Betty Kovacic and A Roomful of Missing Women

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 Betty Kovacic. Mona Lee Wilson, Vanished, 2001Five years ago, Betty Kovacic, an award winning artist and educator based in Prince George, BC, came up with an idea in the middle of the night that has changed her life -- and has touched the lives of many others.

In early 2001-2002, the city of Vancouver was finally waking up to the reality that dozens of women had vanished from the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Many of the missing women were sex workers, and many of them were also drug and/or alcohol addicts, and that was enough for most people to look the other way. Once the mainstream media finally picked up the story, they focused on what these women did for a living and the brutality of the alleged killer; the victimized women's individuality, and the fact that their lives had been cut short, was often left out of the media coverage.

Kovacic, an art instructor at the College of New Caledonia, disliked the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of the missing women as a nameless group, and decided to commemorate them in her artistic work.

Kovacic has always been involved with socially significant art projects, so it wasn't an artistic leap for her to take an interest in the lives of the women who were missing or murdered, and the plight of their friends and families. Her mother survived a Nazi concentration camp, and she says that has given her a lifelong awareness of the “dichotomy of human nature.”

Kovacic regularly portrays the complexities of human relationships in her artistic work, but she had never worked on anything as personal and emotionally challenging as A Roomful Of Missing Women.

The exhibit, which will debut at Two Rivers Gallery in Prince George in the fall, is a collection of 50 portraits, painted with acrylic and mixed media on canvas, of the missing or murdered women from the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. More than 16 other missing or murdered women have since been identified.

Most of the paintings are based on small images from posters and police files, which do little to highlight their individuality, hopes and dreams. So Kovacic uses colours and backgrounds to tell a story about who each woman might have been.

The painting, “Mona Lee Wilson, Vanished, 2001” is a wash of reds, yellows and blues behind a woman who looks away from the viewer, her brown eyes filled with what might be described as resignment. Her sweater bears the image of a horse, which is echoed in the background. The text of a newspaper story about her disappearance is superimposed.

In all of the portraits, the women's bare expressions seem to call out to the viewer who knows their fate but can do nothing about it. The effect is chilling.

As people move through the exhibit at Two Rivers Gallery, they will have hand-held devices that will play a 30 to 60 second musical selection composed by Broek Bosma, along with interwoven audio clips from the criminal code that relates to sex work, developed by Debra Poff.

Kovacic, her husband and their friends, funded the initial work, and the community supported the audio element and framing expenses in the later stages.

“It struck me to the deepest part of my soul,” she remembers. “I wondered how this went unnoticed for so long. I wanted to do something respectful, that wouldn't sugar coat the reality, that would treat these women as individuals. No one was getting what [more than] 50 missing women looked like.”

One of the goals, Kovacic explains, is to narrow the perceived gap between the women she painted and the viewer, to remind people that while life may have taken these women on a journey that is not societally supported, they each had a name and a story that ought to be remembered.

Historically, Kovacic notes, only important people were painted in portraiture, so she intentionally adopted this format to give these women in death, the status they deserved in life.

“The paintings don't deny the actuality of their lives, but portray them as humans. We'll never know what these women could have done. Individual acts in individual lives [over so many lifetimes]. Gone.”

Kovacic has heard from family members of some of the women, and they have been supportive of the project. Maggie de Vries, the sister of Sarah de Vries, and author of Missing Sarah, a book about her sister's life and death, viewed all the portraits and heard about the complete concept. In a letter of support for Kovacic, she wrote that each portrait was “unique, each deeply personal. Other art has been created in memory of the missing women, but this felt the most powerful to me, the most genuine.”

During the project. Kovacic's husband, who she describes as her greatest supporter and partner, was diagnosed with cancer and died. “The experience has been intermingled with my husband's death,” she says. “That was really hard, but it gave me a purpose and a focus. I was buried in my work, in frantic activity and despair. These women needed to be grieved for.”

Long-term, Kovacic would like to tour with the exhibit. She has communicated with sex worker rights groups in cities across the country, and discovered that the violence in Vancouver, while the most wide-spread on record, is far from isolated. She believes the works would be relevant to audiences all over Canada.

Kovacic hopes A Roomful of Women will also have long-term social consequences, “This kind of work builds awareness, so that we will pay attention when someone goes missing, regardless of their situation. We need to keep people safe – because every life is important.”

To see sample artwork by Betty Kovacic, visit her website: www.bettykovacicart.com (coming soon).

A Roomful of Missing Women runs from Sept. 27 – Nov. 27, 2007 at Two Rivers Gallery in Prince George, BC. Info: www.tworiversartgallery.com Phone (250) 614-7800.

Jane Shulman is a freelance journalist living in Montréal, Québec.