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.