In 2008 and 2009, my wife and I helped open and establish My Refuge House, an aftercare facility in Cebu, Philippines, for girls rescued from child sex trafficking. To this day, we continue to support and fundraise for MRH while also advocating on behalf of rescued girls. Sometimes I advocate with the spoken and written word, sometimes I speak through clay, steel, wax and salt.
My primary goal is to induce empathy. The gesture of each figure, its lighting and relationship to disparate metaphorical objects combine to create quiet, contemplative spaces. I am not interested in the data visualization of human trafficking statistics, which seems an overly cerebral approach to the issue, nor am I interested in graphic or explicit images that would further exploit and objectify victims. Rather I seek to stir the energy of activism, empathy, and kinship.
The figures and portraits are of coil-built stoneware, modeled after a girls from My Refuge House. Clay is the physical material of erosion, as well as a metaphor for humanity’s fragility and resilience. The gestures, as well as the color palette and tone, are understated in order to make an overwhelming social issue palatable and personal. The viewer is both witness and voyeur.
The geological process of erosion is a key metaphor in my work. With cave erosion there is a physical exchange of material, limestone ceilings and walls are eaten away by dripping water and re-formed into stalactites and stalagmites. A similar transaction takes place for a girl who is trafficked. Her dignity, self-esteem, and self-worth are violently eroded for profit and lust.
One of my first tasks at My Refuge House was to fix the plumbing. I realized how much we take plumbing for granted. Access to water is wealth. Plumbing is an underground, unseen network. Plumbing is the delineating line between the first and the third world. Pipes began to take a prominent role in my work, often framing stalagmites, and pointing at the figure. Plumbing, caves, and sex trafficking are each underground, and visible only when actively sought.
Sex trafficking is globally pervasive, economically motivated, and emotionally overwhelming. I present metonyms and metaphors of the reality of sex trafficking on a personal scale, in the hope of inducing empathy from the viewer, while keeping the issue of sex trafficking visible and tangible.