Activism

RISE, Blue Bench's Annual Art Show, Is Created by Survivors of Sexual Violence

Art work by survivors of sexual violence on display at the 2023 RISE installation at The Laboratory on Santa Fe.
Art work by survivors of sexual violence on display at the 2023 RISE installation at The Laboratory on Santa Fe. Courtesy of the Blue Bench
"There is a stigma that people experience when you are a victim of sexual violence that we are trying to help remove by educating the community," says artist and activist Jenn Merz. "I am forty years old, and my experience still affects me, even though it started when I was eight. RISE gives people an idea of what we experienced and how it impacts our lives. My hope is that survivors feel like they still have a voice through an art show that encourages them to recognize their vulnerability and strength."

Art was always an outlet for Merz. When she and her husband moved to Colorado from New Jersey seven years ago, she decided to pursue her dream of being an artist. Merz established her art brand, Jenn Merz ColorQueen, and started showing her work around town.

Merz's paintings, prints and sculptures blend different mediums and help her process the horrors she experienced during her childhood.

"The female form has always fascinated me in my work," says Merz. "In 2015, I did a series called Enlightened. The show was an expression of all my emotions to obtain happiness; I wanted to represent the complexities of being a survivor of sexual violence through the emotions that come from nudity and self-scrutiny." 

Though creating art was positive for her mental health, it was not enough to work through her sexual trauma. At the recommendation of her therapist, Merz began getting help from the Blue Bench, a comprehensive sexual-assault survivor support and prevention education center. The nonprofit's mission is "to eradicate sexual assault and diminish the impact it has on individuals, their loved ones, and our community through comprehensive issue advocacy, prevention, and care."

The Blue Bench was founded in 1983, when a close friend of the three founders was raped. Through their efforts to find help for their friend, the women realized that no agency in Denver provided accessible, low-cost services or immediate crisis intervention for victims of sexual assault. They used their experience in grassroots organizing to create Denver's first rape crisis center.

Four decades later, "2023 is a very special year for us because it is our fortieth anniversary," says communications manager Elizabeth Carpio. "The Blue Bench has been serving the community since the '80s and has expanded to offer a full range of services like crisis intervention, case management, therapy, community conversations and workshops." 

The Blue Bench's comforting, community-forward approach appealed to Merz. She received therapy sessions, attended workshops and was able to connect her husband to the organization's resources for family members of survivors. And she continued working on pieces for her Undisguised series as she entered a new part of her healing journey. 

"That was a little before COVID-19 hit, and [it] was where the idea to put on an art show was formed," says Carpio. "When the Blue Bench leaders heard Jenn’s story and the way she talked about the healing nature of art, they knew they wanted to help her do a show. They recognized that there was power that comes from showing your art to the community."

The Blue Bench's previous executive director, Karmen Carter, and director of communication and development, David Proper, worked with Merz to support her installation of Undisguised at the Payge Gallery in February 2020. To thank the group for its support, Merz used her show as an opportunity to raise awareness about the Blue Bench.
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Megan Carvajal, Jenn Merz, David Proper and Elizabeth Carpio standing next to one of Merz's paintings at the 2022 RISE.
Courtesy of The Blue Bench
"Karmen and David were big supporters of my art," says Merz. "They said, ‘Oh, yes, we’d love to help you; we can tag each other and help advertise the event.’ The night of the gallery's opening, there was this massive blizzard, but David and Carmen came to the opening in the snowstorm. It showed me that the Blue Bench cared about its mission and made me want to collaborate with them on future art shows."

Though they had intended to put on a larger art show the following year, pandemic restrictions forced them to postpone plans until 2022. Despite leadership changes at the Blue Bench, with Megan Carvajal replacing Carter as executive director in February 2021, the organization remained dedicated to producing an exhibition of artwork by survivors of sexual violence. Carvajal "was instrumental in helping the art show come to fruition both last year for the first art show, as well as expanding the vision of the show," says Carpio.

The Blue Bench hosted a one-night art show called RISE for the April 2022 First Friday at Space Annex, kicking off Sexual Assault Prevention Month.

"We had 27 pieces of art which really filled up the space," says Carpio. "It was our first time, so it really was a learning experience for us. While one night was great for exposure, for this year's art show, we wanted to expand the length of the exhibition so that more of the community could see the art. It is important for survivors to experience the art on their own time as well as create a space to safely experience the other artists' stories."

In order to have enough time to organize a multi-week art installation, The Blue Bench started its planning process earlier this time around. 
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Megan Carvajal and Jenn Merz at last year’s RISE.
Courtesy of the Blue Bench
"We started looking at galleries in November 2022 but initially nothing seemed to be a good fit," says Carpio. "There were your standard timing issues, but I also wanted to make sure the venue was a good fit for the type of art that was going to be up because some of it is quite descriptive. We want both the survivors and the people viewing it to feel supported and comfortable experiencing that type of storytelling."

Then Merz connected with Josh Berkowitz, founder and creative director of The Laboratory on Santa Fe. She had done a show in the space and knew he was on board with the Blue Bench's mission, so the nonprofit reached out to see if the space was available for its 2023 art show.

"We had our hopes on the Lab because it's such a bold artistic space, and are thankful it worked out," says Merz.

The Blue Bench also began spreading the word to survivors regarding open submissions for RISE. To make the show fully accessible, any skill level was accepted.  "I think it's good to mix styles about a variety of subject matters," says Carpio. "We have a couple of poems, writing samples, sculptures and some photographs. People are allowed to tell their story in whatever way suits them in their healing journey. For a lot of people, it is their first time putting their art on public display. It is cool to be a part of this community of survivors and support them in telling their stories."

The result is a show with 47 pieces that will open on Sunday, April 2. "I would like to add that for folks going to see the show, there is a content/trigger warning that the artwork deals with sexual violence," says Carpio. "People are welcome to call our hotline should they need to talk about any feelings that may come up when visiting the exhibition.

"We are planning to make RISE an annual thing and keep it in April for Sexual Assault Awareness Month because it is important for us to uplift these stories that can sometimes get lost," she adds. "The survivor perspective hasn’t always been heard, so we are seeking to amplify their healing journey because sexual violence is a community issue."

RISE opens at noon Sunday, April 2, at The Laboratory on Santa Fe, 840 Santa Fe Drive. It will be open Saturdays from 12:30 to p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. through April 23; find more information at thelabonsantafe.com.
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