Luzene Hill turns assault into art


For Luzene Hill, an artist whose heritage is the Eastern Band of Cherokee and who was raped while out jogging, contemporary art is about the body, the soul, the trauma, the pain and the beauty that exists in each life experience. Her art makes visible those who have been silenced: the thousands of women sexually assaulted each day. She says, "My goal is to present work that is thoughtful, precise, calm, and beautiful so that other women who experience violent chaos will know: 'You're OK. You survived. And you will be fine.'"

A 2015 Contemporary Art Fellow recipient at the Eiteljorg Museum, Luzene's installation piece, Retracing the Trace, begins with her sprawled on the floor, face down. Dressed in all black, her knees are bent and her arms outstretched. Three thousand seven hundred and eighty blood red khipu cords are then scattered over and around her body. She becomes an immobile black figure buried in a sea of red. Her art aptly embodies her life.

Slowly, Luzene pushes herself up to a standing position and walks away, leaving a body image outline on the floor not unlike a crime scene marking the victim's place of death. The piles of red cords remain. This visual is both compelling and disturbing. Something unspeakable has happened here. But as Luzene strides mindfully toward the wall, she carries with her, in a small black pouch draped over her stomach, a handful of cords. Arriving at the wall, she hangs up one of the cords. She then takes out a second cord and carefully attaches it to the wall. Then another. When her pouch is empty, she returns to the glob of red and picks up another handful of cords and fills her pouch.

Around the room's walls, which she returns to again and again, are stenciled the hours in a day. The 3,780 red cords represent the number of rape assaults in the United States that go unreported in a 24-hour period.

While Luzene gingerly places each cord on the wall, the audience observes. There are men photographing and filming the installation. There are women offering assistance. There are visitors stopping by to watch. A young girl, who is about thirteen, pauses outside the room. She has on sparkly black flip-flops, blue painted toenails, and a pink sweatshirt. She gazes at Luzene and at the red mound on the floor. Her dad, who is standing nearby, whispers, "Do you understand what this is about?"

Luzene's thoughtful slow motions become a ritual. Each cord placed upon the wall is an offering, each unique. She proceeds with remarkable perseverance, patience, and quiet determination.

How the Story Began

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Luzene explains that her assault occurred on January 4, 1994, at 7:15 a.m. The temperature was 20 degrees. She was jogging at Piedmont Park and the attacker used the strings of her jacket to strangle her, pulling her down a hill situated next to a lake. She says, "I was terrorized, and I was certain I was going to drown and be killed." After the attack, she climbed back up the embankment, covered in mud and leaves and blood. Two men were jogging past and she yelled to them for help, saying she had been raped. "They didn't stop," she observes. One of the men told her to stay there, saying that he would go call for help. "This was before cell phones," she points out. "But there was no way I was going to just stay there by myself." The two men jogged off.

Dazed, she walked across the sidewalk and then crossed four lanes of traffic. She planned to go to the fire station, but in her confusion, she took a wrong path. Luzene saw a woman on a porch and walked up to the building, telling the woman she had been raped and asking her to call the police. The woman went in to get the landlord. When the landlord came out, Luzene asked if she could come up on the porch to wait.

Luzene is a petite, slender woman, soft-spoken with deep brown eyes. She notes that she was at the emergency room until late that night. "At that time," she adds, "It took six months for HIV test results. So I had that hanging over me."

At the time of the attack, she was 47.

Her Life in Her Art

Early on, Luzene discovered a love for drawing. Family obligations, however, prevented her from pursuing that passion. She married and raised a daughter. Later, she divorced. She then returned to art. After the attack, Luzene was determined not to make "victim art." Initially, her creativity focused on figurative drawings, paintings, and some sculpture.

She explains, "I did not intend to make my art about this topic and didn't do so for many years." Luzene processed the sexual assault through the various stages of post-traumatic stress and underwent psychotherapy for quite awhile. "I had body work therapy, massage therapy, and energy work immediately after the attack, which was very helpful," she says. But the assault stayed a private matter.

Gradually, her philosophy grew to an understanding that bad things happen to everybody: just different bad things. "I was not going to walk around with this victim persona or any kind of 'poor me' to elicit sympathy." Yet, she acknowledges that her figurative work appeared off putting. People would say, "Wow. That looks violent." She denied the sexual assault had anything to do with her artwork.

About ten years after the attack, she began to see it differently. "Many of my drawings are abstract, automatic drawings. I stand in front of the paper and just start making marks or I use ink and spill it." When she looked at the drawings later, she saw the connections: "That's when I was on the bank. That's when I was climbing back up the hill afterwards. That's when he first grabbed my neck." She assured herself that nobody else could see those images in the work. Then, one time, she was giving a talk at a university and showing slides of her art; and afterward, she went out to dinner with a few of the art faculty. The drawing and painting instructor said, "Oh Luzene, I love your work. It makes me think about the vulnerability of women." Stunned by the remark, Luzene instinctively pushed her chair back from the restaurant table, literally trying to push away from acknowledging it. "It was like I was nailed," she says.

