May 5, 2023 - Things to Do

Eastern State Penitentiary exhibit explores sex abuse

Artist E.D. Taylor inside her new installation at Eastern State Penitentiary.

Artist E.D. Taylor inside her new installation. Photo: Isaac Avilucea/Axios

A new exhibition at Eastern State Penitentiary explores the ripple effects of a shocking child sex abuse scandal that ensnared a man once considered a hometown hero.

Why it matters: The exhibit is a unique way of tackling a difficult topic, even in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement.

What's happening: Ohio artist E.D. Taylor's new exhibition, "Visiting Uncle Andy," explores Taylor’s 1981 trip to Atascadero State Hospital, a maximum-security forensic center in California where her uncle served seven years for abusing two fifth-grade boys. Before, he was a beloved teacher, basketball coach and volunteer firefighter.

  • The exhibit features dioramas of Atascadero, with peepholes inset in Holmesburg prison doors that provide viewers with a look inside.
  • Accompanying display cases include "Uncle Andy’s" yearbook photos, redacted criminal records and the artist’s written reflections of her uncle’s downfall.

What they're saying: Eastern State Penitentiary senior vice president Sean Kelley tells Axios the “foggy and mysterious” dioramas are strikingly juxtaposed with “these crisp documents that are legally written and highly specific.”

Zoom in: The dioramas, which even show details like the psychiatric hospital's smoke-filled visitors area, are meant to look somewhat dream-like – symbolic of the "shifty, fugitive" nature of memory typical of many survivors of sexual abuse, Taylor tells Axios.

Details: The arrest of "Uncle Andy" – a pseudonym meant to protect his victims’ identities – rocked his community, and caused a rift in Taylor’s family, almost leading her mother to miscarry one of her children over the emotional toll, Taylor tells Axios.

  • He abused Taylor’s twin sister and an aunt, and the artist says she has “flashbacks” of him taking inappropriate photos of her.
  • Before his arrest, her uncle had been the charismatic type, the guy who'd have meals comped at a local pancake house, Taylor recalls.
  • “It was like this house of cards that my uncle had built. And it just came crashing down,” she says.

The bottom line: The installation is Taylor’s way of healing and letting go of a “dark family secret.” She hopes it inspires others to share their stories.


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