Artwork drawn from terror, tragedy and secrecy is going public to help heal those who were sexually abused as children.

CANVAS OF TEARS

June 05, 1998|By SCOTT HIGHAM | SCOTT HIGHAM,SUN STAFF

The images are harrowing. Paintings of a ruined family and ripped apart childhoods. A bed sheet stained in hues of red and orange. A self-portrait of a broken child, hollow eyes imprisoned behind brick walls.

The paintings are a powerful plea from a pair of Baltimore County brothers, Justin and Matt Wilke, who were pursued by a child molester until they took their own lives two years ago. Before their suicides, Justin Wilke created the artwork to confront the terror and secrecy of sexual child abuse.

The brothers hoped the paintings, along with Matt's photographs and poetry, could one day end the abuse, stop the silence.

Beginning tomorrow, the images will be shown to the public for the first time. Those who were close to the brothers believe that "J's Exhibit," opening at the 929 Gallery in Federal Hill, will guide people through the darkness of sexual child abuse, illuminating a path of hope along the way.

For the past four years, the exhibit has been shown strictly behind closed doors. To abused boys and girls and molesters in treatment programs. To social workers and psychologists. To parents trying to help their children overcome the terror of their abuse.

Those who witnessed the exhibit so far and listened to the writings were told they could write passages in a small black book to the artist -- a person they knew then only as "J." Many said the exhibit had a profound impact on their lives.

"Dear J," one person wrote. "It was hard to hold back the tears while viewing your art and listening to your words. I, too, have been a victim of sexual abuse. My God. This is the first time I've written of it. I expect the tears will flow on my long journey home tonight. Tears can cleanse, you know. Thank you, in more ways than you can know."

Justin and Matt were abused by Peter Dudley Albertsen II, a man they met at summer camp in Monkton in 1985. Albertsen was a counselor who befriended the boys and their parents. After winning their trust, Albertsen began to molest the boys at his Hampden rowhouse on Poole Street, overlooking the Roosevelt Park playground.

At the time, Justin was 11; Matt 13. Albertsen was 24.

In 1990, after the boys told their parents, Albertsen was arrested and charged with child molestation. He pleaded guilty, received a three-year suspended prison term and was placed on probation for five years. The judge ordered him to stay away from the brothers.

The idea for the exhibit began in 1994, after Justin and Matt volunteered to work at St. Vincent's Center, a home for abused boys and girls in Timonium. The Rev. Ray Chase, a Catholic priest and director of spiritual development at the center, asked Justin if he wanted to use his art to help others.

"We don't understand the realities of child victimization," Chase said. "I went to Justin with a proposal that he try to help us understand what victimization is like through his art. He was thrilled by the idea."

At St. Vincent's, Justin agreed to complete three pieces of art to describe what it was like to be a victim, how he felt about his abuser, and what the abuse had done to his family. Every few weeks, Justin would return to St. Vincent's with a completed piece of art.

The first was a self-portrait, a sketch of a child huddled in a brick cell. It was accompanied by a narrative called "Solitude." Justin recalled in chilling detail how Albertsen had abused him, how he asked him to remove his clothes, piece by piece, as a pair of cameras recorded every move.

"Dear J," another person wrote after seeing the exhibit. "The world is better for having people like you in it. Please don't ever stop telling the truth. It will set everyone free. My family has been living with this too long, and you have helped. Thank you."

The second painting portrayed Albertsen. He dominates the canvas, holding a Canon camera in his hand. The canvas, shaped like a strip of film, is accompanied by a haunting poem Justin wrote called "Duplicity." It warns of the dangers of trusting people like Albertsen.

Do not talk of him without emptying what is left

In my heart that is the horror of him

Waste not your breath on speaking of the good things

For my scars will last past eternity

Into the darkness from which

there is no escape for me.

The third piece was a portrait of the Wilke family, standing against a burning rowhouse. Albertsen is painted as the devil, hanging on the back of Justin's mother. His father is drawn as a ghost-like figure.

Justin wrote a "Letter to God" to accompany the painting.

"Dear God," he began. "Something seems to haunt me. I am constantly followed by a certain numbness which I cannot escape."

At the end of 1994, Justin agreed to complete a fourth piece for the exhibit, another self-portrait, this one painted on a bed sheet. Justin portrayed himself as an old woman, sitting in a room. Streaks of red and orange paint run down one side of the sheet, a field of black covers the other.

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