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Remembering Jane Doe: the art of Sarah Honan

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Sarah Honan is an artist, activist, and feminist from Ireland who creates profound artwork based on the images of unidentified women known as Jane Does here in the US starting in the 1950s until today in a series called Blink. At only 19 years old, she's finished her first set of the series in 2014 and has started to garner great accolades in the past few months by both press and the art world. Her artwork not only immortalizes these forgotten women but honors them and as she says gives a voice to not just these women but all women whose voices have been silenced throughout history due to gender bias. She has been honored on both International Women's Day and during Women's History Month for her incredible efforts in celebrating women and bravely addressing extremely important but incredibly intimidating subject matter and women's issues in her work.  She says her work deals with the identity, death and the frailty of the human connection. Sarah uses actual post mortem photographs of women for her portraits with only the coroners' statistics to tell these women's stories, but with her art she's giving these unknown women a memorial and tribute to their life. Some of the women in her art have been recognized as a result and their loved ones were finally given closure.

Sarah created a blog that documented her daily progress throughout the creation of the series, which you can find on her website that has in depth emotionally charged and thought provoking entries recording her reflections and feelings in the form of poetry and essays, as she worked through the difficult process of painting these women. She says she'd like to see the art she's creating to memorialize the lives of thousands of women who died unknown into a movement, with other artists participating to make a feminist and humanist statement which empowers the idea that all women matter. She funded her work through an online crowd-sourcing and got a huge response of support by women around the world, so much that she exceeded her goals. The work itself was very  exhausting and she knows it's a hard subject for viewers to confront but it's important but the more disturbing it appears to the viewer, the more it may illicit a response to action. She writes in one entry about the women in her work: "Every one of these women was somebody’s daughter, sister, aunt, friend, waitress, maid, patient, boss, partner. Some were even wives and mothers. Somewhere along the way these seemingly significant connections were severed or at least ignored." She says to allow these women to be forgotten, with their lives dismissed as if they never existed, is detrimental to all women. Now she's given them their life back in essence through a legacy and her art carries a sense retribution for these women having lost their lives prematurely, as if they didn't matter and without resolution, without a name.

She feels that these Jane Does represent how women are treated in society and the lack of identity and personal significance throughout history, that women in many cultures are disposable and too easily dismissed or ignored. She hopes her art will change how women are viewed and objectified in society and wants women to get involved in empowering other women in whatever way they can, no matter how insignificant it may seem. She feels feminism needs to be reclaimed as a word about community and support for one another and to create a discussion about gender bias and abuse towards women that is still so acceptable in many cultures. Her art makes a statement about the way women are portrayed in classic art forms given to rigid standards of unrealistic beauty and stereotypes in portraiture as well.  Honan also says that in the care she took in researching the history of these women, recreating their appearances and in the arduous work of the paintings themselves,  she is giving them the love and care they may never have had while alive and is creating a legacy they never got a chance to create for themselves. For me, I feel Sarah Honan should be honored for Women's History Month for addressing this harrowing work of giving women back their power, their voice, their unique identity, making them whole again, returning the life stolen from them. The title Blink came from  a poem she wrote that was inspired by the project’s subject matter. "Why to lose a life, To lacerate a limb, To char a thigh, To expunge an eye, In a Blink." All life is important and should be recognized regardless of gender or class or race and with her art she makes a powerful statement and testimony to this.

Zora Burden: Will you talk about your upbringing and what your early artwork or aspirations as an artist were originally? Had your environment or family influenced your work?

Sarah Honan: I've lived in Waterford, a small city in Ireland, my whole life. My family is quite matriarchal - I have 3 older sisters and my grandmother also played a huge role in my early life as well as my parents. Most of my family work in the arts in some form or another but no one is involved in visual arts. I don't really consider myself an artist - this was never an aspiration for me although I've painted since I was young. I concentrated on academics as a teenager and went on to study English and Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin but unfortunately had to leave in my second year due to illness. I've never had any formal training as an artist.

ZB: How did you become inspired to do the series Blink? What was the message you wanted to convey by creating this art?

SH: One night I was coming to the end of a painting, it was late and I went in search of new subject matter. I'd become tired of painting the same beautiful, flawless faces over and over and thought if I found something with more meaning, more of a story behind it, perhaps it would keep my interest. I've been interested in the topics of feminism, the representation of women in society and female identity for years and always wanted to have a voice in the conversation. I began to think of anonymous women, of lost women and thought of the term Jane Doe. I went in search of a database and found the US Unidentified Persons Database. When I saw how many cases there were I knew one painting wouldn't be enough and so a personal endeavor became a very public project. I just wanted to create some form of legacy for these women. But as time passed I realized that these women had a very powerful message to relay to the world about gender based violence and identity.

ZB: How did you gather the information on the Jane Does here in the US and what made you decide to paint the women you have in particular?

