Austin artist brings attention to child sexual abuse with installation


A local woman is using her artistic voice to encourage others to speak.

At a time when the country is focused on conversations about sexual violence and societal norms, Karen Hawkins wants to direct one piece of the discussion toward sexual abuse targeting children.

“I think people are more willing to discuss it now,” Hawkins told KXAN. “And women are more willing to talk about it and break their silence.”

This Friday the artist will debut her latest installation, the Pink Bow Project, at Gallery Shoal Creek on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. 

The work, featuring thousands of pink bows attached to fabric panels suspended from the ceiling, is immersive and overwhelming — and that’s the point. Hawkins wants people to understand the magnitude of the issue.

“If you are a survivor, I want you to walk through here and realize that you are here with me,” she said. “You are one of us, and you are not alone.”

Each bow, chosen for its relation to the innocence of a girl’s childhood, represents one substantiated case of child sexual abuse. Each fabric panel contains 1,000 bows, and there are 52 panels in all — that’s one year’s worth of child abuse in the United States, Hawkins said, not counting the majority of cases that experts believe go unreported.

“There are many, many like me who never did come forward,” Hawkins said.

She was 10 when she endured the abuse, and it’s only been in the last two years she’s felt comfortable explaining it to her own, now-grown children. 

“It felt like in order to truly represent this, I had to very authentically do it,” Hawkins said. “And that meant exposing myself and allowing this vulnerability.”

The installation is debuting during both National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Click either of those links for information and resources.

The panels covered in pink bows fill two rooms at the gallery, and as you walk through it, you’ll hear an audio track over speakers announcing names and ages. Hawkins is using her website to collect the voices of other survivors and adding them to the track; even knowing the depth of the problem, she said it’s been eye-opening.

“People began reaching out to me, people that I know, that I’ve known for decades, that I didn’t know this,” she said. “I didn’t know that we had this shared experience.”

Hawkins hopes the installation brings the issue into focus for the people who walk through it. The months-long process of planning and attaching the bows has been empowering and therapeutic for her.

“And I hope it will be,” she said, “for everyone who comes through here.”

The installation opens to the public Friday, April 13, and runs through May 12, with an artist reception on Saturday, April 21. Gallery Shoal Creek is open Tuesday-Friday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and on Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

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