Students Suggest Art Could Tame Wilderness of Violence : Puget Sound: College's forested campus would be dotted with artworks affirming the power of women and extolling peace over aggression. But paying for it is a problem.


The first time Dana Fickeisen went for a walk in the forest near Evergreen State College, she was seeking a pleasant escape from the world's worries.

Then she saw a man with no pants on, and she realized she hadn't escaped at all.

The flasher was standing by the trail, 30 feet away, naked except for a shirt. Fickeisen sprinted safely back to campus, and nothing more came of the encounter--except that the more she thought about it, the madder she got.

"It shattered my whole illusion of the place," she said. "I've grown up around Puget Sound, and the forests here are very important to me, very comforting. To have this comfort violated was an intrusion, just as if someone had broken into my home."

As too many women can attest, Fickeisen's unease is nothing new. What's unusual is how she and other Evergreen students propose to discourage sexual assault. Their remedy? Art.

They envision the dark groves and quiet paths of Evergreen's wooded campus dotted with artworks affirming the power of women and extolling peace over aggression.

Sculptures of sticks and leaves would be hidden along forest trails, to balance hikers' fears with an air of playful discovery. An X-shaped footbridge over a 9-foot-high fence would symbolize options for those "blocked" by violence. A trail-side screaming hut complete with suggested yells--"No!" and "I am fierce!"--would offer a place for venting anger and practicing verbal self-defense.

Intriguing, yes, but can art really stop sexual abuse?

"I think art can do a lot more than the general public is willing to admit," said Katie Baldwin, one of Fickeisen's fellow artists.

It's certainly a more genial approach than the fear and loathing that accompany most discussions of sexual violence. Even at Evergreen, a small liberal-arts school proud of its political correctness, the war between the sexes regularly boils over.

Last spring, feminists angry at the college's handling of a rape case spray-painted "Rape Me And I Will Kill You" on campus buildings, then stormed an administration office when two of the graffiti artists were charged with vandalism. An anti-feminist backlash ensued, its own brutal graffiti gloating, "Dead Men Rape In Heaven."

It was this kind of standoff that two Evergreen teachers, artist Jean Mandeberg and physicist Rob Knapp, hoped to break last November. They asked students in their sculpture and engineering classes to collaborate on ideas for improving safety on campus trails.

Although safety is a concern on campuses nationwide, there are special challenges at Evergreen, a state-funded college of 3,000 students on the rural fringe of Olympia.

Buildings cover just one-fifth of the 1,000-acre campus. The rest is wild, a forest thick with ferns and evergreen trees. No sweeping vistas here; the campus exudes a lush, mysterious air. Belts of trees hide low-slung buildings that seem to melt into the rain-soaked earth, and the mystery thickens on trails that thread through the forest down to a half-mile beach on Puget Sound. Every turn can harbor a surprise--pleasant or otherwise.

As campus security chief Gary Russell said, "The aesthetics are there, but it's a security nightmare."

Since 1989, there have been 40 reports of sex offenses on the trails. Most were cases of indecent exposure; one was an acquaintance rape.

Although hardly big-city crime, the incidents have created a climate of fear. Trail-head signs warning of "problems with violence against women" have turned many women back from what they, like Fickeisen, had hoped would be a pleasant walk in the forest.

The college has tried a variety of conventional safety measures, adding lights near the dorms, installing emergency phones outside, putting officers on mountain bikes.

The students in the sculpture project started off conventionally, as well. Early brainstorming sessions were heavy on weaponry: stun guns, tear gas, sirens, squirt guns filled with skunk scent. They soon dropped the most combative ideas.

"You can't beat it into somebody that sexual assault is wrong," student Alicia Saltmarsh said.

More subtle themes emerged. Most of the sculpture proposals try to be inclusive, inspiring men and women to work together toward a safer society instead of falling into divisive stereotypes.

And rather than warn women away from the forest, many of the works would lure more people into it.

There's a practical reason for that, the theory being that more people using a trail would make it harder for an attacker to find a victim alone. But, as Saltmarsh explained, there's a philosophical reason too.

She sees the forest more as metaphor than actual threat. After all, most sexual assaults are committed by someone the woman knows, not by a stranger on a darkened path. What needs taming is not the woods but the wilderness of the mind, Saltmarsh believes.

Hiding natural-material sculptures along the trails was her idea.

"It would bring people's peripheral vision back into tune, extend their awareness beyond their immediate surroundings," she said. "People would say, 'I'm going out to the woods to have fun, to look for those things,' instead of, 'I'm going out to the woods and I'm going to be scared.' "

The sculpture project touched a nerve on campus. The students' models and sketches filled a school gallery all of January, to an enthusiastic response.

"I WANT TO LIVE IN THE SCREAMING HUT!" one student wrote in the comment book.

"Some wonderful ideas!" wrote college President Jane Jervis.

Les Purce, Evergreen's executive vice president, is left to supply the "but." These sculptures would cost money, and he shakes his head at the prospect of asking legislators to fund sculptures when he's fighting just to prevent faculty layoffs.

Security chief Russell also is skeptical: "Some of them--ah, how can I say this without getting into trouble? They're good ideas, but the practicality of application would be difficult in some instances."

Even if no sculptures are completed, the project will have succeeded in raising awareness on campus, especially among men, who often think sexual assault is not their problem.

"I don't think most men will ever know what it feels like to be a woman in our society, but it's good to try to think about it," said Michael Schmunk, one of the student artists.

Saltmarsh, for her part, would like more than just talk. She said she might sneak out to the woods and build a few creations on the sly, to see if anyone notices.

It wouldn't be the first time public art and personal safety intersected at Evergreen. Three years ago, next to a trail-head warning sign, an anonymous sculptor added an artistic statement--the life-size figure of a woman, carved from a sheet of plastic.

The sculpture soon was smashed to pieces. And that, plain to all who passed the shattered woman in the weeds, was a statement too.

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