Art theft sparks controversy at Lawrence

Katy Hillbo and Alicia Bones

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 27.7 percent of college aged women reported a sexual encounter after the age of fourteen which met the legal definition of rape or attempted rape. Sara Wexler ’08 created a “golden lady” sculpture to raise awareness about sexual abuse on the Lawrence campus. The sculpture lasted about two days before Wexler found “her” broken and discarded over the construction site’s fence.
Wexler intended the piece– created for Rob Neilson’s Advanced Sculpture class– to encourage a social dialogue about rape. Wexler specifically picked the fraternity quad for the location of the piece so the sculpture would be in a “very vulnerable position surrounded by lots of people, lots of men in particular.”
Wexler’s “golden lady” depicted a woman defeated by rape. “She look[ed] very vulnerable. She [had] no arms. She kneel[ed] in kind of a submissive position. [She] look[ed] very used,” Wexler said.
Neilson, a sculptor and Assistant Professor of Art, said, “[Wexler] had given all of us at Lawrence a shining, golden gift in the middle of a cold, snow filled white space behind Draheim.”
Allegedly, during “her” short stay on campus, members of a fraternity twice tried to move the golden lady into their house. Wexler’s friends told them to return the sculpture and they complied. That night, Wexler moved the sculpture into her room to protect it from vandals.
The next morning Wexler set the golden lady up again. About ten hours later, “she” went missing again. This time, “she” was not returned. Wexler didn’t find the golden lady until April 5. “I didn’t find her until yesterday in the construction site all broken. Somebody tossed her over the fence,” Wexler said.
Wexler’s friend, Davis Hudson ’08, encouraged her to respond to the theft. Together they created a six foot tall sign with a quote from Helen Benedict’s book Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes. The sign read, “Rape is a crime of opportunity. The victim is not chosen because of her looks or behavior, but because she is there.” They painted the word “she” with gold spray paint and replaced the word “is” with “was” in the quote to emphasize this sign was a reaction to the theft.
Members of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity requested the sign be removed because of the implications of its placement. They contacted Amy Uecke, the Associate Dean for Students for Residence Life, who had the sign removed.
Uecke said the whole issue was a “big misunderstanding” by all parties involved. Referring to the Phi-Delts’ request to have the sign removed, Uecke said, “I don’t think they knew what was in the quad was an art project. I think they thought it was some sort of message aimed at them.”
Uecke said there needs to be more communication between the art department and the rest of the campus in sponsoring outdoor art. Uecke said, “It would probably be a good idea for the art department or any art professor that’s sponsoring outdoor art to be in touch with Physical Plant.”
Phi-Delt’s president, Tony Norton, said the fraternity requested the removal not because they thought the artists aimed it at them, but because of the reaction from the rest of the student body who may think it was. “It was never our intention to insult the artist or her artwork, we were simply worried about the reaction the sign may have caused upon our house,” Norton said.
Wexler and Hudson went to talk to the fraternity’s president and explained the sign wasn’t aimed towards them. They reached an agreement and Wexler and Hudson returned the sign for the rest of the day.
Although it may have been a misunderstanding, the situation brought up some important points. The theft and destruction of the artwork was more than just an act of vandalism. As Nielson commented, “The theft of Sara Wexler’s sculpture is a travesty and a clear violation of the Honor Code akin to destroying a fellow student’s term paper or lab experiment. I am hopeful, but not optimistic that it will not happen again.”
The theft of the “golden lady” and the removal of the sign raise questions about Lawrence’s attitudes towards art and towards rape. Wexler and Hudson pondered whether the sculpture would have been left alone had it not been a woman or had not been placed in the frat quad. Wexler said, “What I want is for people to know about what happened and I want people to know it’s not okay to break sculptures or break women.”
If you or someone you know has been a victim of rape, contact Lawrence’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Resource Board (SHARB): Nancy Wall, Associate Dean of the Faculty (x7360).