Not just black and white

Respect and health of accused offenders need to be considered, artists say

Published on March 1, 2013

Multi-media artist Gerald Vaandering and his wife, Dorothy Vaandering, have two questions for their latest exhibit of art: what do you need from others when you are harmed? What do you need from others when you cause harm?

­­­­The response to both questions, they say, is often the same.

The Vaanderings have put together “Ripped Apart or Stitched Together,” an art show challenging perspectives of justice, which is running at the Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s from now until March 14.

The exhibit is in two parts, the first, a 26 feet by two feet collage of photos and captions, taken from The Telegram, each one of them showing an accused criminal being led to or from jail, court or a police vehicle in handcuffs. Their charges range from murder and pedophilia to robbery and embezzlement, and although many of the offenders and alleged offenders are recognizable, Gerald, who created the piece, has blacked out their eyes and names, and printed sets of handcuffs — one side opened, forming the shape of a heart; the other side closed — at various intervals on the piece.

The publication of accused offenders’ pictures and names in the media amounts to a public shaming, Gerald says — something he believes isn’t healthy for them or their victims.

“We put them in jail and we expect them to reintegrate,” he says. “When you shame somebody to this extent, research has shown they are more likely to reoffend than to become participants in the community again. I think this might make the public feel better — yes, we’re doing our job, we got those people and they’re in jail, out of the way — but I think we’re probably doing more harm than good.

“If there’s any hope of help, there has to be an expression of consideration of the person themselves. If we are not going to respect them, then why are they going to respect themselves to consider healing at all? None of us can walk around and say I’ve never caused harm to somebody, inadvertently or even intentionally. We realize we need something in order to get past that, and these people do, too.”

“What we’re doing is we’re objectifying the people,” Dorothy adds. “As soon as they’ve been turned into objects, we feel justified in doing to them what we feel we need to do to them for what we think is our own safety and our own protection.”

Dorothy, who curated the show, is a researcher at MUN specializing in restorative justice. It’s a philosophy, according to Correctional Service Canada, that views crime and conflict as harm done to people and relationships, and aims to give opportunities for criminals and their victims to communicate. Dorothy says studies have shown rates of recidivism go down drastically among offenders who participate in restorative justice processes.

The second element of the exhibit is a hung quilt, assembled by Toronto artist Meagan O’Shea, telling the stories of people whose lives have become entwined through crime. Stitched side-by-side are squares of fabric made by offenders and victims of crime, telling the story of their trauma and how it has affected them. Some squares a quite literal: a broken heart, stitched together; a picture of a victim alongside an article of her clothing; an angel watching over two figures as they meet for the first time. Others are more abstract and representational.

Along with the quilt, O’Shea has provided a map of the quilt stories, and the meaning of each design. A woman whose mother and sister died in a fire and who had the opportunity to meet the man who started it created a square depicting a fire, a flute (which her sister played), and the word “forgiveness,” for the offender. A drug addict who was sentenced for armed robberies created a brightly coloured abstract piece representing the craziness of his life at the time, along with flowers for hope and mirrors for reflection.

A 44-year-old man who was sentenced for the sexual abuse of a little girl stitched a spiderweb and incorporated three pom-pom spiders: one for the girl, one for himself, and one for the man who molested him as a child.

O’Shea has also presented two-minute audio clips from interviews with each of the quilt’s makers.

“I know I’ve affected her. She needs to hear it from me that I’m sorry, and she needs to hear it from me that she didn’t do anything wrong,” the sexual offender says in his particularly powerful clip. “I did. I was the adult. I made the wrong decision. From my perspective, that was all I wanted from my abuser: an apology, and I would have walked away.

“To some degree, I’d like to thank my victim. She had a lot of courage when she came forward at the age of 14 … I think I’ve drawn from that courage to confront (my abuser).”

The Vaanderings insist they believe people must be held accountable for their actions and there’s a place for judges and lawyers and prisons. Offenders must also be given the chance to make restitution, they say, and that can’t happen in jail.

“They haven’t had the opportunity to make right what they’ve done wrong, but neither have their victims had the opportunity to experience restitution. Its been taken out of their hands,” Dorothy says.

How can a pedophile or a murderer be expected to make right what they’ve done?

They can’t, Dorothy says, but if we lock them up and throw away the key, there’s no chance to change their behaviours or give their victims the closure they may need.

“When (victims) meet their offenders, most often what they find out is that the person who harmed them never set out intentionally to do it,” she says, acknowledging the idea of restorative justice may be counter-cultural. “They find out that the person is incredibly remorseful and it’s only in cases of extreme mental illness and psychosis that they’re not. The victims, they come to an understanding that then allows them to move on. It never takes away their loss, but there are numerous stories where they end of up developing a supportive relationship (with the offenders). That doesn’t happen overnight.”

The Vaanderings say they hope their exhibit will cause people to consider their own idea of justice and how it is served, and they hope people gain an understanding of justice that goes beyond the black and white.

An opening reception for “Ripped Apart or Stitched Together” will take place at the Eastern Edge Gallery, 72 Harbour Drive, Saturday from 12-4 p.m. Twitter: @tara_bradbury