For five days beginning next Wednesday, downtown Phoenix will play host to an expected one million visitors, all anxious to be part of the unparalleled hype that surrounds the Super Bowl each year wherever it is played. There will be live music, great food, national sports broadcasts, and even a giant climbing wall reminiscent of the Grand Canyon.
Those who wander a few blocks north towards Roosevelt Row will find something else that may seem out of place: a 40-foot storage container with people streaming in and out.
Inside the container they will find The Scarlet Cord, an award-winning exhibit by artist Pamela Alderman. The exhibit, which opens January 23 and runs through February 1, will be open from 10am to 9pm each day and admission will be free. The Scarlet Cord is presented by StreetLightUSA, a Phoenix-based nonprofit specializing in providing care for child victims of sex trafficking and exploitation.
Our editor Tim Hoiland spoke with Alderman about The Scarlet Cord and about the power of art to heal personal and social wounds.
FP: The concept behind The Scarlet Cord is a unique one. Tell us a bit about it.
PA: It’s about healing for sex-trafficked children and it’s in a storage container. The idea is that children who are victims of sex-trafficking are manipulated, forced, coerced into the industry. They’re tethered. A red cord twists throughout the container, with 30 weathered doors representing broken children. The cord represents the way children are tethered, physically or psychologically. They’re tied to the past and they’re tied to their handler.
A lot of us think this doesn’t happen here. We know it’s in places like Bangkok, Thailand. But it’s harder to understand and accept that it is here too. But it is, and it’s modern day slavery. It’s uncomfortable, entering this secret world, but this is the world that crosses religious and social barriers. I’m inviting the audience to experience it, think about it, and then to respond with compassion and action.
FP: As an artist, what first gripped you about this issue?
PA: Growing up in the Midwest, I didn’t have much knowledge of trafficking. I had an idea it was in the city, but I was in the suburbs so it never touched my life. It felt far away. During college, my mother took us on a trip to Europe, and in the Netherlands our tour bus was scheduled to stop in the red light district of Amsterdam. There I was as a 19 year old, and our group walks out into the district. In window after window, women were perched, selling themselves. And men were streaming in and out of these shops, despite all these camera-happy tourists. It seemed entertaining for a lot of people, but I had a very heavy heart, and I couldn’t sleep that night, thinking about the enormous abuse and degradation of women I had observed.
Later, I lived in Japan and Germany, and I saw that it was very visible. It’s not hush hush like it is here. At a military base in Japan, I saw that young sailors were lonely, far from their families, and the red light district was pressed right up against the base. When they’d get free time they’d be able to leave the base, but before they could get to where they were headed, they’d pass through two or three blocks of the red light district. Some would get pulled in. I thought about the consequences of all of this, not just for those who are trafficked, but also for the buyers — there are consequences in their lives as well.
FP: How do you understand the role of art in healing personal and social wounds?
PA: It’s been a journey for me to learn about this. It wasn’t something I initially started out with. The ArtPrize pieces I’ve done in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have been complete installations, and they are seen on a very large scale. We estimate that about 100,000 people saw The Scarlet Cord at the Ford Museum during ArtPrize.
So I get to see a large sample of the public viewing my artwork, and I see their responses. We had 15 women confide in us that they’d been trafficked by their own family members. Middle class women grabbed me, sobbing on my shoulder. This broke down all barriers for me. There was a Disney-like line, people coming through and thanking us. Police officers came up, saying they were never given any training for this kind of thing. Young college girls told us they’d been raped at school. An elderly woman said she had been abused in early childhood. One woman grabbed me, sobbed, said nothing, then walked away and blended into the ArtPrize crowd.
I’m beginning to realize that my art can be a catalyst for healing. I don’t totally understand it yet, but I’m amazed and grateful for the opportunity to help women heal.
StreetLightUSA invited me to Phoenix, and they get that art can be therapy. They do art with residents in therapeutic programs. They understand that tears can express things that words can’t, necessarily. But this can open them up to perhaps tell someone what happened, when they haven’t told anyone for decades. Trafficking and abuse are very difficult to talk about. But I’m beginning to realize that my art can be a catalyst for healing. I don’t totally understand it yet, but I’m amazed and grateful for the opportunity to help women heal.
FP: As people experience The Scarlet Cord in downtown Phoenix over the next week or two, what do you hope will happen?
PA: I don’t have any control over the response. I’ll be there, I’ll do what I do, and I’ll talk about it. But it’s the art that will bring the healing. We as volunteers — and I count myself among them — are there to receive people with arms of love, and as I’ve told others, we don’t necessarily have to use words. We can embrace those who have had painful experiences. Even with men, who tend to guard their emotions, we can be warm with them. We want our five or ten minute interactions with people to show them we care. It matters in their life journey, and it matters to me as an artist.
StreetLightUSA is getting everything ready and they’re putting in a lot of effort. They’re lining up volunteers and cutting scarlet bracelets to distribute. This organization has compassion for young adolescent victims of sex trafficking, and I’m also impressed with their cultural relevancy, being active in the community. Not everyone would take this project on, so I’m quite impressed with them.
I just want to offer hope and healing. Hearts are starving for that. It seems to me there’s a disconnect these days: we have lots of electronic friends, but we need personal friends with deep connections in our lives. The Scarlet Cord is one way to touch people from broken homes who are looking for someone who cares. We’re reaching out and holding people, listening to them, looking into their eyes, conveying compassion and hope.
Photos courtesy of Pamela Alderman
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