"The Pink Bow Project" by artist Karen Hawkins will be on display at Bale Creek Allen in Fort Worth from April 8-June 1. (Courtesy photo | Keelyn Costello)

Before Austin-based artist Karen Hawkins could move forward with an art installation called “The Pink Bow Project,” she needed to have a conversation with her family.

Many of the people closest to the artist, including her five adult children, had no idea that she had survived child sex abuse.

The experience was something she rarely talked about outside of therapy, but that started to shift as she watched several Team USA gymnasts share their own stories of abuse.

“It made me start thinking about all of the ways in which, as a society, we shut down this conversation because it’s hard and nobody wants to talk about it,” she said. “So I spent around a year thinking about this idea and trying to pay the most respect that I could … And that’s where I created The Pink Bow Project from.”

If you go

What: Opening reception for “The Pink Bow Project”
Time: 7-10 p.m.
April 8
Bale Creek Allen Gallery
                120 St. Louis Ave., Suite 149
Fort Worth, TX 76104

‘My name is Karen. I was 10 years old.’

Five hundred light pink bows line the front and back of each white fabric panel.

“You’re faced with this panel, you turn to the right or to the left because you can’t move forward through the panel. There’s another panel just a couple of feet away,” Hawkins said. “They’re hanging from the ceiling randomly and almost like a maze. It forces your body to move in specific directions where you’re not sure which way to go and you’re not sure how to get out.”

Each of the more than 50,000 bows within the exhibit represent one case of substantiated child sexual abuse in the U.S. in 2016, the year Hawkins began working on this project.

That doesn’t include the numbers of other girls like Hawkins who didn’t tell an adult.

Several other circumstances make that number an undercount.

“I didn’t say anything. I didn’t tell anyone. And so my story is not a substantiated case. It’s just one that falls off by the wayside. And there’s so many like me,” she said. “A child has to speak out. They have to tell an adult. They have to believe them. They have to go to the authorities. The authorities have to do examinations. They have to find evidence of the abuse … All that has to occur before one of those statistics even makes it on the book.”

As visitors weave through the panels, they hear whispers. Women share their names and how old they were when they were abused. Periodically a single voice will separate from the chorus and share two sentences of her story.

The voices come from hundreds of different women who recorded themselves on Hawkins’ website and shared their stories of abuse.

Hawkins is aware that boys also experience childhood sexual abuse, but it was important for her to root the project in her own story. Her voice is just one in the chorus.

“My name is Karen. I was 10 years old.”

‘This was not just a boogeyman’ 

Alliance For Children is an advocacy group serving Tarrant County that helps investigate cases of abuse, offers community education and counseling services to children and their families.

About 2,500 children use their services each year, including some who have experienced abuse or have been impacted by it within their own family.

Estimates indicate one in 10 children will be victims of child sexual abuse by the time they turn 18, said Katia Gonzalez, Alliance For Children’s director of Training and Team Relations.

“Sexual abuse is not something that discriminates. We know and see that it happens in every neighborhood, in all socioeconomic statuses,” she said. “And most of the time it’s someone the child knows and trusts.”

Even though the perception of a stranger perpetuating abuse is persistent, over 90% of child sexual abuse survivors know the perpetrator, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
“No story is the same, but it does usually start with gaining the child’s trust, seeking time together and then isolation is a big part of it,” Gonzalez said. “Most of the time abuse doesn’t happen with people watching.”

To help combat these stereotypes, Alliance For Children offers resources and training to help adults spot the signs of potential abuse. They also help kids understand physical boundaries and discuss how to identify trusted adults if they need to report inappropriate behavior.

“It might be difficult for children to recognize that abuse is happening … if it’s somebody that the person loves and trusts,” she said. “Abuse doesn’t just happen out of the blue. It’s kind of a gradual breaking down of a child’s physical boundaries.”

A new understanding of who perpetuates abuse is something that several people who have seen the “The Pink Bow Project,” mention to Hawkins.

“The shocking part of this for most people is that this was not just a boogeyman,” she said. “These are people that we live with in our community. These are parents and uncles and brothers and friends and neighbors … These are people that live amongst us all the time.”

‘It happens to so many of us’

The exhibition was first shown in Austin in 2018.

When it went up, several people Hawkins had known for years opened up to her about their own experiences of childhood abuse.

“The realization of how many of us shared this story was shocking to me because I spent most of my life, my childhood and my early 20s, thinking that this was just this terrible thing that happened to me,” she said. “That is not the reality of this. It happens to so many of us.”

Child Protective Services finds evidence of childhood sexual abuse about once every nine minutes, according to RAINN.

Hawkins also heard from several strangers, of all ages, online or over the phone, many of whom thanked her for allowing them the time and space to share their stories.

While she appreciated the response and conversations, it was also difficult.

Following its debut show, the installation sat in storage for years.

“I was having daily conversations with women about the project and about where they were in their healing journey, and it was a lot to deal with,” she said. “It felt like both a really wonderful opportunity and a responsibility. In some ways it was a lot to carry.”

But ultimately, Hawkins knows the power of the project and wants it to be shown again, so when she was asked to show it in Fort Worth, she said yes.

“The Pink Bow Project” will be on display at Bale Creek Allen’s namesake gallery from April 8-June 1.

“I want it to travel and to spark conversations and touch people. I want it to find its way into the hearts of women across the country and give them a little spark of bravery and courage,” she said. “I am both excited and slightly teary eyed because it is very overwhelming for me emotionally … It’s powerful and beautiful and sad and tragic.

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Marcheta FornoffArts & Culture Editor

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...