Ali Waller’s studio sits tucked away in the heart of Chattanooga’s southside historic district. The space is washed in cool sunlight coming through the skylight on an overcast December morning.
The walls are covered with body casts of dozens of people who paid to be part of her nearly two-year-old “/200” project to honor the bodies and the stories of sexual assault survivors. Even her Christmas tree is decorated with casts of her own body.
At the beginning of the “/200” project, she hoped to cast 200 women to represent the $200 Epstein paid young girls to recruit more girls to perform massages, a pretense he used to sexually assault them. The first installation of the exceeded her original goal with 550 busts. Now, Waller has made casts of nearly 1,200 sexual assault survivors.
“I look at these walls, and I remember the people and their stories. I can see their faces. I might not always remember their name and might not always know their face without a mask, but I remember the moment and the person. It’s a very spiritual experience for everyone present,” she said as she scanned busts covering her walls.
Several casts of her own body are scattered among the cast of her subjects.
The 23-year-old body casting artist learned to appreciate the human body through Catholic art, which she said feels ironic, considering the body shame many Catholic women develop as part of the strict, conservative view of sexuality taught in many Catholic congregations.
“I just love the human form. Growing up seeing Catholic art, drawing nude people and having an artistic experience of the human body was liberating to me,” she said.
Fulfilling the goal of “/200”
This fall, Waller started a support group for sexual assault survivors. A local therapist works with the group to ensure they have access to the resources they need.
“I don’t tell my story when I’m casting unless people ask specific questions about my experience. Yeah. But right now what we’re doing is each person is taking a turn sharing their story. So I started and they’re the only people in all the projects who have like heard my story in full,” Waller said.
Waller views her work as part of healing — her own and others’. She found herself during castings wishing that her subjects could talk and share their stories with one another.
“It’s just cool that there’s a space of people who I know personally to and that see me in my learning and we get to learn together,” she said. “I didn’t know how good it would be. This is fulfilling the project’s purpose.”
Various casts of Waller’s hands and mouth in various stages of adornment sat on a work table in the back of the studio. She has been exploring the facets of a new installation of her “Mommy” project, which Waller uses to share about the harm she suffered as a woman raised in purity culture and misogynistic religion. She held a new installation of “Mommy” this month.
Amid the pain and anger Waller and her subjects process through body casting, she said she has to have hope that abusers can change and that process can—and will—happen.
“Part of my healing is realizing that justice is not revenge or punishment. I don’t really believe in mass incarceration or our prison system – it just causes people to abuse and make other people more miserable. The alternative is, I have to accept that that person is able and capable of a second chance. If I want there to be real justice, people have to be able to change,” she said.
Plans for the new year
In 2022, she hopes to build on her artistry and her business to ensure it remains sustainable for years to come.
She’s planning a series of events for sexual assault awareness month in April and plans to continue traveling and doing castings around the country.