02.04.21 Press

“Art Heals” by Clarity Haynes in Hyperallergic

Art Heals: After a Sexual Assault, an Artist Paints Women Who Can’t Be Knocked Down
It took me years to find the language to tell this story.


by Clarity Haynes
February 4, 2021

Sue Williams, “A Funny Thing Happened” (1992) (© Sue Williams, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York)

We never laughed about the attack. I wanted to laugh, but everyone was so serious. As soon as I told them he used the word “rape” and pulled down my pants, they were convinced it wasn’t a mugging but an attempted rape.

It might sound crazy to say that I didn’t think it was that. I still don’t, sometimes. It’s easier to think that I was mugged. It’s one way I protect myself, I guess.

When I went to the District Attorney’s office to be prepped for my testimony I was given a sticker to wear on my sweater that said “Special Victims.” There were signs on walls and on doors that said “Special Victims.” I was a special victim, just like on Law and Order: SVU.

Patricia Lockwood wrote a poem called “Rape Joke.” I read it again recently and it is my favorite poem about rape, I think. Because it touches on the taboo of humor. I can’t help laughing when someone falls down. There is something hilarious about falling down. Why is it not hilarious when someone has been pushed down violently and has to run for her life while pulling up her pants?

There is a 1992 Sue Williams painting called “A Funny Thing Happened.” She painted cartoonish women being raped by cartoonish men on sidewalks, next to scrawled text reading: “A funny thing happened on the way to the … STORE, HOUSE, BUS, DUMPSTER, PROTEST, SUBWAY.”

For me, a funny thing happened on the way to the … GYM. Later I had planned to go to the ART SUPPLIES STORE and then to my STUDIO, but instead I ended up at the POLICE STATION.

I felt so undignified and raw when I ran away pulling up my pants, yelling help, help, help, trying to be loud like when I’d practiced yelling No! in front of the TV during an Oprah self-defense episode in the early ’90s. But I couldn’t run fast enough or yell loud enough, because it was like a nightmare in which I was too slow, as if underwater. Too quiet, as if mute.

When I was 15, my boyfriend Gus jerked my pants down in the middle of the street on the Calvert bridge. We’d snuck out to meet each other late one night, it was dark and there was no one around to see, but it surprised me. And it felt dumpy and unsexy to have to jerk my pants back up again. Rape is not about sex but violence, something I only understood when I encountered Alex Faiola. Alex had never met me but was enraged by me, wanted to kill me. He hated me for no reason, except that I know the reason. The reason is that I was a woman.

There were other, subtler times, and they stand out in my memory like popcorn on a string. All connected by that one thing. Hate. None of them personal. But I took them in as if they were. How can you know why you are a target when you are five, nine, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 35?

I tell myself that now, at almost 50, I know when I am a target. Except now it feels more like indifference. The things that don’t happen. My work being overlooked, undervalued. It’s a different kind of joke.

* * *

There is being raped, and there is getting raped. Getting raped means you did something to get raped. You went out too early or too late, or you had the wrong energy. You didn’t look confident enough. You weren’t aware of your surroundings.

Being raped sounds like you were already lying on the ground. Like you had no agency. Like a field being ploughed.

I wasn’t raped. I was lucky. My mother said, “One man attacked you, but another man saved you.” This should go down in some kind of book of proverbs, I think. Chicken Soup for the Soul in a chapter called “Don’t Hate Men, Hate Patriarchy.”

There were lumps on my skull from where my head smashed into the pavement. I was sore all over my body. Muscles ached that I didn’t know I had. The stress of the attack had made me tense up everywhere. Fight or flight. I fought first, pushed against his chest, shouted GET OFF ME!

But he said SHUT UP BEFORE I FUCK YOU UP, and I understood that I needed to be compliant in order to stay alive.

He said HURRY UP BEFORE I RAPE YOU and pulled down my pants with a practiced hand.

But someone came along. His name was Rick, and he had been in his kitchen making pancakes for his daughters when he heard the commotion. I don’t remember screaming, but apparently I did, and garbage cans were knocked over. Rick was from Philly and wasn’t afraid of a fight. I imagine that the other neighbors cowered inside, called 911 maybe, but didn’t dare to intervene.

Rick came to the grand jury to testify right after I did. He had a black eye from Alex Faiola. His black eye was the reason I got away. The reason I know Alex’s name is because they announced it in court when they introduced my testimony. I recited the story in front of a courtroom of people. I couldn’t see them even though my eyes were open. They were all a blur, but my story was clear.

Alex held me captive for a few minutes, horizontally, on the sidewalk, on Park Place in Park Slope, Brooklyn, at 8:22am according to the police report, on a sunny Saturday morning, October 22, 2006. I only knew Alex for that short time. But there is an intimacy in the fact that my life was in his hands. I tried not to infuriate him further, suggested giving him my iPod, or some money, said “Okay … Okay …” breathlessly, like I was on his side.

