A woman sits on the witness stand with one hand on a Bible, the other raised. Beside her rests a grenade, ready to explode. This image is burned onto a 4-foot wooden canvas in a piece called “Not Your Ideal Victim,” part of Bushwick artist Brittany Knapp’s series “Take the Stand.”
The series “is about what we expect a victim to be like when really anyone can be a victim,” said Knapp. “And who the court deems worthy of justice.”
Knapp said she was inspired by social science research on the “ideal victim” — the idea that some victims, especially of sexual assault, are deemed credible and deserving of help within the criminal justice system, while others are labeled as somehow contributing to their own victimization. For these victims in particular, Knapp said, there is little hope of finding justice within traditional institutions.
“I really wanted to bring people in contact with life-sized figures that could really stare them in the face,” said Knapp. “I want them to know that this is the process a woman endures when she reports a sexual assault and seeks justice through the criminal justice system.”
Knapp knows about the process because she went through it herself. As a young woman, her parents referred her to Pennsylvania’s Office of Children & Youth Service, which set off a cycle of institutionalization and incarceration. When she was 17 years old, she said she was raped by a staffer at a residential treatment facility in Pennsylvania. Despite knowing how rarely victims of sexual assault get justice, she spoke up about the abuse. Months later — after her release from the institution — she was called to testify against her abuser in court.
During the trial, Knapp was incarcerated at a juvenile facility, where she was sent after her mother turned in some of her marijuana to the police. To this day, she says she’s haunted by the memories of being transported in handcuffs and shackles to the courtroom. “To be totally re-victimized through the court system made me feel so small,” she remembered.
A decade later, Knapp revisited the experience in a piece titled “Undue Process.” She created it the same way she creates most of her artwork — using a technique known as wood burning or pyrography. Knapp burns the images on wood with a heated tool, a process she compares to tattooing. She’s been working in the medium since 2011.
“It’s a way of concretizing or burning my trauma into making something beautiful,” she said. “But really burning it in an aggressive way that you really can’t do with other material.”
“Undue Process” is one of several wood burnings in a series dealing with women’s experiences with the justice system and the idea of an ideal victim. It will be on display beginning July 12 at the Amos Eno Gallery in Bushwick, as part of a show called “Policing of Gender and Criminalization of Queerness.” The show features 70 artists, many of them formerly-incarcerated. The works will address the idea of gender policing, including how women and gender non-conforming people are criminalized within the United States justice system.
Knapp, who also works as an art therapist, says she seeks to create pieces that “promote justice” and which have the ability to “reach out and touch people and relate to people who maybe feel alone.” But she says the wood burnings have also had therapeutic benefits.
“When I began the series I had difficulty associating myself with past traumas and wanted to see a visual image of myself in the scenes so I could internalize and own the experiences,” she said. During the time she worked on the pieces, she re-read old letters that she had written during her youth. On the wall of her studio, she hung a drawing she made while she was incarcerated. Encountering these visceral reminders was difficult, she said, but “it turned out the process was one of the most healing things I’ve done in my life, maybe the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.”
Knapp’s artwork touches on a range of topics, from social justice issues to spirituality and even neuroscience. But she says her identity as a survivor is always present in her work. “I tend to each issue as it emerges internally, and in the world around me,” she said. In recent years, she focused around issues of incarceration and sexual assault.
“The highly emotional nature of these pieces are intended to command attention,” she said. They are large scale and at times three-dimensional, giving the work an installation-type feel.
In Bushwick’s tight-knit arts scene, Knapp has found a community of activists and nontraditional artists. “I have a lot of friends who are also part of this creative Bushwick community helping me,” she said.
Knapp says she hopes that her pieces, which have helped her work through difficult experiences, can help audiences do the same. “I think we are all healing our own wounds in one way or another,” she said. “And I’m going to continue to do that.”
Images courtesy of Brittany Knapp.
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