‘Souls Shot: Portraits of Victims of Gun Violence’ – and the loss of our community

Artist Anna Kocher’s portrait of Terrance “Tee” Ryans

According to the Philadelphia Police Department, there have been 229 fatal shootings between Jan. 1 and Nov. 15 of this year. Numbers are abstract, and it’s easy to minimize 229 fatal shootings in a city of 1.5 million people. The reality is it’s a staggering number – especially when you consider it’s almost half of J.S. Jenks Elementary School’s total enrolled population.

Numbers can become meaningless, but the power of one person’s story and the loss to their family, friends and community can help us to see the whole picture. Stories like those of Jayvon Mitchell-Pendleton, Dwayne Eric Green, Darrin Grandy, Alexander Martinez, Daronn Davis, Elisabeth Barrer, Angel Enrique Bermudez, Donte Wylie, Terence Ryans, Tamara Johnson, Peter LaCourt, Erica Shontell McClelan and many more.

It’s the reason Laura Madeleine, curator and director of the Second Annual Exhibition of “Souls Shot: Portraits of Victims of Gun Violence,” wants everyone to attend the exhibit now showing until Dec. 1 at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill. Madeleine said while the exhibit only features 30 portraits by 29 artists, a fraction of those effected by gun violence, it seeks “to raise awareness to the terrible cost to our communities.”

The Wyndmoor artist said she hopes that people are drawn into “the intimacy of the subject matter – portraits. She wants viewers to be engaged by “this invitation into the lives of these souls.”

“To quote one of the artists who has participated in both of the exhibitions, Anna Kocher, it is an ‘invitational, not confrontational approach’ that brings the viewer to a place of empathy,” Madeleine said. “I, we, want this project to impress on people the great loss we as a human community have suffered and continue to suffer due to the scrounge of gun violence.”

She said the families are grateful that the focus of the exhibit is on their loved one before their lives were “ended or tragically altered by gun violence.”

“It is a tremendously hard and brave task for the families to tell their stories and share photographs and mementos with the artists, so they can try to construct an artwork that will reflect that life,” Madeleine said. “I do think it aids in the process of healing. Some of the victims have been gone for years, and it is clear that the pain of that loss still persists.”

She added other families have only recently lost loved ones and participating in this project helps them feel like they are taking a “positive step toward their own healing and to effecting some kind of real change in their approach to gun violence.”

The exhibit features 30 portraits by 29 artists. Madeleine painted two portraits: Nicholas Santiago and Zakiyy Alford. She said Santiago’s mother was a drug addict, and he was “kind of forced to be the parent of his family.” She interviewed his best friend Mari Marrero, who was also the mother of his daughter.

She said Marrero didn’t have many good photographs of him, so the portrait is primarily based on Marrero description “of what he was like.” His daughter’s favorite photograph of him was of her hand pulling on his lower lip. She said in the portrait you can “see her hand pulling on his lower lip.” Madeleine surrounded the portrait with various images and symbols of friendship.

In addition to Santiago’s portrait, she painted Zakiyy Alford’s portrait. She met with Alford’s grandmother Sonya Dixon several times. She said Alford “sounded like a great kid” who, like typical teenagers, would occasionally “screw up.”

She said his case was especially tragic because he had “just turned himself around and finished a leadership course with top honors when he was killed.”

“The portrait I made of Zakiyy is interactive, and it has flaps you can lift and open to see different aspects of his life,” Madeleine said.

Madeleine said without the help of Movita Johnson-Harrell, founder of The CHARLES Foundation (Creating Healthy Alternatives Results in Less Emotional Suffering), she wouldn’t have been able to complete the project. Johnson-Harrell, who is currently the interim supervisor of Victim Services for District Attorney’s Office, started The CHARLES Foundation in 2011, in memory of her son, Charles Andre’ Johnson, who was a victim of gun violence.

Johnson, 18, was sitting in the car waiting for his sister, when two men walked up to his car and opened fire. Police investigated and said that he was killed in a case of mistaken identity by two young men who had previous criminal arrest records.

Artist Ann Price Hartzell did Johnson’s portrait entitled “Charles’ Legacy, Portrait of Charles Andre’ Johnson.” It is a reverse photo and acrylic on wood panel.

Madeleine said the exhibit is having a powerful impact.

“Viewers who are not directly connected with the families or victims in general are, in my experience, powerfully moved by the portraits,” she said. “Many, including many of the artists, have been stepping-up their activism to put pressure on those who can help find solutions to the epidemic.”

The exhibition will move to Mishkan Shalom, 4101 Freeland Ave. in Manayunk for the months of December and January. There will be an opening reception on Dec. 2.

For more information about the Second Annual Exhibition of “Souls Shot: Portraits of Victims of Gun Violence,” go to soulsshotportraitproject.org.