Survivors' art speaks volumes

Tadhg Evans

"I wish my chair was more realistic. I wish the fake vomit I smeared on the seat was real vomit. I want everyone to see how these crimes impact children."

Other art exhibitions may showcase more pieces, but Through the Chair's substance is peerless.

It's the Kerry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre's 25th birthday in 2017 and, in celebration of that milestone, the centre has invited well-wishers for coffee, cake, and a look at a thrustingly impactful art exhibition. The Kerryman has no sooner crossed the open doorway at 5 Greenview Terrace when counsellor Alice Kavanagh hurries through a chattering crowd to welcome us, guiding us through a pair of packed rooms to the sun-kissed back-garden holding the Through the Chair display.

"Each chair you see here is designed and made by a survivor, telling a story of pain, hope and healing," Alice says as we walk around the yard. "I'd seen a similar project elsewhere, and we pitched the idea to a few clients. From there, Rachel O'Donovan and I worked with eight volunteers every Wednesday night over the space of a few months, and this is the result."

After an exhibition launch furnished with speeches heaping deserved, heartfelt praise on the artwork, a survivor behind one of the chairs joins The Kerryman and Alice in a cosy first-floor counselling room for a deeper chat about her time within Through the Chair.

"Mine was always going to be a primary school chair with frail blue legs, as my first memory of abuse comes from that point," the survivor says. "I remember the colours of the building blocks, the smell of new books, and the huge windows - and then, bang; it was all snatched from me. The Raggedy Anne doll thrown on the ground in front of the chair represents the experience I filed away for 40 years until I first attended KRSAC.

"I wanted my chair to offend sensibilities. I smeared fake vomit on the tiny wooden seat, and I make no apologies for that; the only thing I'd change about my piece is that I'd use real vomit if that had been possible. It's not pretty, but we need to show people the impact these crimes have on children. "I want adults to be vigilant. It's not so much what children are saying, it's what they're not saying. I want everyone to see the effect of abuse."

Alice is unequivocal on the benefits of the group work behind the chairs.

"It's important to have attended one-to-one counselling beforehand, but if you want to try group work and we agree that you're up to it, it's wonderful. Bringing survivors together is invaluable. Every participant says 'nobody understands me like the group. My counsellor is great, but this is different'."

The client seated to her right smiles and echoes Alice.

"You've to make sure you're comfortable sharing with a group. You couldn't do it without years of working alone with a professional, but the project directors know themselves if you're ready or not. They're instrumental. There were nights we spent laughing and giggling, and then there were evenings we just sat and cried, but the project leaders kept us going throughout.

"If you can do group work, it's beautiful, cathartic. For years I asked 'What put me in a position to be abused?' Then I met this group of women and I realised I wasn't alone and that I'd done nothing wrong. As for the art itself, it was as if I put my hands into my past and pulled all that feeling out for my chair."

Describing KRSAC as the aid that helped her retrieve her self-esteem, one-to-one counselling and group work melted her previous belief that she was 'an unworthy person'.

"You grow up almost telling yourself, 'I deserved it', but all that changes once you come here. KRSAC doesn't turn away, and they don't look for anything in return.

"My best friends don't know what's happened in my life, but I've told the counsellors here because they're so staunchly committed to confidentiality. I want people to know they'll be understood here. The hardest part of going for a walk is putting your shoes on, but you should look at visiting KRSAC as the first step of the rest of your life."

"She's right," Alice adds.

"All you've to do is pick up the phone. You don't have to give your name, but we'll guide you to our free, confidential service."

You can free-phone the centre at 1800 633 333, or e-mail KRCC@eircom.net. Full details on contacts and services are available at www.krsac.com

Kerryman

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