Victims, survivors of sexual violence use art to heal

Published: Mar. 30, 2017 at 5:59 PM CDT
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Victims of sexual violence often have difficulty talking about their trauma, but it can be an important part of the healing process. One Sioux Falls survivor used art as part of her therapy, and has sparked a movement among other local survivors.

The South Dakota Network Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault is hosting an art exhibition next Friday through Sunday at Prairie Berry East Bank in Sioux Falls, along with The Compass Center, the Children's Inn and other local organizations. All inspired by one woman's passion to for art that helped her heal after being sexually assaulted.

"She provided us artwork, just for personal use," said Cynthia Tobin, the sexual violence project specialist for SDNAFVSA. "She used artwork just for therapy and then we asked her if we could use that artwork for our sexual violence conference."

But the idea caught on after the conference.

"Her friends, which included my sister, she spread the word out to other survivors that she had known, then more survivors said they wanted to participate in this," Tobin explained.

Art therapy isn't a new way for victims to overcome the trauma they suffered, but it works.

"It's a very healing process and it's a very affirming process for victims to be able to share their experience with others," said Krista Heeren-Graber, the director for SDNAFVSA.

After the idea spread by word of mouth, the organization hosted its first "Finding Our Voices" exhibition last year and expect this year's event to be even more well-attended and participated in.

"We have at least over 20 artists so far and last year we had about 28," Tobin said.

Anyone can participate, whether you're a victim, survivor or ally of sexual violence victims and allies. Being an ally is just as important as surviving a trauma.

"The allies provide support and affirmation and give a voice to victims and survivors," Heeren-Graber explained. "And victims and survivors are extremely important in the work that we do because we need to hear their voices and hear their experiences to truly make change."

Heeren-Graber explained that when sexual violence is mentioned, most people automatically think that means rape, but it can include many different forms of assault.

"Sexual exploitation, sex trafficking, sexual harrassment, sexual contact that has occurred -- so not actually -- when you talk about sexual violence --it would be different than what you would refer to as a rape," she said.

"We talk about sexual comments, jokes that objectify victims -- sometimes it's referred to as 'locker room talk,' but all of that language that objectifies people and puts people in the position of being a victim of sexual violence," she elaborated. "We need to change that."

Friday, March 31 is the deadline for artwork submissions.

"Survivors can drop off their artwork at the office or they can meet another survivor," said Tobin.

Survivors, victims and allies want to share one important message.

"We're trying to send a message that sexual violence is never OK," said Heeren-Graber.

The exhibition is set for April 7 - 9 at Prairie Berry East Bank in Sioux Falls. It kicks off Friday night from 5-9 p.m.