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These forgotten women all died without anyone knowing who they were

Now a young Irish artist has painted their images to give them back an identity.

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THEIR FACES ARE contorted, twisted and pained. Some died violent deaths, others lived violent lives.

They’re known as Jane Does: women who died in the USA from 1950 to the present day, and are still unidentified.

Now a young Irish artist has chosen to paint these women’s images, and in the process to give them a new identity.

Sarah Honan is 19 and from Waterford. After falling ill while in Trinity College last year, she picked up a paintbrush during her recovery. That turned into the Jane Doe project, and she has been blogging her progress along the way.

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Though she had painted since she was young, Sarah never considered herself an artist.

She did, though, know she was motivated by social issues, having “always been interested in women and feminism and representations of women in society and all those kinds of issues”.

She wondered how she could contribute to that dialogue herself, but “felt everything was already being said”.

“They have their own right to be represented”

When she discovered the unidentified persons’ database, she hit on her way to take part.
The sheer number of Jane Does shocked her.

“They have their own right to be represented, but then at the same time the more I looked at them… [the more] I realised they have so much to say about women in general,” she says.

November 10th, 1979

She feels the women’s stories reflect the lives of women and the women’s movement in the US and wider afield from the 1950s.

It shows how far we’ve come in that time, but that a lot still has to be changed. Violence was a key factor. A lot of the older women were homeless. The women who died of natural causes were homeless or on the verge of homelessness. It was very clearly a lack of support in these women’s lives.

The youngest Jane Doe is thought to be aged between 13- 19, while the oldest was 85 – 90.

“You definitely had a sense that the 90-year-old had seen everything the 13-year-old saw, just at different stages of their lives.”

I think it became way more apparent to me that by an accumulation of small life choices these women were where they were.

Disposable people

The exhibition is about the idea “of someone being that disposable and forgotten about”, says Honan, who was hugely inspired by the documentary Dreams of a Life, about a young woman whose death went unnoticed.

“I think we have a tendency to think that can’t happen to us, that we are very, very different,” says Honan.

It showed her “how fragile our connections with other people are” and how we can lose contact, even at a time of heavy use of social media.

July 10th, 1991

While there wasn’t a lot of information available about most of the investigations into the Jane Does’ deaths, she was able to find out some details about one woman as her killer had been identified.

Women in society

The project also brought up issues of how women are represented in society, such as under-representation of women politically in Ireland, and the objectification of women, she says.

The Jane Does’ deaths also got her thinking about the lives of women beyond Ireland: “There are 700 million women in the world who were married as children; I think there’s over 1.6 billion women who live in developing countries where rape is not considered a crime when you’re married”.

May 10th, 1950

She could see how much things have changed over the years that these women died, but thinks “there’s definitely a sense among women that feminism and the women’s movement is something that happened rather than is happening. I think somehow we’ve led ourselves to believe that we’re done and we’re empowered. [But] there’s still so much work to be done.”

At the beginning, it was like even if these women are seen and their faces remembered, [it's] a little step forward. As the project progressed over the last year, I found that they have a lot to say. These are the epitome of having no identity and being forgotten. Every woman who has stood behind a man in the history and her name isn’t in the history books. It’s not just getting them a legacy in death, but maybe providing for them a legacy that many of us won’t be able to have. It’s speaking to broader issues.

Sarah kept the images private while she spent a year working them, and then gathered enough money through a Fundit campaign to get an exhibition together.

Now all of the paintings are on show in the window of a vacant building at the corner of Meetinghouse Lane and O’Connell Street in Waterford City.

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“I don’t like drawing attention to myself – the only reason I have is for the women,” says Honan of her motivation. She has also been pleased with people’s reaction to the paintings.

“With such a lonely and morbid project, it was nice to see people react and go ‘I never thought about this that way’. Just getting people into a dialogue that mightn’t have necessarily seen things that way.”

It was a gruelling year for her, but necessary work. “It’s a never-ending project,” she said. “There’s no climax or anything.” Although she doesn’t know if the project will help the women’s true identities be found, they have helped her find her identity as an artist.

It has also inspired her in other ways.

“I would definitely see myself [more] in the activism side of things than the art world,” she said. “It’s more social issues that really inspire me than the physical art itself.”

Read: Obsession, sex, weight and women – welcome to the world of Only Ever Yours>

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