By Sofia Bell

"What would it be like if you were in a room full of women and all of a sudden there were 50 people thrown in a heap in the center? What would that look like? That is the reality, 50 women, that’s what its like," said Betty Kovacic describing the inspiration for her latest project, "A Room Full of Missing Women."

When Betty Kovacic began her project in 2002, 50 women, many of them sex workers or runaways, were reported missing from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Today, 16 more women are missing.

"It was not so much inspiration as desperation. I remember having such feelings of dismay. I felt so bad about what was going on. I just needed to find a way to deal with it," Kovacic said.

Pig farmer Robert Pickton, who has been accused of murdering at least 26 of the missing women, went to court on Jan. 21, 2007 to face the first set of murder charges.

"The Pickton case is now the largest serial killer investigation in Canadian history," Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news reported.

Kovacic, who has painted portraits of all 50 women from the 2002 list, aims to humanize the victims through her art. The police and media have grouped them together, sometimes referring to them only as "DNA." Her project displays all 50 women as they once were.

"I’m addressing their missing voices, their physical presence and the absence of it as well as their individual identity," Kovacic said.

Kovacic’s portraits reflect the unique individuality of each woman. "Every single life is precious and every single being is a treasure," she said. "We have to protect everybody. I’m driven to bring about awareness and to honor the women, to honor them as they are, whoever and whatever they are. They need to be honored."

Kovacic utilizes a variety of mediums including acrylic transfers, collaged newspaper articles and written words. Some of the portraits are pencil drawings, others are elaborately painted; others are both.

Audio segments and original musical compositions will accompany the portraits to further enhance the distinctiveness of each subject.

Sara Avery, a fourth-year art major at UC Santa Cruz, believes that it is important to have such unique displays.

"I think the number of them is extremely relevant because each one equals exactly one person," she said. "The quantity of them is the most startling thing. It makes them visible. [Fifty is] enough to take up a certain amount of space and a certain number of people are going to have to notice them."

Painting portraits of the women offers them a newfound dignity. The fact that they are being painted by a professional artist, "references back to historical times when only important people got to be painted," Kovacic said.

Dr. Annie Sprinkle, a sex worker-turned-sexologist and artist, collaborates with UCSC Professor and Art Department Chair Elizabeth Stephens on "Love Art" projects for the Love Art Laboratory-a seven-year art project dedicated to combating violence with love.

"Those women are human beings, they are worthy of remembrance. They were people’s mothers and sisters and daughters. It’s a really important gesture because it is much harder to forget a face than to forget an anonymous name," Sprinkle said.

Speaking about the distorted light in which sex workers are typically seen, Sprinkle noted, "they used to call them NHI, ‘No Human Involved’ – that’s what the police used to call a murdered prostitute."

Professor Stephens agreed. "To actually paint a portrait of someone elevates their status and for this artist to be doing that is really important in terms of humanizing the women who were murdered," she commented.

Kovacic’s work addresses violence aimed at sex workers by creating something tangible to commemorate women whose memories are otherwise lost.

"I reference lost hopes and lost dreams and some of the phrases will be in a variety of languages," Kovacic said of her work. "I also reference the international[ism] and the timelessness of these issues. It is really important because this is going on everywhere all the time."