SH: All the case files are public record. The Unidentified Persons Database has over 2,000 women on their site but only a small proportion have images attached to their case files. I studied every case that had a morgue photo attached and then had to whittle it down. This was done on a combination of factors. Many had extremely striking photos and I was immediately drawn to these women. Others had, let's say, more generic photos, or even poor quality photos but had exceptional case files that I just couldn't leave behind.

ZB: Since you started out going back to the 1950s and go up each decade for the women in the series, was it hard to find the information on them?

SH: The information in all the case files is sparse, but yes the earlier ones tend to have less. Many are open homicides and therefore there is only so much that is released to the public. But generally, the Unidentified Persons Database is extremely comprehensive.

ZB: Do you feel that there are more women unidentified after death than there are men? Do you feel women are more easily forgotten about and their cases left unanswered because of a dismissive attitude towards women in our culture? What made you decide to use the cases of unidentified women from the United States over other countries?

SH: The US is one of the only countries with such a comprehensive online database so it was more a matter of logistics than anything else. In fact, there are are more John Does than Jane Does due to men's higher risk of homelessness etc. But because of my passion for gender studies and issues surrounding female identity I focused on women. Women as a gender have historically been forgotten and overlooked and I felt like these Jane Does represented that in a very powerful way.

ZB: How many of the women in your series died of unnatural causes and did that make it emotionally difficult for you to paint them? Were there some that affected you on such an emotional level it hindered your work?

SH: Unfortunately a lot of the women saw violent deaths. The women who had obvious wounds on their faces were harrowing to look at, but I almost felt an even stronger sense of duty to them. I couldn't concentrate for extraordinarily long periods of time, I would paint for 14 hours a day but take breaks quite often because I just couldn't look at the photos anymore.

ZB: You had mentioned that because the work deals with the incredibly intense emotional subject matter of death that you've found yourself isolated during the project and that this alienation affected how you feel about these women and changed the way you think about human interaction, will you talk about that?

SH: It's difficult because my family and friends were incredibly supportive but that didn't make it any less difficult to talk about. My connections are so strong in that my family are my friends and my sisters are a part of me very being. We have always been incredibly close despite our age differences and different life paths. But as far as human connection in general I think it's far more frail than we would like to believe. These women were mothers, daughters, sisters and wives and they just fell off the face of the earth. We all like to think of ourselves as very protected and insulated in the social media age but in reality what happened to these women could happen to any of us given the right culmination of life choices. I think it just taught me to nourish relationships, to put time and care into the connections I have with the people I love because if you don't there's no guarantee that they'll always be there.

ZB: Your art isn't just art for the sake of creating but works to give a form of feminist activism, memorial and legacy to these otherwise forgotten women, which is incredibly powerful. You have said that in painting these women you give them a legacy and voice, that this represents all women throughout history without a voice due to the oppression, will you talk about that and what it means to you?

SH: The physical art has always been secondary to me - it's the cause that matters. Giving these women the care and love and attention that they may not have seen in their lives. They have a voice, a voice that was silenced for whatever reason and I'm just a facilitator in allowing them to speak once again. Through this project these women can not only speak for themselves but for every woman throughout history and across the world who has been thought of as less then just because of her chromosomal make up. It means everything to me and more so it means everything that in general the public have seemed to understand this too. I feel a little insignificant in that this project isn't about me, was never meant to be about me and I don't even call myself an artist. I was just someone who saw something that shuck them to their very core and felt a visceral need to respond to it.

ZB: Some of your statements on society and women's equality are as powerful as your art, like when you mention your concern that feminism is no longer being addressed even though we still need activists on behalf of women's rights all over the world. Will you elaborate on how you feel about this?

SH: I'm very exposed to feminism, so I know how many writers, artists, filmmakers and activists are addressing the issue but I actively went looking for these organizations. I don't think feminism plays a role in the mainstream consciousness despite it's growing popularity among college students and certain high profile celebrities. I think because in the letter of the law we are afforded the same opportunities as our male counterparts we don't stop to question whether it is the law that influences our young men and women or is it the media? Because the latter has a lot to answer for. We live in a world where our education systems have not caught up with the internet, television and film. We need young men and women to recognize the dangerous stereotypes that the media has created for both genders. Because we live in sound bite culture - where people read headlines instead of stories we don't realize that every time a young man or woman sees a hyper sexualized female back up dancer ten times more often then they see a female political leader their world view is being inextricably narrowed. There are people out there who are fighting this fight, I didn't come to these conclusions on my own but it needs to be addressed on a mass scale.

ZB: How many galleries have you exhibited these in and was it hard to find one that was not willing to show your work because they were too uncomfortable with the subject of death? How do the viewers at the shows react usually?

SH: We've only exhibited in my home city so far as an installation in a vacant shopfront. You can see photos of this on the website. I would love to show the work elsewhere, anywhere really because it's all about having the faces seen by as many people as possible. The art is meaningless without the viewer and therefore the audience becomes part of the art itself. As I said, I'm a complete novice with no connections in the art world but I will of course jump at any opportunity that arises.