For a while, she wrangled with the decision not to make victim art. She thought art of that sort was tiresome. "I don't look at it that way anymore," she admits. "Artists are working things out in their own way. However they do their work, it's not my place to be critical of another artist." Luzene emphasizes that she still carries a commitment not to do work that focuses solely on her.

Retracing the Trace

The purpose of Luzene's exhibit is to count the number of women in a 24-hour period who are sexually assaulted in the United States who don't report the crime. She created 3,780 cords, which is the approximate number of unreported rapes in a 24-hour period.

The khipu cords use an ancient Inca accounting system with knots of different sizes and lengths. Each of the 3,780 cords is a unique number, knotted in specific ways. Luzene uses cords because when attacked, she was strangled with the cords of her jacket. She says, "There were red streaks on my neck for six months. I thought they would never go away." She explains that the red cords around the gallery walls will be one big red streak at the height of her neck. "The gallery is a metaphor for my body." She pauses. "It is also a reckoning and an accounting so that the women today who are being attacked and who don't report it are being counted, at least today."

She remarks that the silencing of women is not unlike the silencing of Native American culture. Another level of her work includes making visible the experiences of Native American women, who both historically and currently are victims of attack by white males, which often go unreported and unprosecuted.

Luzene's intent is to make sexual assault visible and to provoke conversation. "Sexual assault is not talked about. It's shrouded in silence," she says. "The woman is anonymous. The public's thoughts or ideas about sexual assault are shrouded in generality so that the specifics are not high in our consciousness. If I just stand in the gallery and say 3,780 women who are attacked are not counted, that's just a number." What Luzene does with her work is create material volume — visual volume — that shows what 3,780 cords looks like.

Many women who speak to Luzene about her art are students who are talking about their own rape experiences. That motivates Luzene to carry on her work. "I was a mature woman when it happened to me. I had a child. I had been married and divorced. I had lost family members. So I was on a level of life experience that a 21-year old girl isn't on." She shakes her head. "A 21-year-old girl may not tell anybody. Or if she is date raped, she may not tell anyone, and she definitely does not get any help." Luzene recognizes that having her work out there and having someone visualize it, helps young women talk about sexual assault. "This allows them to feel like they can talk about it and to know that they're not the only ones. There are 3,779 other women today. You weren't the only one when it happened to you."

Luzene says, "The gallery book where people usually sign in, and say 'Great work', 'Keep it up,' 'Love it' and that type of thing, isn't the case here." With this exhibit, she had sixteen pages of comments. "Lots of the comments were signed and said, 'This happened to me' or 'This happened to my girlfriend' or 'This happened to my mother.' And they were saying, 'Thank you for talking about this, in a visual way. Thank you for doing this.'"

The performance aspect of the art installation is another critical component. "It's important to be in the moment and fully experience whatever is happening to you, good and bad," she says. "Because that's what life is. It's the experience." Art reinforces that philosophy. "Being in the work and experiencing the work and having someone walk in and be surrounded by it and be very close to it, is my goal. I want people to experience art, rather than standing and looking at a painting that they aren't connected to."

She notes that such work is similar to a ballet or play; it is only there for a limited amount of time. "It's like life itself," she says. "The moments are fleeting and fragile. Exciting moments, happy moments are ephemeral. And life is that way." She pauses and then adds, "A lot of people just walk through life like zombies. They go to a job they hate and try to zone out until they get home, and then they turn on the TV and zone out until they go to sleep." The lesson Luzene took from her attack is to fully live. "I don't want to have any regrets that I didn't savor life."

Transformative Work

As Luzene places each cord on the wall, the heap of red gets smaller. But it takes a long time. No cord is left unattended. It's a gradual, slow process.

These cords are more than symbols. More than mere numbers. They represent the experiences of real women. Fragile, vulnerable women who have been sexually assaulted. The cords are handled with tenderness and placed with care.

No one stopped for Luzene. We are stopped here now, watching her measured, deliberate movements. It requires attention.

Pause. Observe. Pay attention. Don't be afraid to reach out.

We are here to bear witness. All of us. To the unspoken. The unreported. The taboo. Until, eventually, the traces of violence on the floor are gone.

On her own, it takes Luzene 6 days, 10 hours a day, to place 3,780 individual cords on the wall. For the women who experience sexual assault, it can take years, or generations, for their healing—and for the courage to stand and be counted.

When all the cords are displayed, a stark exquisiteness emerges. Pain is transformed to beauty in the witnessing, in the red-knotted cords against a white wall, in the honoring of Native American ancestry, in the universal sharing of women's stories, in the birthing of something raw, honest and tender, and in the art of Luzene's gentle spirit and strong soul.


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