The Owls are Watching

Origami Against Sexual Harassment

Folding owls at St Mark’s (Photo: E. Whitney-Smith)

How do you demonstrate that sexual harassment isn’t rare, experienced by only a few, but rather massive and pervasive? How do you make the strength of those who have experienced sexual harassment visible? How do you foster healing? And how do you involve an entire community in this work?

The answer: The Owls are Watching, an art installation comprising hundreds and hundreds of origami owls on view from Jan. 6- Feb. 6 at St Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill, at the corner of 3rd and A Streets SE.

Hundreds, to bring to light the more than 1350 instances of sexual harassment. Owls, because they are the symbol of Minerva – Roman goddess of wisdom, are ever watchful, and rid the world of vermin. Origami, because folding provides a chance to reflect on even difficult events, consider them from a distance, and make them known in a way that gets beyond the pain.

The project began this October, when Elin Whitney-Smith convened the Parliament of Owls, a group of women at St. Mark’s. Members ranged in age from the mid-twenties to the mid-nineties. Like a herd of deer, a pride of lions or a murder of crows, a group of owls is known as a parliament.

These women wanted those who have experienced sexual harassment to know they are not alone, are not to blame, and, especially for young women, are believed.

They invited parishioners to count the number of instances of sexual harassment they had experienced throughout their lives. Fifty-three women responded, with an average of 24 instances each, ranging from none to over 100 (where we stopped counting). Four men reported one instance each. The current tally is more than 1350.

Owl folding began in November.

“We are giving a concrete form to something that can be hard to define or explain,” Amber Macdonald, one of the Parliamentarians, said. “You can spend a lot of time in your head trying to figure out: What counts? What rises to the level of anger or fear? What should I have done? But putting it all into these small, slight folds of paper, they become massive and heavy. It’s not just an incident, it’s a lifetime of collecting them that weighs you down.”

Another Parliamentarian, Marika Klein said, “Visual representation makes tangible the heavy reality that people deal with, and those who are unwilling to discuss their experience can be represented while maintaining privacy.”

The project helped another woman realize how her experiences, still, at 75, shape her behavior. When riding the subway, she instinctively sits near a woman. Through the Owls, she saw this was a reaction to long ago events: riding the subway to and from junior high and high school. She estimates that, over six years, once a month some man would rub up against her – roughly 60 instances of harassment.

Folding provided a way for all to participate. Lucy Brown, one of the most productive owl folders, said, “It was wonderful to see the camaraderie that developed as we helped each other fold and demonstrate the prevalence of sexual harassment.”

Women, men, children, and whole families folded owls after church services, some women continued the work at home. The “owl” energy spread beyond St. Mark’s: one group folded owls at Port City Java. Virginia Vitucci reports, “Folding owls is a positive way to bear witness”.

The project touched people whose lives kept them from participating. One woman going through an energy draining family trauma, still took the time to stop and tell the people folding, “I can’t help but I’m with you. You know that. I’m with you.”

Initially, Whitney-Smith just wanted to show how pervasive sexual harassment is, but the healing, bonding, and determination people experienced is equally, if not as, important.