When I had the chance I ran away, but I felt almost sorry, like I’d tricked him, was breaking some kind of promise. Alex chased me but didn’t catch me. The police caught him instead. I said yes that’s him from inside the police car, and our eyes met. He was standing on the corner, his arms held back by two police officers, and I recognized him because his face was full of rage.

I wasn’t raped then, but I was raped another time, years before, when I didn’t know it was rape. I was in the bedroom of a house that a guy named Frank was squatting in. His friend Hector, who I was sort of seeing, wouldn’t let me out of the room until I had sex with him. I couldn’t figure out why I was so pissed off afterwards, taking the subway home alone, looking for more trouble, which I found. I’d been drinking since 11am and was still drinking that night at 2am.

I don’t like being a special victim, stripped of my dignity, but I know that it is nothing personal.

I want to slough it all off and see through the untruths. To know who I am: vulnerabilities, tenderness, ugliness, failures, as well as brilliance, joy, love, and success. As long as they are all true, they are mine.

The bullshit that accumulates, the misogyny that lands on me, is not mine and never was.

And if I want to laugh, I laugh. It’s just laughter, after all. It feels good.

And I paint. I create monumental bodies, protectors. Gargantuan icons. Women who can’t be knocked down.

Portrait subject Grace Mateo with their portrait, “Grace” (2019), oil on linen, 62 x 62 inches (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

It took me years to find the language to tell this story.

I recently read Nancy Princenthal’s book Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, and she says that finding language for violence is the first step in mitigating its effects. The book explores the story of feminist artists who began to address rape in their work in the 1970s, a time when it was being discussed for the first time out in the open. Artists like Yoko Ono, Suzanne Lacy, Ana Mendieta, Valie Export.

My work does not address sexual violence directly, but recently, when asked why my paintings of torsos are monumental in scale, I realized that the answer — at least in part — is tied to what happened on October 22, 2006.

In the days after the attack, I was terrified to go outside of my apartment. I weighed the risks: Was it too early? Too late? I took cabs instead of walking, as often as I could. But I was halfway through the MFA program at Brooklyn College, and I was determined not to let the assault interrupt my groove.

Clarity Haynes, “Goddess Nancy” (2018), oil on linen, 58 x 54.5 inches (image courtesy the artist and New Discretions)

At home, I tacked up the most enormous sheet of paper I could find, from the largest roll I could get at New York Central. Using photographs of a woman who had modeled for me years before in Philadelphia named Janet, I drew the largest figure I had ever made. From the floor to the ceiling, Janet’s torso took up the entire wall. She wore black stretchy pants and no shirt, and she was gorgeously fat. As I drew, she took voluminous form, and became more and more solid. Over the days and weeks, she became a protective Goddess, and as I worked, I felt rage. Rage that I had been so vulnerable to the assault, even though as a lesbian I had fought against that kind of subjugation all my life. I wanted Janet to make men looking at her feel small and powerless. No one could knock her down. No one. She was as sacred and impenetrable as a Buddha statue.

I never showed anyone that drawing, and I never documented it. But it was a turning point, because in the years that followed, I began to make torso portraits — which until then had been life-sized — into larger-than-life paintings. I worked on the paintings sometimes for years, and I worked with models, so I wasn’t alone. My sitters became friends, and the figures in the paintings became more and more detailed, irrefutable, like mountains I could imagine climbing. They were straight, gay, bisexual; cisgender, nonbinary, and trans. Gwen, Emily, AnnMarie, Ellen, Roxanne, Lyz, Leonora, Jaece, Robin, Janie, Goddess Nancy, Dilma, Mariam, Brenda, Genesis, Grace. Each painting represents a relationship that will always be a part of me.

Installation view, Taking Space: Contemporary Women Artists and the Politics of Scale at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2020. Pictured in foreground: Clarity Haynes, “Janie” (2014), oil on linen, 58 x 58 inches (photo courtesy the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts/Adrian Cubillas)

It might be a cliché, but it’s true: Art heals.

It’s not easy to talk about trauma, especially sexual violence. But as a queer feminist artist, it’s important to me to not hide the truth about my life, about women’s lives, about LGBTQ lives. As a cisgender, white, middle class woman, I’ve been protected by my privilege. And yet violence has still affected me. It impacts so many of us. But we survive, and more and more, we are finding language, in words and art, to tell the truth.

Clarity Haynes is currently exhibiting in Taking Space: Contemporary Women Artists and the Politics of Scale at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) (118-128 North Broad St, Philadelphia), which continues through September 5.

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