Insightful Discussion at Abington Art Center

Yesterday morning four of the Souls Shot portrait project artists and a member of CeaseFirePA participated in a panel discussion at Abington Art Center where the second edition of the portraits are hanging until November 9.

To a small, but engaged, group, we artists articulated what it was like to participate in the project and what our motivations and goals were. Christian Soltysiak of CeaseFirePA was there to give those attending some clear direction on what actions people can take to advance the cause of reducing or ending this epidemic of gun violence.

Artists participating were Lauren Vargas, Oscar Vance, Ann Price Hartzell, and me, Laura Madeleine.

Lauren was hoping to have her mentor, friend, and subject of her portrait with her to tell her own story but Diamond Santiago, who was shot at age 14 and is now 18, was unable to attend. She has spoken eloquently about her life post-shooting at events and she is an amazingly brave young woman. Her story is evidence of the devastation caused by gun violence. Though she survived, her injuries and resulting medical problems, not to mention the psychological trauma, are her constant companions. It was so moving hearing Lauren speak about working with Diamond to decide how to create the portrait - what she would wear, where she would stand for source photos, the symbolism of the marigolds in the finished piece. (Please go look at this portrait now! It is life sized, by the way.) Diamond is extraordinarily lucky to have Lauren and a loving family to support her through her ordeal.

Both Oscar and Ann spoke a lot about changing their approaches to their portraits as they got to know the family members they were working with. While this project was conceived as an artists’activist project where the artists’ interpretations of the lives they were learning about was to be the objective, it is clear from my interactions with artists who have now created almost 100 portraits, that that is easier said than done. There seems to be a place arrived at by the artist where they cannot ignore the wishes of the family member. While this project is not a “portrait give-away”, and the portraits are meant to be works of original, fine art that will engage and grab the viewer, the reaction of the family member(s) demand attention. The project, has clear goals but the paths there are complex. Oscar found himself asking “who is the art for?” I suppose this is the nature of a collaborative piece. Our hope, as a project, is that the art is for the greater viewing public who will be moved to take action.

Ann pointed out that, after creating five (I think, at this point) portraits, she thinks sometimes she cannot continue - it is such a draining endeavor. But, she says, she realizes that the family members, mostly mothers, she has worked with don’t ever get to say, “well, I can’t take this anymore, I’ll just home and forget about it.” That was indeed a sobering thought. We talked with the gathered group about how very hard it is to make these portraits. Many of us talk to our subjects while we are creating the work. It is a powerful process. We talked, too, about how difficult it is for the family members. While they are thrilled, typically, to talk about their loved ones, it also inevitably reminds them of what they have lost.

We are grateful to Abington Art Center for hosting the exhibition and for the opportunity to participate in the panel discussion and we thank all who attended.


As we get the catalog for the third edition of the exhibition ready for the printer, we are well into planning the 4th edition. We are continuously contacted by interested people; interested as artists, as hosts, as volunteers, and, sadly, as family members who have lost loved ones to the violence. The most recent note was from someone who has lost five family members. Five. I had to count on my fingers as I read the note and realized it was a list. I am not sure how one survives that kind of tragic torture. How do families pull through that level of hurt? We have heard from many families that this project is helpful in the healing process. I think that is for two reasons: It is not because the portraits are all realistic and recognizable portraits of their loved ones, because they are not, they are artists’ interpretations of a life lived, but because the portraits are serving as ambassadors reminding the viewers that these were actual people with interesting and rich lives who have been lost and that is truly reaching the viewers and moving people to take action. It is completely unacceptable that one family should lose one member, much less multiple members. Our hearts go out to the grieving and we will continue with this project until this lunacy stops.

The portraits are hanging at the lovely Abington Arts Center

The Abington Art Center Dining Room Gallery and adjoining room are the last stop for the second edition of the Souls Shot portrait exhibition. As we installed the portraits one of the visitors to the center stopped to watch and realized he knew one of the people represented. As Movita Johnson-Harrell frequently points out, this epidemic reaches far, even to the bucolic setting of the suburban Abington Art Center.

We are looking forward to the panel discussion as part of the Art Center’s “Coffee Break” series on October 12 from ten until noon. There will be coffee and bagels served and a panel of artists, a gun violence victim, and representatives from gun violence awareness groups.

Tyler School of Art hosts the portraits

The portraits are once again in the Foundations Hallway on the second floor of Tyler School of Art on the Temple University campus. The students who pass through the hallway have left many comments in the guest book about the effect of the works have on them. The school of social work is planning to have classes visit the exhibition and representatives from the Souls Shot project will facilitate discussion. We are grateful to Tyler for this opportunity to have young artists experience this activist art project first hand.

