6 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 29
$60 advance, $75 door
Lansing Public Media Center
2500 S. Washington Ave., Lansing
WEDNESDAY, NOV. 28 — Lansing artist Mary Molnar has wrapped up the finishing touches on an intensely collaborative painting. It’s depicting the past and a hopeful present and future for sexual assault survivor Meghan Rooney.
This team of artist and survivor is just one of many that came together for the Firecracker Foundation’s annual Soulfire Gala, an art show, cocktail party, fundraiser and silent auction dedicated to sexual assault survivors.
“We're pairing survivors with artists to tell their unique stories. We feel like it gives the public an idea of how many different ways sexual violence manifests in our community,” Firecracker Foundation founder Torok said.
Now in its fifth year, the Soulfire Gala matches survivors with an artist who, after listening to the survivor’s story, creates a bold, empowering work of art. The pieces will be shown for the first time at the gala.
“I had this image in my mind of some really serious artist —really moody and intense. I was worried that I wouldn't really mesh with my person at all; we wouldn’t really connect,” Rooney said. “But the second that I met her I was like, ‘Oh my God, she’s perfect.”
Molnar, already a frequent Firecracker Foundation volunteer, described the delicate process of creating the piece with Rooney.
Rooney, a substitute teacher for Northwest Community Schools in Jackson, decided to join up with Soulfire Gala after volunteering with Jackson’s Aware Shelter — a safe house/crisis center for victims of domestic and sexual abuse. Inspired by the experience of working with fellow survivors, she wanted to be more involved with local activism and eventually found the Firecracker Foundation via Google.
“I thought a lot about it, talked about it with the people in my life and most of them encouraged me to do it,” Rooney said.
After Molnar spent the necessary time bonding with Rooney, it became vital to create a properly emboldening narrative within the art that accurately reflected Rooney’s healing journey.
“I came into this so badly wanting to help someone. I asked myself, ‘Am I depicting her journey properly? Am I doing it justice?’” Molnar said. “But Meghan was supportive throughout the whole thing. I just texted her and she would say, ‘Don't worry about it. I know you're going to do a great job.’”
Rooney, having to detail elements of the trauma she overcame, was confident through the process. She said Molnar was a strong listener and supporter — one that never doubted, or second-guessed her story.
“It's always a little hard to share my story, but Mary made me feel very comfortable. I felt safe,” Rooney said. “Sometimes when you tell someone what happened to you, they make it all about their reaction to it. It's not pleasant.”
True to the nature of a triptych, the three-panel wooden design commonly seen during the Byzantine and Renaissance art movements, each panel represents a different phase of Rooney’s life.
“Healing is a journey — it takes a long time. It's something you live with forever,” Molnar said. “We decided that having each phase of her life represented was really important.”
Ana Holguin, both an artist and survivor, described her subject as a “strong and fierce” person. Holguin based her piece on Frida Kahlo’s “Girl with Death Mask,” which, according to Holguin, symbolizes the knowledge children have about death and abuse — despite the effort to keep them ignorant. Also acknowledging her survivor as a “badass warrior woman,” Holguin incorporated the image and design of a jaguar.
“I wanted to honor all the ways that she survived, and all the ways that she's become who she is,” Holguin said.
Amanda Grieshop, a photographer, found herself in familiar territory, having written the stories of several women in her series “The Women We Are.” Grieshop turned to multiple visual cues for the portrait of her paired survivor. Most notable is the inclusion of a mural featuring Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Everyone in America is familiar with Dorothy; it’s something everyone can relate to,” Grieshop said. “The best stories are about a journey that you take, and then the answer of what you were looking for is actually within yourself.”
Torok founded Firecracker Foundation in 2013 as a resource to help survivors of sexual assault heal from trauma. Torok, herself a survivor of child sexual abuse, wanted to give people access to the help she felt she needed, but did not have when she was younger.
After a successful fundraising pitch, Firecracker was on its way.
“I wasn't given the information I needed to just prepare myself for a future of living with some of those consequences,” Torok said. “ I invited about 100 of my friends to a local venue, told them my story and asked them to support the creation of this organization.”
Torok said one of the most vital aspects of Soulfire Gala is the reclamation of survivors’ stories and creating a positive outlet to share their experiences.
“Sexual violence impacts all of us. Most people either are a survivor, or they know a survivor — even if they don't know it,” Torok said. “It’s a great opportunity to learn and it's also a really powerful opportunity to celebrate the survivors in our community.”