- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Elisa Wolcott didn’t know what to expect when she set her first birds on fire.

There were around 100 in that initial batch into the kiln. Wolcott, a University of Nebraska at Omaha art major, had made the casts using skills learned during her first ceramics class last summer. Now she was pulling the first set from the fire, and what she saw surprised her. The birds were even more precious than she’d imagined. Vulnerable and fragile, yet elegant and beautiful.

Many more followed. Over the past three months, Wolcott has cast, fired and sanded 2,000 ceramic birds in order to raise awareness about sex trafficking in Nebraska.

The Omaha World-Herald reports (https://bit.ly/1koBdn4 ) her project, “2000 Souls,” is meant to represent the number of women across the state who have been forced into prostitution.

While numbers are difficult to pin down, a 2015 report by University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers on behalf of the Governor’s Task Force on Human Trafficking indicated that at least 47 school-age girls - and likely many more - become victims of sex trafficking in Nebraska each year. The total number of victims, the report said, is significantly higher.

“I refuse not to care,” Wolcott said. “This shouldn’t happen. This is not OK.”

Wolcott first saw the 2,000 figure reported this spring. She thought of it again this fall, when contemplating an independent study project, and soon pictured an installation of birds representing each and every victim.

From the beginning, her goal was to display the birds in a public setting. She landed on the airport as her ideal venue. It’s a place where people come and go by the thousands, where a constellation of birds suspended in air will draw attention, where the general public will be confronted with the magnitude of the problem and where, perhaps, a victim will find in her materials a way to reach out for help.

“As cheesy as it sounds, if one girl is rescued because of this, it’s worth it. I want it to be for the sake of each of those girls. Hypothetically, each of those birds has a name attached.”

It has been, as Wolcott says, a test of endurance. The process has required approximately 100 castings, each lasting an hour, and then another 30 hours of sanding. In all, she figures she’s probably devoted 170 hours to the project.

Even that doesn’t convey what she’s had to do, said Luke Severson, a UNO ceramics instructor advising Wolcott on the project. It’s meant daily trips to the studio, three or four times a day, in order to stay on top of it all.

“This is the most ambitious project I’ve seen since I’ve been at UNO by far,” Severson said. “To see this level of commitment and motivation for one project, basically kind of running your life around one project while you’re working and going to school … these are usually the kind of projects you see someone doing for their MFA show.”

There was a day, earlier in the semester and not long into the project, that stands out to Wolcott. She had made close to 200 birds by that point, and suddenly she felt a sense of urgency driving her forward.

This is important, she thought. This needs to happen.

Eventually, Wolcott hopes to sell all 2,000 birds. She wants to donate the proceeds to Rejuvenating Women, a religious-based nonprofit that is raising money to open a restoration home for victims of sex trafficking in Omaha. The house, part of a project called Bound NoMore, would provide a safe place to live for as many as 12 women at a time.

“She has a heart and passion for this,” said Julie Shrader, founder of Rejuvenating Women.

A project such as “2000 Souls” helps build awareness for an issue too often ignored and forces people to consider what’s happening in their own community, she said.

“It gets people talking,” Shrader said. “People start asking questions. And if they ask the questions, we’ll be there with answers.”

Around the time she finished the birds, Wolcott received an answer of her own. Eppley Airfield accepted her proposal to display the birds at some point in the near future. Placing the birds has been its own sort of project, above and beyond her course requirements but inseparable from everything she’s done the past few months. The art is important, but the purpose behind it is advocacy.

“I’m not in politics, I’m not in business - this is what I have right now,” Wolcott said, referring to her art-making. “Let’s see what happens.”

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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