ST. LOUIS • Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce has spoken to thousands of victims of assault, rape, burglary and other terrible crimes during her tenure as St. Louis' top prosecutor. Still, she was not prepared to see their pain painted in strokes of red and shot in stark black and white.
"To see those experiences put in a piece of art was really an emotional experience for me," Joyce said. "There are a lot of ways to communicate the impact of crime, and I was touched by how these people told their stories through art."
Joyce served as a juror for the Victims' Rights Week Art Contest and Exhibit, which opens Sunday at the Vaughn Cultural Center and will be on view through the week. It is one of several programs devoted to remembering the region's victims of crime. Other events include a candlelight vigil on Wednesday at Our Lady of the Snows Shrine for parents of murdered children, a movie and panel discussion about sex trafficking Thursday at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park and a memorial Friday at Library Park in Edwardsville.
Local artists and victims of crime contributed to the exhibit. Photographer Lawrence Bryant's image of girls jumping rope with yellow police tape ranked among Joyce's favorites.
"That really struck a chord because it showed how children are really affected by crime," Joyce said.
The exhibit was the brainchild of Vara Lyons, a legal assistant in the circuit attorney's community affairs bureau. Lyons recently graduated from Washington University with a degree in art history and plans to attend law school next year. Her dream job is to work for the FBI's art theft team, but right now she is helping neighborhood organizations and citizen patrols keep troublemakers off the streets. The experience has opened her eyes to the plight of victims.
"I have met some people who are very creative and who also have been a victim of crime," Lyons said. "I know we can't always express our feelings with words. Art provides another outlet, a way for us to say we're hurt without speaking."
Lyons put out a call to artists through neighborhood groups, domestic violence centers and homeless shelters. The response was small; she received about 20 submissions. Not everyone feels comfortable with a paintbrush or a camera, Lyons figures.
Joyce also knows from experience that victims often just want to forget.
"I get frustrated because I believe not enough focus is given to victims and one of the reasons why is victims don't ask to be victims," Joyce said. "Most of them would assume that this all be over with so they can get on with their lives. The victims are quiet. They keep their heads down. So we don't see them."
Not Mark Swain, whose work will be showcased in the exhibit. He has been hounding Dutchtown thugs for years. As president of the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Association, Swain alerts the cops whenever he learns of a drug deal, robbery or case of vandalism.
"I've shut down five drug houses on my block, and I'm working on the sixth," said Swain, 60. "I've received threats when I come home but that doesn't bother me. I won't be intimidated."
Swain is a successful professional artist, for better or worse, because of his literal run-ins with criminals. He was severely injured in a hit-and-run with a drug dealer in 1998 in Kansas City. Then in 2005, he was hit in St. Louis County by a driver who fled the scene. That accident left Swain with a shattered shoulder and several ruptured discs. He kept working after the accident but eventually had to go on disability.
"I had spent a great part of my life educating myself so I would always have work," said Swain. "I had studied art in college but had worked in health care for 38 years. I decided this was an opportunity to go back to my artwork."
Swain's work reflects the traditions and spirituality of his Native American ancestors. But for this project, Swain called on his past experiences, including a 1985 assault near Tower Grove Park. The multicolored painting features a face behind a curtain.
"It's called 'Life on Hold,' which is what I have experienced psychologically and physiologically," Swain said. "Those experiences are always there. You can dwell on them but that's something I've never done. Rather I have been able to express my frustration and anger through artwork. My friends are just amazed. They say, 'We know what you've been through but look at the beauty that's come from that.'"
VICTIMS' RIGHTS WEEK ART CONTEST AND EXHIBIT
When • 1-4 p.m. Sunday; exhibit will remain on view through Friday
Where • Vaughn Cultural Center at the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, 3701 Grandel Square
How much • Free
More info • supportvictims.org