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.