The portraits are once again at the State Capitol in Harrisburg, PA

While it is a slow time for the state government in August, there are many tourists who visit the beautiful State Capitol in the summer months. While we were installing the portraits there were many folks who stopped to look and photograph them. There will be a representative from the project in the exhibition space on Wednesday, August 14, to answer questions and discuss the project with visitors.

While summer is a slow time, it is certainly not a time of peace in the epidemic of gun violence. We are committed, more than ever, to expand this project of memorializing the souls lost. The dramatic mass shootings garner immediate outrage that tends to wane. We will continue to use these sensitive portraits to be ambassadors for the cause of ending the daily senseless carnage.


The portraits were hung in a very busy hallway for most of the month of June at Einstein Hospital. We could barely get them hung as passersby stopped to talk to us about them, some remembering some of the souls who spent their last moments at that very hospital. Those who did not have connections stopped to talk, as well, and were so happy to know that these victims were being remembered in such a touching way.

The hospital held a reception for the staff, artists, and families of the victims, in early June which was covered by the Inquirer and resulted in a sensitively written article about the project on the front page of the Sunday edition (above the fold!) Many thanks to Aneri Pattani for her insightful description of the project and of the state of the gun violence epidemic.

At the reception there were representatives from Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence, from our project, from the Trauma Center and from one of the participating artists, Lisa Domenic, who used to work in the there. There were also performances by a poet and a dancer. It was truly a meaningful, thoughtful evening that gives us some hope that we are making some kind of a difference and moving, not as quickly as we would like, ahead towards the solutions we need.

The portraits now hang at the beautiful Episcopal Cathedral on 38th Street, between Market and Chestnut, in Philadelphia. There will a special worship service and reception afterward on a Sunday morning in July, date to be determined.

Filling the Steps and the portraits as witnesses

Fill the Steps, organized by columnist and activist Helen Ubinas, saw its fourth year filling the Art Museum steps to protest gun violence last Wednesday. The crowd came out despite impending torrential rains and lightning to mourn lost friends and family members but, more importantly, to give voice to the complex , urgently important issues stemming from the proliferation of gun violence.

Particularly moving were the student speakers who wrote poems and raps to express their outrage and sadness but also their confidence that youth can generate a revolution and change.

The speakers who spoke specifically about personal loss related to gun violence gave voice to the pain felt, not only by them, but family, friends and community as the effects of that pain ripples out.

Leaving the rally the skies opened up as if in outrage at the epidemic of violence we find ourselves experiencing.

This morning, one of the artists from the project, Austin Crenshaw Shelley, also a Presbyterian minister, gave a sermon concerning bearing witness. She spoke, in particular, of why artists do what they do and used a charming example of a child making a drawing, holding it up and saying “look!” She said that being an artist is “paying attention”. I do believe that is what we artists do. The artists of the Souls Shot project volunteered to participate because they have paid attention to the particular injustice of gun violence. They paid attention to the family members they met with to learn more about the person who would be their portrait subject. The resulting “tender, holy, portraits”, as Shelley describes them, are us artists, as a collective, activist force, holding them up to the world and saying “look!” Look.

According to an op-ed in today’s New York Times, “as many as 58 percent of American adults have said they or someone they care for has experienced gun violence.” We know this percentage is much higher in neighbor hoods where many of the families of the souls depicted in this project live.

We need to continue to fill the steps and then overflow into the streets. We need to invite people into our churches, synagogues, mosques, galleries, universities, state capitols, and say, loudly, look! Look.

Gun violence as a public health epidemic

Thanks to Karen Liebman, who arranged for the portraits to be at the Arts Center at Ambler, we were also able to be a presence at a dynamic panel discussion about gun violence as a public health epidemic this past weekend. The newly elected state representative and ardent gun violence awareness advocate, Movita Johnson-Harrell, Shira Goodman, executive director of Ceasefire, PA, and Dr. Amy J. Goldberg, MD, FACS from the Temple University Hospital Trauma department, were the panelists. The Souls Shot portrait project was represented by a poster and a few prints of the portraits and catalogs from both the first and second edition were available for sale. The crowd learned about the invitational nature of the project and was urged to experience the portraits in person. It was explained that this exhibition really guides the viewers to a place of empathy. Remembering the lives lived by the victims is a bittersweet experience.

The three panelists then took the mic to deliver the truly horrific statistics and graphic descriptions of this epidemic of gun violence. The Souls Shot portrait project has been compared, as we have mentioned before, to the AIDS quilt. The similarities become increasingly apparent . In the case of gun violence not only are the victims often blamed but this is a clear case of a whole sector of our communities being marginalized and the disturbing belief of those not in those communities that it doesn’t affect them, it’s not their problem.

