Germantown gallery tackles childhood sexual abuse in latest exhibit

 (Courtesy of Michelle Brown)

(Courtesy of Michelle Brown)

At first, much of the multidisciplinary work by artist Michelle Brown on display at iMPeRFeCT Gallery looks bright and cheery.

Parts of the installation could almost be a child’s whimsical bedroom. Brown works in paintings, quilts, and one-of-a-kind decorated furniture pieces. But a closer look reveals darker details: black thorns painted on the wall, a regal, colorful portrait of a woman with tears tracing down her face.

That’s because the true-life story behind “Something Is Not Quite Right,” on display through March 7, came from some of the most agonizing things a person can experience. Brown said many have urged her to keep quiet about her family’s story.

“I’m going to talk about it,” she said. “I’m not going to be a victim anymore.”

A mother’s devastation

Brown, who lived in West Germantown for 23 years before moving to Mt. Airy last summer, said that after years of feeling off-kilter in her marriage and then getting a divorce, her own personal nightmare really began when her daughter, who was then about 11 years old, confided that her father, Brown’s ex-husband, had been molesting her for years.

Brown immediately got the police and the Department of Human Services involved. She was both grateful and troubled when their investigation delivered the verdict that her daughter’s accusations were “unfounded.” Her daughter had recanted the story.

“You want everything to be OK and normal,” Brown said of trying to keep her family functioning after this incident. “I spent years trying to patch up this relationship.”

But then, about two and a half years ago, Brown’s daughter, now grown, again brought the truth to her mother: for over five years, she had been sexually and physically abused by her father, who coerced her into lying to the police when she tried to report the abuse as a child.

Without definitive proof of the long-ago abuse, and a teenaged son who still regularly spent time with his father, who retained partial custody of him, it was the beginning of a horrific odyssey for Brown.

“I was in agony. I had this truth. I knew it was true, and I had no power to protect my second child,” she said of her fruitless efforts to re-open the case against her ex-husband. Brown even landed in jail after her attempts to keep her son apart from his father, despite his court-awarded custody.

Coping through art

From a young age, Brown said she learned how to cope with troubling circumstances through her art. Her mother, who loved to sew and make her own clothes, suffered from schizophrenia.

“My art for me has been like a diary,” Brown said. “Whenever things would happen in my life, throughout my teenage-hood and into early adulthood, whenever I’d get really, really upset or confused or joyful about the world, art was a way for me to deal with that.”

After two years of living the excruciating truth that the courts refused to recognize, Brown got a call from DHS last August. Her ex-husband had been arrested was ultimately convicted of 20 counts of possessing child pornography.

While horrific, the news was also a relief to Brown.

“I was overjoyed, because everyone at that point believed that I was nuts, and now I had proof…Now I could get custody of my son; now I had the ability to fight in court for the first time.”

The right space for the story

That was about the time that iMPeRFeCT Gallery cofounders Renny Molenaar and Rocio Cabello approached Brown about exploring her experience with an art installation.

“Most gallery-owners are very traditional: white walls, and a painting or a piece of sculpture or glass or whatever is displayed in a particular way, but he gets it and allows you to do what you do,” Brown said of transforming the space alongside Molenaar’s unique curatorial vision.

“I wanted to tell the story from the beginning,” she explained. The exhibit starts with portraits of her children, “from photographs and memories that were just joyous and happy…And then you realize something is not quite right. Something is going on.”

The work takes a darker turn with a portrait of a slave with whip-marks across his back, which gives way to a wall of thorns that features photographs from her ex-husband’s life, from his childhood to their art museum wedding and pictures with the kids. In her rage, Brown has torn the pictures to separate her ex-husband from herself and her children in the photos.

‘My therapy’

“If you’re the victim, there’s a million and one places that will take you and talk to you, but if you’re the parent…there’s no help for us,” Brown said of what clinched her decision to mount an art installation about her experience. “That was going to be my therapy.”

“There’s millions and millions of victims out there that have been silenced by their own families, and they’re traumatized,” she added. Often, the victims and the witnesses of this abuse spiral into their own self-destructive lives, and “it’s a cycle that society’s not dealing with and not talking about.”

“As I started to talk about it, I started to hear. Everybody had a story,” she said of the response the show has been getting. “Once I talked about it, I wasn’t the only one going through it. I needed to have a voice.”

“Something Is Not Quite Right” is on display at Germantown’s iMPeRFeCT Gallery, 5601 Greene Street, through Saturday, March 7. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 1 to 6 p.m. or by appointment.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.