Upon entering contemporary art space The Lock-Up in Newcastle, a textile artwork by institutional child sexual abuse survivor and artist Elizabeth Seysener is on display.
Produced as part of the community arts program that runs alongside the Loud Sky exhibit, the triptych depicts the three key events in her recovery story: carrying the burden of shame for more than 50 years, the traumatizing year of revelation to the Catholic Church, and finding a place where you are free to speak up.
In the entrance to the next room, a loop of elementary school photos of survivors reminds us that it is children who have been harmed.
Another room has a large timeline created by graphic design students at Newcastle University. It depicts the central events of two public inquiries and lawsuits that unfolded between 1995 and 2022.
Television images capture the most important events. A framed document expresses the heartfelt responses of survivors’ relatives, whose voices are rarely heard.
Entitled Loud Sky, this exhibition examines institutional child sexual abuse through the eyes of five professional artists who have been commissioned to work with the local community of survivors.
“Loud Sky” is a riff on the Loud gate movement, which began in Ballarat in 2015 as a community response to the poignant details emerging from the hearings. Community members tied colored ribbons on the fences of Catholic churches and schools where children had been abused.
This has now become an international movement.
Read more: Royal Commission recommends sweeping reforms for Catholic Church to end child abuse
The Newcastle region is recognized as an epicenter in the ongoing catastrophe of child sexual abuse by church institutions.
From the 1950s, schools and parishes housed church offenders who were constantly moved to avoid detection. Families of devout Catholics were socialized not to question priests and friars. Local Catholic administrators are committed to protecting perpetrators and the reputation of the church above safety of children.
In 2022, the Loud Sky project hosted community art workshops for anyone affected by institutional child sexual abuse. Participants enrolled in painting, drawing and photography classes with experienced art therapists. The resulting artwork ranges from photographs of precious objects to paintings of home security, and can be seen at Belmont Library.
A second community arts program, the Field of flowers, has been “planted” in Christ Church Cathedral and Sacred Heart Cathedral. Students, survivors, supporters and parishioners made more than 8,000 ray flowers. The field is an act of remembrance and signals the hope of healing.
Loud Sky visitors have the option of sitting in the gallery and making a ribbon flower to be “planted” in one of the cathedral fields.
Listening to survivors
These community programs complement the work of five commissioned artists. These artists began their assignment with training in trauma-informed art practices to prepare to hear the stories from the royal commission documents and the community of survivors.
Each artist worked with the community of survivors, primarily members of the Clergy Abused Network, the central support group for survivors in the Hunter region.
Damien Linnane asked survivors to bring a treasured object, accompanied by a story about the object. His detailed, beautiful drawings focus on the power of memory to evoke the resilience of survival.
Lottie Consalvo teamed up with a survivor and his partner to create a beautiful video about the small everyday gestures that had sustained their lives through years of pain. The slow-moving, deeply contemplative silent film evokes the power of stillness and beauty.
Peter Gardiner’s epic oil paintings depict the power of fire to both destroy and recreate, following his reading of the survival stories from the royal commission transcripts.
Fiona Lee’s three casement windows call for being both inside and out, born from Lee asking survivors what motivated them to get up in the morning and find the courage to face each new day and connect record with others.
Clare Weeks invited survivors to take a piece of paper and come up with a word that reflected their sense of resilience and hope. Each piece of blank paper was folded and scanned, the surface revealing peculiar features. Large images of these scans span the walls. We are invited to take our own piece of paper and imagine our own reaction before placing it in a large glass bowl.
The power of art
Visual arts can be an important means by which affected communities come to understand the consequences of harmful events in the world creative and regenerative ways.
Art helps people process trauma and plays a vital role in restorative justice and telling the truth.
It is a powerful correction to dominant narratives often told by influential institutions investing in protecting corporate reputations.
How we depict these stories of injustice and pain reflects our humanity and commitment to changing harmful social practices.
Through art, we can stay awake from the effects of child sexual abuse and listen to the stories of those who survived such harm as children.
Perhaps the last words can be given to the visitor who wrote in the exhibition log: “We see you, we hear you, we believe you.”
The Loud Sky is at The Lock-Up, Newcastle, until May 21.
Read more: The Altar Boys: New questions about suicides of survivors of clergy abuse should lead to a new investigation