The speakers quite eloquently and poignantly belied that perception. We are all affected. We all suffer from the loss of these souls to gun violence.

We hope that through this art project we can move people to explore this issue more and support the policy makers and law makers and health workers who have the power to stop this epidemic.

The Third Edition of the Souls Shot portrait project

The third edition of the project is underway with artists having been paired with family members or friends of victims. Phone calls and emails are being exchanged, meetings are taking place, photos are being poured over, stories are being told. The task at hand remains an extraordinarily difficult one for the artists and for the loved ones bravely doing their best to communicate all that they can about the person they love. We look forward to seeing another group of extraordinary portraits and facilitating their travels around the region. We are just starting to schedule venues and are always looking for suggestions. We may try something new this time and have a core showing of about 30 portraits, and possibly some smaller exhibitions that might be more “doable” for venues that have wanted to participate but do not have a big enough space.

The Souls in Ambler

The reception at the Art Center at Ambler last night saw a steady stream of visitors; some had read about the project, some were connected with other groups dedicated to eliminating gun violence and some just wandered in off the street. But the experience for all the visitors is universally poignant and moving. The families and artists who have so graciously participated in the project should know that this exhibition is making a difference and spreading an important message.

The art center is a vibrant place with many classes. We are told the students are also experiencing the portraits and we are grateful for the exposure to so many viewers.

The Art Center at Ambler

All of the “souls” are together again at the Art Center at Ambler after several of the portraits were displayed at the Allens Lane Art Center during the amazing run of the play “26 Pebbles”.

These portraits have such power, such a draw and have moved so many people. We had so many meaningful interactions with the attendees of the play before and after the performances when they were able to see the portraits.

The Art Center at Ambler is an opportunity for a new audience to view the portraits. Many people have already seen them as there are many art classes in the building. The number of people I have talked to that have a personal connection to the issue of gun violence is, frankly, astounding.

The souls represented by these artworks are ambassadors for the cause.

“Charles’ Legacy” Portrait of Charles Andre Johnson. His mother, Movita Johnson-Harrell is pictured in the background. The artist is Ann Price Hartzell.

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On March 10, following the matinee of “26 Pebbles” at the Allens Lane Theater, there will be a panel discussion about the effects of gun violence on communities. The remarkable Diamond Santiago, pictured here in her portrait “16 Marigolds (Diamond)” by Lauren Vargas, will be on the panel along with MovitaJohnson-Harrell whose son Charles’ portrait is also part of the Souls Shot project. These are two powerful voices and, especially if you have not heard them, this is an event not to be missed. The discussion is free and open to all and should start at approximately 3:30.

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What is going on in March

The portraits are moving soon and will briefly be at two separate venues before coming back together at the Art Center at Ambler.

During the run of the play “26 Pebbles” at the Allens Lane Theater at the Allens Lane Art Center, in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia, some of the portraits will be on view . The play is the story of the effect of gun violence on the community of Sandy Hook following the mass shooting there. It is told in the actual words of members of the community. Following the opening night performance there will be a reception and talk back with the actors and representatives of the Souls Shot project. The reception is free and open to all and will start at appromimately 9:30. For more information contact Allens Lane Art Center

The remaining portraits will be installed at the Art Center at Ambler, 45 Forest Avenue in Ambler, PA. Following the run of the play, all of the portraits will be there and will be celebrated with a reception, free and open to all, on Tuesday March 19 from 5-8 pm.

On March 31, Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence is sponsoring a screening of the documentary film “Quest” at 5 pm at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia. Plan to come see this extraordinary film and support Heeding God’s Call. Refreshments will be served.

Information about all these events can also be found on our events calendar.

A Farewell to Mishkan and a Warm Welcome from St. Asaph Gallery

The experience of having the portraits hang at Mishkan Shalom was a rich one. Many of us, the artists and family members, had memorable and meaningful interactions with visitors to the exhibition. Claudia Apfelbaum, a member of Mishkan and instrumental in bringing the exhibition to the synagogue, was able to take students through the exhibition. From Claudia:

“My experience in showing SoulsShot to the 7th grade class at Mishkan was deep, rich and amazing! Truly a privilege!

We began, after brief introductions, with the students looking at the paintings with no introduction to the content of the exhibit. I asked them to observe whatever thoughts, feelings or impressions came to mind while looking at the paintings. 

One boy read enough to get that it was about gun violence. One girl observed that the people in two paintings wore black clothes although there were many flowers in the paintings and wondered if that meant something. Etc. (I wish I remembered more.)