ZB: Have you ever had a family member or loved one recognize some of the women in your paintings? Was this also part of your intention when creating your art?

SH: Not yet but the paintings only became public on Feb 28th ahead of International Women's Day. However one girl had been identified in the interim. Jane Doe 1979 was identified as Tammy Jo Alexander in Jan 2015, almost 36 years after she was murdered at the age of 16. I would usually check the database every couple of weeks to see if any had been identified but with the run up to the exhibition opening I let this habit slip. I only found out in early March.

ZB: How would you like to society do more in honoring these forgotten women?

SH:Simply viewing the work honors these women but as for doing more I suppose it's just about continuing to spread the message of the project. Honoring these women can be achieved by continuing to question society and not accepting gender roles or stereotypes.

ZB: Do you see these women as part of your own family now? Have you become emotionally invested in them? Would this make parting with any of the paintings difficult?

SH: Well they are definitely a part of me and my story. I feel incredibly connected to them and they've affected my life in an unimaginable way. It may be hard to part with them but at the same time the physical paintings are only the headline of a much longer story.

ZB: Have people expressed interested in buying your art and if so why do you think they are drawn to a particular one?

SH: As of yet we have not sold any of them, but if that time comes all profits will be donated to organizations that help close the gender equality gap. Everyone is different and I like that people see different things in different paintings but I can't say what it is that they see in those pieces.

ZB: You make sure to include all the statistics with your paintings of how the women died and the coroners reports, which in essence tells their stories to some degree. How do people view your art once the reality that these were real people really sinks in?

SH: That's a difficult question to answer because I can't see the people who are viewing the case files given that they're viewing my website. I think it's important to include the case files because it adds some sense of context to each piece and reminds the viewer of each woman's individuality.

ZB: Will you talk about how long each painting takes to create and the process involved in making each one?

SH: All the paintings took different lengths of time depending on various factors. But it took me just about a year to create around 20 paintings so that should give some indication.

ZB: How many more portraits do you see yourself doing for the Blink series on Jane Does? Will you continue this for a while? I'd like to see it's very important work.

SH: I would continue but it also very much depends on why you are continuing. The original 20 were made for the purposes of being seen and if the new work didn't have this same intention I'm not sure would it have the same value.

ZB: How has your art changed your views on death or society as a whole since creating this work, how has it changed those around you?

SH: I've always had a very palpable fear of death and concentrating on it for too long has induced anxiety attacks in the past so for the first few weeks of the project this was something I had to deal with. I've never really looked at it as a project about death - it is more about society and human connection. It has definitely altered my views on human connection and relationships. I now see the fragility of the bonds we make in our lives and how quickly they can be severed if not cared for. Relationships rarely end in a huge confrontation, more often they just fizzle out, people continue on their paths and may never think about the other again except for a passing thought. I hate the saying "You're not the center of the universe" because everyone is the center of their own universe but I think we just need to sit down and prioritize what's most important in each of our lives and then actively try to maintain these things.

ZB: How do you advise women to find their voice in society today when so many women are ignored or silenced by a male dominated society whether it be through art or otherwise?

SH: I think it's less about finding a voice and more about having confidence in the voice you already possess. I think it's about questioning the world we live in as women because the world developed in order to facilitate men's needs and now that women are more present in every area of society we are finding ourselves conforming to the system that existed before we arrived. We are still asking female politicians about who will look after their children and referring to them by their first names instead of their last. This is just one example. There's kind of a sense of 'just shut up and get on with it' when it comes to addressing feminism and gender inequality. Women are afraid of being labeled as a feminazi or man-hater if she expresses concerns with the gender imbalance in society. What both men and women have to remember is that advancing the role of women in society benefits everyone. In the developing world, educating a girl is one of the single greatest return investments and likewise here in the developed world, looking beyond a woman's physical attributes can only be a good thing.

ZB: Do you see yourself as a feminist or activist and if so how do you wish to continue this beyond your art?

I'm a total feminist and anyone who believes that women should hold equal status as men in society are feminists. My feminism and activism are primary, the art is secondary, I'll take any opportunity to voice this in the world and if that happens to be through art then that's what I'll do.

ZB: What other artists of your peers or in history inspire you?

SH: This is awful but I really don't know a huge amount about art. I more take inspiration from activists. Mariska Hargitay is a huge inspiration - she used her platform as an actress and has done so much for the survivors of Domestic and Sexual Violence as the founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation. Jennifer Siebel Newsom's documentary Miss Representation literally changed my life and is the reason I call myself a feminist. Likewise with documentary maker Kirby Dick. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn introduced me to a whole other side of female oppression with Half the Sky. I think writers and filmmakers who bring gender inequality to the mass media are so important. Of course there are huge female role models like Mary Robinson, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hilary Rodham Clinton, Oprah (of course), Gloria Steinem, Billie Jean King, Madeline Albright, Lisa Ling - there are just so many! ###


All contents © 2011 by Gene Mahoney