Portraits inspired by pain

By Teresa Mallam
Free Press

Oct 27, 2006

Betty Kovacic puts down her brush and looks sadly into the eyes of the young woman she has just finished painting. “Her name is Sherry Irving. She’s been missing since April 1997, from the east side of Vancouver.”

John MCKENZIE/ free press

Betty Kovacic poses besides portrait of Sherry Irving, one of 50 women to be portrayed in her Missing Women exhibit.

The artist was at Two Rivers Gallery on Tuesday, putting final touches to her work.

Her acrylic and mixed media painting is the last of 50 portraits of missing or murdered women that Kovacic has brought to life on canvas. The women’s pain can be found in their eyes and their mouth.

An exhibit of her work is scheduled for September 2007.

“Now that the portraits are done, the next stage is to bring everything together for the exhibit,” said Kovacic.

“We are planning for a room full of women who will have a voice. When I began this project in 2002, there were 50 women named on police posters and pictured on internet listings of missing and murdered women. Those are the ones I painted. Since then, more women have been added, so I found a way to represent them in the exhibit.”

Kovacic drew inspiration from her heartfelt belief that the women – many of them sex trade workers and runaways – have been marginalized. Both in their lives and after their disappearance or death.

“People tend talk about them as a collective. I wanted people to see them as individuals. As human beings. Not disposable objects. That’s why I chose to paint them all,” she said. “Painting these women has been a very long and painful process for me. I’ve cried over each one.”

To prepare for the exhibit, Kovacic, an art instructor at CNC, began collaborating with friends and other artists.

“Broek Bosma is creating music for each woman and [UNBC professor} Deborah Poff is working on an audio component. Michelle Worth [Counselling and Assessment Services] helped get me started with canvases and some paints. The installation was left up to me.”

The rest is up to the community.

“We could use donations for technical assistance, recording music, putting 50 music delivery systems in place and for our catalog.” Kovacic hopes the exhibit will go on tour and raise awareness about the “forgotten” women. And put a face and voice to each one.

The pain in her paintings comes from the tragic stories of dead and missing women. It also comes from her own, personal pain. Soon after the project began, Kovacic’s husband of 21 years, Blaine Ozust, was diagnosed with cancer. He died before her work was done.

“It was hard to paint but I felt I had to. I didn’t paint much while my husband was going through his treatments because I spent my time caring for him,” she said. She went from his bedside to her easel, trying to paint.

“Blaine was very supportive of this project and my art. He did my framing for me. Everyone rallied around me, my students, friends and family. But I think I poured my grief onto the women I was painting – and I was already grieving for them. So it was a very, hard time.”

For twenty years, Kovacic has used her art to communicate social and political issues.

Always lingering in the background was a poignant reminder.

“My mother is from Yugoslavia. She spent five terrible years in a Nazi concentration camp. She was not Jewish, she was a political prisoner. I remember her stories about being objectified and losing their power. That stayed with me. Like my mother, these women have painful stories about having no identity and becoming objects in survival sex. These are women with no choices because of poverty issues and lack of support.”

Many of the women are from Vancouver area but some are from northern BC, she said.

During the police investigation, the women became “not even body parts, just DNA” said Kovacic. She added they will be “dissected” further during the court process.

Indeed, in her letter of support, Maggie de Vries (her sister Sarah was murdered and her DNA found on Robert Pickton’s farm in August 2002) said:

“Please give Betty’s project the support that it needs to be realized, so many other family members and the public can experience it. And so that these missing women can be celebrated and remembered in art at the same time that a lengthy trial will be dismembering them.”

Anyone who wants to contribute to Betty Kovacic’s Room of Missing Women project can make donations to Two Rivers Gallery.

© Copyright 2006 Prince George Free Press

Prince George Free Press

A Roomful of Missing Women



Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016