Kate Sartor Hilburn and Terrie Queen Autrey didn’t intend on creating an art exhibit raising awareness about domestic violence, but now almost 14 years later, “Beating Hearts: Stories of Domestic Violence” continues to travel across the country to tell the stories of victims and survivors of domestic violence.
“It’s very personal to me,” Autrey said of the exhibit.
Both Hilburn and Autrey have been dedicated to domestic violence prevention and education for several years. Autrey, a native of Pensacola, helped conduct the research that started Favor House. When she moved to Louisiana, she founded the Domestic Abuse Resistance Team (DART) in Ruston, La. where Hilburn served on the board.
When Hilburn, a photo artist, and Autrey, a writer, met, it was the joining of two talented and passionate forces. They began interviewing victims and survivors, which would inspire each work.
“Almost everybody was ready to tell their story,” Autrey said.
The exhibit is comprised of photos and some sort of framing that represents a home—whether it be a window, door or picture frame.
“I wanted to build each one a set of framework—home,” Hilburn said. “They remind us of home windows, doors holding us in and keeping us safe, but also imprisoning us.”
Accompanying the pieces are the stories, which Autrey wrote based on her interviews. One side is a snippet of the victim’s account of their domestic violence and the other side is the ending. It’s not always a happy one.
“We are giving the victims that we know a voice, their power was taken from them,” Autrey said. “Some of these women are not alive anymore, some never got help, but this presents a chance to tell their stories.”
As the victim’s and survivor’s voices are used for the exhibit, their physical appearance is not.
“We made a decision early on that we didn’t want to photograph actual victims,” Hilburn said. “We felt that would’ve been victimization and make them an object.”
Some women, however, felt strongly enough about the exhibit that they insisted to use their own photographs. In one piece titled “He Said, She Said,” a woman shared photos taken in the emergency room after she was raped and beaten by her boyfriend.
“That’s my god-daughter,” Autrey said pointing to the piece. “I can hardly tell you what that felt like. She was unrecognizable.”
Domestic abuse is closer to you than you think. One of the stories was taken from a victim that stayed at Favor House. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
“So often it’s not talked about,” Autrey said. “But in every community there’s someone being abused who doesn’t tell their story.”
Hilburn and Autrey point out that domestic violence occurs in more homes than you’d think.
“Domestic violence affects every kind of person no matter their economic status, gender or race,” Hilburn said. “It’s the most equal opportunity crime.”
“It’s not about alcohol, anger or drugs,” Autrey said. “It’s about control.”
In one work, “Gucci Loafers,” a woman talks about her successful husband. When he became rich, he got mean. He was verbally abusive to her in front of his friends, but she held her head high.
“A lady doesn’t lower herself,” she said.
“She told me living with him was like walking on eggshells,” Autrey said. “One day she bought the wrong kind of peanut butter and he it smeared it all over her face.”
The woman did eventually leave her husband, but married another man who is exactly the same.
“You want the women to be saved, but they have to be ready, domestic violence organizations don’t call you,” Autrey said. “That’s why I stopped working at shelters and became an advocate.”
Autrey points out that even as an advocate knowing that someone is being abused and not seeking help can be frustrating at the very least.
“You can’t get mad, you have to suppress it,” she said. “You have to have patience for as many times as it takes. In most cases it takes about eight times before they leave for good.”
Some pieces aren’t just stories, but include facts about why women stay, the root of domestic violence and myth vs. reality.
As the exhibit raised awareness, it has also helped some women come forward with their own story.
“It raises awareness that they’re not alone,” Autrey said. “I’ve met people who were trying to get out of relationships and said ‘I want to be one of your stories.’”
With their newfound strength, some become advocates. For instance, the woman behind the piece “Carried in the Arms of Angels.”
“She told her husband she needed some space and he moved out,” explained Autrey. “He came over to the house and shot her six times with a .38 pistol. She should’ve died, but she said that two angels held her. Today, she speaks out as an advocate.”
The back of her head and the wicker chair she was shot in are pictured in the piece.
While “Beating Hearts” is an exhibit for everybody, Hilburn does hope to reach two certain audiences.
“The survivor,” she said. “She’s the person you hope will come and see the exhibit and feel not so alone, feel not so isolated. Another person I want to reach is someone that doesn’t know that much about domestic violence so that they can be of assistance and have awareness.”
And hopefully, it will help more women come forward.
“If you are in that situation or know someone who is, there is help out there,” Autrey said.
After years of volunteering, founding DART and 30 years of speaking to the public, Autrey counts “Beating Hearts” as her “absolutely proudest moment.”
“The visual image with text hits people viscerally—it hits you two ways,” she said. “As a writer and advocate this blends the two biggest passions in my life.”
BEATING HEARTS: STORIES OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 12 to 5 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St.
COST: Free to $5
DETAILS: pensacolamuseumofart.org or beatinghearts.net