'Finding Our Voice' at MSU - a powerful museum show on Nassar scandal

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
An anguished detail from Jordyn Fishman's "Together We Roar! Pt. 2" that subtly invokes imagery from Picasso's "Guernica."

A year ago, Michigan State University announced that the teal ribbons were coming down and would all be burned. 

The ribbons, in the color that's come to represent the campaign against sexual violence, were wrapped around trees all over the East Lansing campus.

Initially meant to honor the young women, mostly gymnasts, who were abused by MSU sports doctor Larry Nassar, the very act of tying the ribbons turned out to be unexpectedly therapeutic for the mothers involved, and the groves of be-ribboned trees became unlikely public spaces where survivors and allies gathered. 

Those ribbons eventually became the genesis for a remarkable exhibition on the Nassar scandal at the MSU Museum, "Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak." The show, both powerful and haunting, will be up through March, 2020.

And at its center is a thicket of "trees" wrapped in the very tulle strips the university wanted to incinerate. 

An installation of re-created trees adorned with teal ribbons in “Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak” at the Michigan State University Museum. The tulle ribbons were originally tied to trees around campus in support of survivors of Larry Nassar.

"Tulle turned out to be perfect place to lay moth eggs," said Mark Auslander, an anthropologist who's director of the MSU Museum. "It resulted in an exponentially high concentration of gypsy moths that threatened to wipe out trees all over campus." 

When he heard the administration was going to destroy the ribbons, Auslander turned to his wife and said, "Somebody has to do something about this. It's going to be terrible for the mothers and daughters involved. It's the only thing they have."

And so "Finding Our Voice" was born, a most-unusual exhibition co-curated over the course of a year by young survivors, mothers and other allies, and museum staff. 

For his part, Auslander was convinced the ribbons, which he saw as important social and historical artifacts, had to be preserved. From there, with input from the young women involved, the concept grew to an entire show devoted to the crisis. 

A sign that sums up everything in the MSU Museum's "Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak."

"Finding Our Voice" includes a timeline of abuse and university inaction, protest banners, abuse statistics, and the small "forest" of tree trunks wrapped in multiple teal ribbons from the original trees -- sanitized by two months spent in a -40 degree freezer.

Beyond the painful facts the exhibition lays out in considerable detail, the show also features three original works of art created by artists, all former gymnasts who suffered at Nassar's hands. 

The survivors are Elena Cram, Jordyn Fishman and Alexandra Bourque. The Detroit News spoke with each one recently about the genesis of her creation. 

Elena Cram: "Emergence"

Elena Cram, a 2003 graduate of Philadelphia's Moore College of Art & Design, created a woven-fabric triptych that symbolically pulls the viewer from numbness in the first panel to the emergence of hope in the third. 

"It’s 100 percent hand-dyed cotton," Cram said. "Originally it was going to have a tree in the middle panel, but as I started to work, I wanted to show the fluidity of the emotions and feelings you go through."

The middle panel instead features knife-like, brown shapes that symbolically represent the stresses survivors live with every day. 

A tapestry triptych, "Emergence," by survivor Elena Cram, at the MSU Museum through March 30, 2020.

"The browns come to a point – things are always coming at you when you’re a survivor, but you’re always reaching to get out of the darkness," she explained.

By contrast, the third and largest panel is suffused with buttery light that suggests a sunrise over water. "When you start the healing process and look forward to the future," Cram said, "you get larger and emerge. You learn. You look forward to that sunrise of hopefulness." 

Jordyn Fishman: "Together We Roar! Pt. 2"

Jordyn Fishman, who just graduated from the U-Mich Penny Stamps School of Art and Design, said that even before painting about the Nassar case, "I’d been working with women’s issues and issues of sexual violence. That’s mainly what I focus on in my work."

"Together We Roar" is the young artist's senior thesis and a tour de force, a vast, disturbing work in three parts that tracks the historical experience of young victims from start to finish, figures rendered in an almost childish hand that vividly summons up the anguish and heartbreak involved. 

Young girls straddle horizontal bars, make perfect landings despite obvious injuries, suffer cruelly after apparent treatment by Nassar, and finally in the last canvas, achieve a sort of revenge over their attacker. 

Survivor rage in a detail from "Together We Roar! Pt. 2" by Jordyn Fishman at the MSU Museum.

"The idea of the triptych was extremely intentional," Fishman said. "It functions in both linear and cyclical time. The linear elements speak to my chronological experiences. The cyclical element," in which details from the first canvas reappear, altered and triumphant, in the third, "matters because trauma is emotionally cyclical."  

The work, she added, is a gift to all her sister-survivors. 

"The painting is not just for myself, but for the Army of Survivors," Fishman said. "It’s a huge thank you and tribute to them, because without their voices, I wouldn’t have had the strength or understanding to make this work."

Alexandra Bourque: “Becoming Ten Feet Tall” 

"Becoming Ten Feet Tall" by Alexandra Bourque is a dress comprised entirely of 300 hand-dyed fabric butterflies, worn by a mannequin set high on a pedestal in "Finding Our Voice." As artwork, it's simple and effortlessly beautiful.

"The name," Bourque said, "comes from a quote by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina," who presided over Nassar's criminal trial, "about the women in the Nassar courtroom becoming 10 feet tall." 

The composition had its origins as a window display for Bourque's store in Detroit's Corktown, Brightly Twisted. 

Alexandra Bourque's sculpture “Becoming Ten Feet Tall” in the exhibition “Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak” at the Michigan State University Museum. The installation was crafted from 300 hand-made, tie-dyed silk butterflies.

"Cutting out butterfly after butterfly," she said, "became this therapeutic process. I realized how much I’d gone through as a survivor with my sisters in the past few years." 

Once the dress was in the window, another survivor saw it and posted a picture on the "Army of Survivors" Facebook page, Bourque said.

"Other survivors saw it when they were working on the museum show," she added, "and thought it’d be good way to end the exhibition, with something light and beautiful."

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'Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak'

Through March 30, 2020

Michigan State University Museum, 409 W. Circle, East Lansing 

9 a.m. - 5 p.m. Mon. & Wed.-Fri; 9 a.m. - 8 p.m. Tues; 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Sat.

Free ($5 suggested donation)

(517) 355-2370