The numbers representing American gun violence are beyond staggering.
That shock doesn’t decrease locally. As of Dec. 3, according to the Philadelphia Police Department, there have been 294 victims of homicide in the city in 2017.
On the surface, these are just numbers — horrifying numbers, but numbers nonetheless.
Laura Madeleine wants to put a face to the issue.
“The news of gun violence is just so prevalent, and we are fairly numb to it,” she said. “I thought beyond bringing attention to the gruesome details and the sheer numbers, which are horrifying, having people pay attention that this was a life, this was a person who didn’t deserve to be cut down by a stupid decision.”
A year ago, the Wyndmoor artist reached out to Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based movement to prevent gun violence. With co-curator Rebecca Thornburgh, they eventually found a space for the exhibition, Souls Shot: Portraits of Victims of Gun Violence, which opened in November at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill and is now on display through December at Old City Jewish Art Center.
They put out a call to artists to participate in the exhibition and paired 23 local artists with nearly 20 families of victims of gun violence, a majority from the Philadelphia area.
It was a challenge, she noted, as the artists relied on stories and small pieces that put together a whole person.
“The attention that the artists had to give to a subject that they couldn’t meet, that was one of the most trying parts for most of the artists and also one of the most emotionally challenging,” she said.
The families’ reactions to the portraits were beyond what she anticipated. At the opening reception in November, she recalled how grateful people were for the work of the artists.
“They just get so many questions about ‘Why was your son here or there?’ and they want details of the shooting and it just makes them feel terrible,” she said, “and this was meant to be a more joyful — as it can be — memorial and celebration of the lives they did have.”
When looking for the next home of Souls Shot, she found Old City Jewish Art Center.
The planned December exhibition in the space had been moved, so it was perfect timing, said co-director of the gallery, Rabbi Zalman Wircberg. He partnered with CeasefirePA, which sponsored the exhibition.
The subject moved him in its attention to the individuals and how it relates to Judaism.
He likened the notion to a Torah scroll, which contains 304,805 handwritten letters. If a single letter is missing or deformed, the entire scroll is unfit for use, he said.
“It really goes to show that we’re all made up from different individuals, each one is a letter,” he said, “and we’re trying to focus in on the individual and their life, and I’m surrounded by — and people coming in are surrounded by — 22 people whose life was [shortened].”
At the First Friday opening, he recalled one of the mothers of a portraitized victim came and was able to speak to others about her son.
“At the same time she was grieving, but she was so happy to be able to talk to people and stand there like she is the artist of the portrait,” Wircberg said.
A Chanukah menorah lighting at the gallery on Dec. 12 will also serve as a candle lighting memorial to the victims.
For the artists, painting these portraits created deep connections.
Joan Myerson Shrager had a personal connection to the man she painted. A co-director of an after-school arts program for underprivileged Philadelphia high school students, The Stained Glass Project: Windows That Open Doors, Shrager recalled one of her students who graduated had came back to visit.
Shrager stepped out of the room for a few minutes and when she came back, she found the student on the floor, sobbing.
The 18-year-old had just received a text that his close friend was shot and killed right across the street from where he lived.
“He was inconsolable and, of course, we were stricken for him,” said Shrager, who belongs to Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel.
Prior to this, she and co-director Paula Mandel had taken students on a trip to the Liberty Museum, which at the time had an exhibit that featured a mock jail cell with a figure of Nelson Mandela. The student had asked about Mandela, and when she told him the story, he had such a “poignant look” on his face, she snapped a picture.
For her Souls Shot piece, she digitally combined this picture with a drawn image of his friend who died and the figure of Mandela in his cell.
After the incident about a year and a half ago, he was changed.
“We take all this for granted somehow, and here’s this kid that loses a friend by such a violent act and he’s expected to move on,” she said.
The exhibition’s opening reception moved Shrager.
“There were so many people that came who were relatives of these victims and it was devastating,” she recalled. She sat next to a woman and as they talked, Shrager glanced behind her and saw a portrait of someone that looked exactly like her. It was her son.
“We read about these things in the paper,” she said, “but when you actually know somebody it’s mind-blowing.”
Madeleine created a piece as well, which she called the “hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
She met the family of Sharif Rasheed Williams, whose mother described him as happy-go-lucky and told Madeleine about the places he liked to go, his dogs, his car and his three children. He was 32.
“I tried to capture his smile because that was something else they talked about, how he always smiled,” she said. “It was really difficult. I just kind of spread his photos all around my studio and kind of lived with him.”
In the summer, the exhibition will be housed in the dome of the Pennsylvania State Capitol, as Sen. Art Haywood (D-4th District) attended the November showing and was moved to bring it to Harrisburg, Madeleine said.
She hopes to expand the exhibition nationally.
“I’m hoping that this just brings a human face to this gun culture,” she said. “I hope people are moved to effect change however they feel they can.”