‘Beauty in the Broken’ Shows the Beauty and Bravery of Assault Survivors

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All too often, the only depictions we see in the media of rape and sexual assault victim are images of devastation, fear, and pain. While it is important to provide realistic depictions of the damage that sexual violence can cause, it can leave people with the idea that once you become a victim of sexual violence, that is all you’ll ever be.

West Michigan artist Bethany Grenier is pushing back on that cultural assumption. She has created a massive art installation for the annual “ArtPrize” competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This piece is inspired by the #MeToo movement and stands to really change the way our society discusses and views survivors of sexual assault.

Grenier’s installation features 25 black and white images of women (including herself), all of whom are real-life survivors of intimate violence, combined with kintsugi epoxy clay hearts designed in a manner similar to the traditional, flaming “sacred heart.” The title of the piece, “Beauty in the Broken,” speaks to her intention in creating this work.

For those unfamiliar with kintsugi, it is a Japanese art form that involves repairing broken pieces of pottery. The lacquer that holds the broken pieces back together is lightly dusted gold, to create a new and even more beautiful work of pottery. The repaired areas are also stronger than the original pottery.

One of 25 installation photos from 'Beauty In the Broken'

One of 25 installation photos from ‘Beauty In the Broken’

In other words, the beauty of kintsugi involves where it was once broken and is now repaired or healed. The symbolism here, obviously, is that while violence can break the heart, the strength and love that are required to repair it make something even more beautiful and precious. Combined with the photographs of actual survivors, these broken and remade sculptures represent something truly profound.

In her artist’s statement, Grenier discusses her intention behind the piece. “Scars are a part of our history to be honored, not hidden…The photograpshs give context and weight to the hung hearts by integrating the idea of our healing/healed hearts into the reality of our everyday existence, while also grounding the hashtag #metoo in actual women.”

Grenier acknowledges that people of all genders and sexuality face sexual violence, but she has chosen in this piece to focus on strength and beauty of women survivors. She also notes that, while she was working on this installation, she received a message alerting her that the daughter of a close friend had been raped in her dorm room. This installation comes at a time when sexual violence still rages, but our society is finally starting to talk about it openly.

Image of broken hearts awaiting repairs for 'Beauty in the Broken'

Broken hearts, not yet mended.

Grenier created and then broke an epoxy heart for each of her models, carefully fusing the pieces back together and creating a beautiful, meaningful finished product. The breaking process involved either striking the ground with the hearts or hitting them with a hammer, an apt metaphor for the impact of intimate violence.

She intentionally left the seams raised, giving them the appearance of keloid scars, which sometimes develop over the site of wounds. Per Grenier, “I felt it was a fitting metaphor in tandem with the kintsugi technique to represent the ‘woundedness’ that the assault victim is left with.”

A partial exhibit of her piece will be on display at The Bitter End Coffee House in Grand Rapids for the duration of ArtPrize. This installation features 16 of the images and hearts. The full installation with 25 pieces is also on display at The Nomad Gallery by Richard App. Visitors and attendees will have the ability to vote for the piece, which will compete against hundreds of others also on display in venues all over the city.

24 of the 25 images on display

24 of the 25 images on display at The Nomad Gallery by Richard App

Per the rules of ArtPrize, each piece or installation must have a single name. However, Grenier still invited her models to to create a subtitle for their individual portraits, allowing them an opportunity to express who they have become in the wake of their experience. Grenier organized them into a Dada-esque poem.

Grenier’s “Beauty in the Broken,” created with the love and support of her models, online donors, and close friend and technical adviser for photography, Anisa Williams, is a moving tribute to the strength and beauty of survivors, which is rarely represented in the media and pop culture. Trauma can break a person, but survivors have the power to turn that wound into something beautiful, a source of strength and grace.