Then I talked some and told them that the exhibit was of people in Philadelphia who had been shot, most of them in random shootings (and I explained random shootings). A boy said that these paintings showed that just regular people get shot, not thugs, which is the information he said that we get. Other students said the paintings showed a positive feeling about the people and that they also showed many different moods. Someone pointed out a painting in which the person's expression was not friendly. We talked about how each person was different and also painted by a different person.

We talked about the issue of privacy-that these are very public paintings, and that maybe some families would not want to have their family member portrayed this way and we talked a bit about people surviving and their lives being changed forever.”

I, and some of the other artists who have lead similar groups of students, have had similar reactions. It is so urgently important that young people, especially, are exposed to this type of witness to the cost of gun violence. Thank you Claudia!

Another member of Mishkan, Lance Lever, wrote

“ I just wanted to thank you again for all that you’ve done to bring the tragedy of gun violence in our society to light, and to connect it with the loving responses of the artists and families who collaborate on the sacred images that we were privileged to have up in our building these past months.”  

They are, indeed, sacred images and I hope these souls are aware of the good they are doing in being ambassadors in this quest.

The portraits, now at the incredibly beautiful space at St. Asaph Gallery, continue their “work” . There was a moving reception and I have been able to speak to some visitors in the days following.

We are so grateful for our welcoming and generous hosts!

The next stop, at Allens Lane Art Center during the run of “26 Pebbles” will give us the opportunity, during a panel discussion, on March 10 especially, to illustrate the daily cost of gun violence. While mass shootings always spark outrage, as they should, we should be outraged, unfortunately, every single day at the toll taken by gun violence in our communities.

Joe Brenman, extraordinary artist

Artist Joe Brenman, renowned artist and passionate supporter of the Souls Shot portrait project has died. He was a great talent and a kind, generous, and compassionate human being. I was looking forward to working with him in the future. He was instrumental in arranging for the portraits to hang at Mishkan Shalom, where they currently are, and also in the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, where the portraits will be in April.

At the reception for the Souls Shot portraits at Mishkan Shalom, Joe gave an account of his personal experience of meeting and working with the mother of Dwayne Erik Green, the subject of his portrait. He played a recording of Darnetta Green Mason as she spoke about her interaction with Joe and her gratitude for his moving, beautiful portrait of her son

Portrait of Dwayne Erik Green by Joe Brenman

Portrait of Dwayne Erik Green by Joe Brenman

The Second Annual Exhibition has opened!

The second edition of portraits illuminating the lives of those lost or tragically altered due to gun violence premiered last Friday night at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. There was a crowd of over 200 attendees and an inspiring program of speakers including Diamond Santiago, a brave teen who is struggling with the lingering effects of her own gunshot wounds, the always motivational Movita Johnson-Harrell, Senator Art Haywood, and the spoken word artists Lindo Yes. The crowd was energized and we can actually be optimistic about our ability to change this pattern of violence and work towards a cure for this epidemic. The portraits this year are as diverse in approach and style as the beautiful souls they represent. Many thanks to the artists for their dedication and gift of their talents and to the families who bravely shared their grief with us.

Historic Jones AME Tabernacle

The Rev. Dr. Burnett kindly offered to host the portraits at this beautiful old church. It is being renovated and the portraits are hanging in the temporary sanctuary. It is wonderful that they will be seen by worshipers. They will also be seen by the many men participating in programs relating to “Men of Faith: Restored and Renewed” which is the theme of Men’s Day on October 28.

The church is open to many other groups throughout the week and we are so glad to be able to share these souls with them.

This is the last stop of a year long tour of the portraits. The original plan was to have them on view for one month in one space. It is truly remarkable what has grown from this poignant effort of artists and families to bring attention to this tragic situation. The Second Annual Souls Shot: Portraits of Victims of Gun Violence, a new group of souls, will premiere in November and it will also travel for one year.

Tyler School of Art at Temple University

The portraits are installed in the beautiful building housing Tyler School of Art on the Temple Campus.  They are in a second floor hallway on a bright yellow wall.  Several classes, most from the College of Public Health will be meeting with us to discuss the project and its conception and impact.  We are so grateful for this opportunity to interact with the students.  Thanks to artist Ann Hartzell for helping to hang the exhibition and to Robert Blackson at Tyler for making this possible.  

Senator Art Haywood

The beautiful reception for the portraits at the State Capitol was a testament to Senator Art Haywood's unflagging support for all of us working to make our communities safer.  Thank you to all those from the local Harrisburg chapter of Heeding God's Call to End Gun Violence who attended as well as the folks from Moms Demand Action and, of course, the artists and families who traveled from Philadelphia for this event.  There are photos and comments posted on the Souls Shot portrait project facebook page.