines of patient care, providing them with so much more than forensic exams. Their walls of hope represent love, compassion and healing. These walls offer survivors a powerful message: You are not at fault. You can move past this. The future is beautiful. You are worthy.

“Sexual assault is not a women’s issue,” Miles says. “It’s not a state attorney’s issue. It’s not a law enforcement issue. It’s a community issue. Sexual assault can occur at any time, at any place, with any gender. First and foremost, it’s about the community caring about this issue and recognizing we have to do better to change rape culture, to recognize environments that create oppression of women, and to support women in the boardroom.”

Stand up and get involved, Jacksonville. It’s uncomfortable to talk about, but dialogue is critical. This epidemic cannot be ignored. Ending sexual assault is a communitywide responsibility. Survivors deserve more. Our children deserve better. Step up, step out, and help put an end to sexual assault. Assist those facing this life-altering experience by offering them—and the Women’s Center of Jacksonville—your time, resources and advocacy. Art has the power to heal, but everyday citizens have the power to change the culture.