By Melanie Camp
This story comes with a trigger warning. We hope it can be something that helps you if you’re in the process of healing. You are never alone. Find support at RAINN.org.
Venice-based artist, Claire Salvo, uses her art as advocacy. Salvo is a survivor of sexual assault. An artist in residence at TOMS on Abbot Kinney and former DJ living in New York, the now Venice-based artist, shares the stories of nine survivors of sexual assault in her latest portrait series, ME:WE.
Passion found a purpose Salvo, when she reached for a pen and sketched the face of the man who raped her. Salvo was 17 at the time of her attack. Her parents took her to the local police station in Lancaster, PA, immediately, but it would be ten years before she ever saw that face again.
As a kid, Salvo liked to talk. “I was kind of a little monster. Disruptive, loud…but when I was drawing it was the one time I used to shut up,” she said. Needless to say, her parents encouraged her artistic hobby for peace and quiet as much as anything.
After the assault, Salvo stayed only a year in her hometown before moving to New York. The artist told Yo! Venice, “I could see where it happened from my front door…I could see the scene every single day, and all I wanted to do was to get the hell out.” The hustle of New York provided what felt like a safe haven.
“To me, being in a suburban place that was really quiet at night, nothing was scarier than that. So, to be in a city where I’m surrounded by constant people and activity and police and witnesses, basically…felt really safe to me,” she told Yo! Venice.
And, that busy, loud life in New York provided a distraction from drawing. “Art just fell by the wayside, and I was so distracted by, and in love with, New York that I didn’t want to sit in my room drawing,” said Salvo who instead, channeled her creativity into electronic music.
“When I got to school I fell in with this group of friends who would come home late at night, you know, like three in the morning after the bars, and just rap.” The first track Salvo produced was a beat for a friend to rap over. “That’s what set me off along that path of production,” said Salvo. An internship with a music manager found through Craigslist introduced Salvo to the business side of the industry and Salvo’s beats moved out of the dorm room and into the world when she started a DJ career as one half of the Jane Doze.
Then, ten years after leaving, Salvo moved home and back into her childhood bedroom. She and her producing partner had decided to go their separate ways. The following year proved challenging, Salvo found herself struck down with Mono and triggered over singer Kesha’s civil suit accusing music producer, Dr. Luke, of sexual abuse.
“I was so incensed by that, it felt so personal to me having been in music so long, and I was seeing all of that happening and I was seeing people I knew standing up in defense of Dr. Luke and a switch flipped,” said Salvo who decided to publish her own story on Medium.
The outpour of support that followed empowered Salvo. “That moment for me was when I finally started to face what had happened and really realized the power in storytelling and owning a narrative that felt so completely out of my control,” she said.
Back home, Salvo started to draw. Her first series, “Refuge,” shared the stories of recently resettled refugee women and children in her hometown. “Where I’m from is the opposite of New York City. Extremely conservative, extremely white, and it is Trump country. I wanted to do my part in trying to humanize a crisis that had been just absolutely demonized,” Salvo said of launching her debut exhibition at the height of what many of the country’s politicians labeled a “Refugee Crisis.”
Then one night, struggling to sleep, Salvo found herself scrolling through her Facebook feed where she saw a post from her first-grade teacher. “I saw her post, ‘Oh thank goodness, there is finally justice for the family of Christy Mirack…the man who did this to her has been caught.’”
Twenty-five years earlier, Mirack, a former teacher at Salvo’s old school, had been brutally beaten and sexually assaulted at her home and later, discovered by the schools then principal after Mirack had failed to turn up to class.
In January this year, Raymond Charles Rowe, who worked as, of all things, a local Lancaster DJ, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and rape, amongst other counts, in exchange for life in prison without the possibility of parole. A new investigative technology called genetic genealogy, which helped detectives pin down Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, led to Rowe’s arrest.
“Everyone in my town within a certain age bracket had been in a room with him. He’d DJ’ed proms, elementary school events, weddings…he’d been the DJ at my best friend’s wedding.” said Salvo.
The Facebook post sparked an idea. Holding up the mug shot of the then 49-year-old Rowe, Salvo compared it to the composite she had of her attacker. “There was definitely a similarity, but there was also a big age gap,” she said. So, she checked MySpace and found a photo of Rowe from 2006, the year of her assault.“I was stunned by the similarities,” said Salvo.
Salvo called the DA’s office and found she was “not the only person calling in after” Rowe’s arrest. However, with no DNA evidence, detectives were unable to reopen her case. “To me, it is strange that there was a strong similarity in the way they looked,” Salvo said of Rowe’s MySpace picture and her composite image.
Though Salvo can never be sure without a confession from Rowe, “for my own sanity, I have to accept it as closure,” she said. In 2018, Salvo sent Rowe a letter. “I didn’t expect to hear back, and I haven’t heard back,” she said explaining that, “to have closure ultimately, would be to have a confession. Which, I don’t think I’ll ever get.”
Arriving in Los Angeles at the beginning of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the subsequent rise of the #MeToo movement, Salvo grew restless knowing she could use her art once again as a voice for others. She told Yo! Venice she found herself thinking, “I have lived this. How can I use my bad experience to make good.” From here, ME:WE began.
When creating her latest portrait series, ME:WE, Salvo said hearing the stories of survivors was harrowing. She asked her subjects to send a selfie, without makeup, and write or record the story of their assault. For many of the women, ME:WE was their first time ever sharing their story.
Early June this year, TOMS Flagship Store, 1344 Abbot Kinney Blvd, hosted the ME:WE series. “We were honored to support her as she created these nine beautiful and moving portraits,” Sofi Newmyer, Chief of Staff at TOMS, told Yo! Venice. In a mission to “amplify voices of hope,” Newmyer said TOMS added RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, to their network of giving partners on behalf of Claire.
“It’s an incredible feeling knowing that the impact of this series will extend so far beyond an exhibit or a memory – that people around the world can now choose to help sexual assault survivors through the purchase of a shoe,” Salvo told Yo! Venice.
And again, Salvo finds passion meets purpose.
Donate to RAINN online at donate.rainn.org. If you are a survivor, or know a survivor, and need support, RAINN has counselors available 24/7 to chat online at RAINN.org or over the phone at 800.656.HOPE (4673).
Hear Salvo share her journey as a survivor and an artist with host Melanie Camp in an exclusive Beautiful Hollywood Podcast at BeautifulHollywood.com
DIRECT LINK FOR ONLINE VERSION: https://anchor.fm/beautiful-hollywood/episodes/Passion-to-Purpose-e492oh