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A teenage artist honors forgotten Jane Does

Blink art project

For International Women’s Day, one artist is honoring thousands of anonymous dead women.

This article contains material that might be disturbing to some readers.

March 8 is International Women’s Day, a holiday that’s intended to honor the achievements of women past and present. But there are some people lost in the midst of this female-centric celebration: the Jane Does.

Jane Doe is the name given to unidentified deceased women, and while some of these women are eventually identified, others pass on without recognition. But Sarah Honan, a 19-year-old artist from Waterford City, Ireland, has created a project to help preserve memories of the forgotten. 

Honan launched her series of Jane Doe sketches, Blink, in early 2014. She just finished her final portrait and has set up an installation. Although the subject matter might be morbid, the idea for the series came to her while she was working on another dark project.

“One night, I was in the middle of painting a woman on death row in the States. I thought of all of the victims of sexual and physical abuse, of women deemed disposable by society, and was looking for something new to paint,” Honan told the Daily Dot via email. 

“It was only when I discovered the Unidentified Persons Database that I realized how many faces there were to paint and that one simply wouldn’t be enough. And of course, who isn’t fascinated by issues surrounding identity, death and the frailty of human connection.”

A Jane Doe from February 14, 1988 by Sarah Honan

The Unidentified Persons Database (UPD) stores data on thousands of cases of unidentified bodies in the United States. So Honan spent two months combing through database records dating back to 1950, taking on the unenviable task of looking at morgue photos.

“I filed through these one by one. Some only had digital facial reconstructions so they were left out,” she said in her email. “All things considered I was left with maybe 100 usable cases and then just had to whittle it down from there. I ended up with Jane Doe’s from every decade starting at 1950. So really, this project spans 65 years.”

The title Blink came from a poem Honan wrote, which was inspired by the project’s subject matter. “Why to lose a life/To lacerate a limb/To char a thigh/To expunge an eye/In a Blink,” Honan writes in the poem. 

The pieces, which were all created with acrylic paint and pencil on 16×20 canvases, are difficult to look at. They’re graphic, grotesque and uncomfortable, which is precisely the effect Honan wanted to elicit from viewers.

“All the portraits are derived from the morgue photographs of each Jane Doe,” she said. “I was bleakly honest in my portrayal and didn’t really ‘retouch anything I saw in the photographs…so they are derived just from looking at the photos on a computer screen, some of which, due to their age, were of very poor quality.”

She documented the progress of her undertaking on JaneDoe.ie, where she keeps an introspective blog of poetry and short essays. In a post called “Connections,” she writes:

Isn’t it possible that every last one of us is in some distant way connected to any and all of the Jane Does across the world? Less possible, more probable. How many names do we learn in a lifetime? This number is significantly less. And further, How many names do we remember on our deathbed?

Every one of these women was somebody’s daughter, sister, aunt, friend, waitress, maid, patient, boss, partner. Some were even wives and mothers. Somewhere along the way these seemingly significant connections were severed or at least ignored.

Like so many artists, Honan has turned to a crowdfunding site to help raise money for the project. She used a service called Fund It, setting a goal of €650 to fund this not-for-profit project. She surpassed the goal by €50.

A Jane Doe from October 5, 1991 by Sarah Honan

“There was nothing more nerve-wracking than the possibility of no one caring about these women, because that had been the story of their lives and I didn’t want to play a part in that,” she said. “But then something amazing happened and people really got behind the project…in such a grim project, it really helped to know that there were others out there who cared.”

Now that the project is complete, 18 of the 20 portraits Honan created are being displayed in a storefront window in Waterford City, provoking pedestrians who walk by and, Honan hopes, helping to honor the memory of these nameless women.

Sarah Honan

After watching Honan’s video and reading her blog, you can tell that she sees a bit of herself in each of these women. During our correspondences, I wondered if perhaps her personal investment in the project reflected her fear that one day she, too, will be forgotten. 

“This was never in my path, art was never in my path but in so many ways the physical art of Blink. has always been secondary for me,” she wrote. “I suppose if I were to look for personal meaning – it would be that this is my contribution. I like to think that they’ve taught me a lot.”

Photo via Sarah Honan

Marisa Kabas

Marisa Kabas

Marisa Kabas is a lifestyle reporter and activist. Her work has been published by Fusion, Fast Company, and Today. She’s also served as an editorial campaigns director for Purpose PBC, a social movement incubator.