When Terrez McCleary looks at the colorful, flower-filled portrait of her 21-year-old daughter, Tamara Johnson, it’s as if she’s seeing her baby frozen in time. A joyous smile stretched across Tamara’s face, she lovingly holds her 2-year-old daughter, and leans toward her fiance.
“I never want her to be forgotten,” said McCleary, who lost Tamara to gun violence on April 12, 2009.
Tamara was studying at the Community College of Philadelphia, hoping to become a neonatal nurse, McClearly said. She worked two part-time jobs and was focused on her goals. But a dispute over a car she had bought led to gunfire, and her life ended exactly one month after her 21st birthday.
Looking at her daughter’s portrait, though, McCleary doesn’t think of that day. She thinks instead of Johnson’s love for fashion and her ability to liven up any conversation.
That’s the goal of the portrait and 29 others like it in the Souls Shot Project, which aims to highlight the lives of gun-violence victims before they were shot.
The traveling exhibit opened in its latest venue this week at Einstein Medical Center and will be open and free to the public through June 26.
The portraits are created by artists who spend time with each victim’s family, learning about their hobbies, quirks, and dreams.
“This project is meant to let viewers see all these different personalities and lives and details of who we’ve actually lost,” said Laura Madeleine, an artist from Wyndmoor who directs the Souls Shot project.
Often families are asked about the details of their loved one’s death, she said — what the victim was doing, why they were in that place at that time. “The idea of the portraits is to show the life that was lived.”
The project began in 2017 when Madeleine’s church, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, asked her to lead an art exhibition for a gun violence prevention fund-raiser. Madeleine and other local artists created the first series of 30 portraits for what they thought would be a one-month exhibit.
But the project grew so popular that Madeleine decided to take it to new locations. That original series was displayed in more than 10 locations over a year, including the Capitol building in Harrisburg.
The current series, a second iteration of the project with 30 new portraits, will also make a stop there. And a third portrait series is already in the works, Madeleine said.
Although she’s glad people are connecting with the project, its continued need reflects the ongoing toll of gun violence in Philadelphia, she said.
One month after Madeleine finished a portrait called Ziy Ziy Man for this year’s exhibit, the victim’s brother was shot and killed. Madeleine is now making a portrait of him for Souls Shot’s third series.
Philadelphia has seen 99 fatal shootings as of June 6 this year — a dozen more than it had by the same time last year.
A recent study from Temple University found that by count of victims, Philadelphia has seen, on average, the equivalent of nearly two mass shootings every month for the last 11 years. Many times, victims arrive at hospitals in clusters, up to five or six at a time.
Yet urban gun violence gets far less public and political attention than mass shooting events in suburban settings.
McCleary, who grew up in South Philadelphia, has lost five uncles, her only brother, a brother-in-law, and a cousin to gun violence. Losing Tamara felt like the final blow.
“This one took my last breath,” she said. “I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for my granddaughter.”
Erica Harris, an emergency physician at Einstein who helped bring the Souls Shot exhibit to the hospital, sees family members like McCleary too often.
Last year, 247 gunshot victims were treated at Einstein. Forty-four of them died.
“A lot of times they get lost in the numbers,” Harris said. People can become numb to the violence or assume that individuals were doing something wrong that landed them there.
But often that’s not the case, Harris said. She’s treated countless victims who were caught in the crossfire or shot in a case of mistaken identity.
Even if someone is shot because of their involvement in illegal activity, Harris said, they’re still human. “They have people around them who love them and need them and rely on them,” she said.
Harris’s favorite piece in the exhibit, Ziy Ziy Man, has a front panel showing a young man with a neutral, somewhat withdrawn expression. But lifting the panel reveals an inner portrait of the same man with a sweet, goofy smile.
“It struck me because that’s the relationship a lot of us have with our patients,” she said. They come in as strangers, but over time, reveal their personalities. “There’s a lot of people that if you actually got to know them, you could find yourself an easy friend.”
Ann Price Hartzell got involved with Souls Shot in 2017 through an online callout for artists. Now having contributed three portraits to the project, she said it’s changed her life.
Since painting a portrait of 28-year-old James Walke III, who was shot in February 2016, Hartzell has become close friends with his mother. She helps hand out flyers searching for witnesses to the murder and marches in demonstrations against gun violence.
Another family Hartzell worked with for a portrait invited her to the birthday party of the victim’s 8-year-old son.
“I’ve been taken into the community of mothers and sisters of gunshot victims who are calling attention to this issue,” Hartzell said.
She hopes her artwork can help bring more people into the conversation — like her neighbors in the peaceful, affluent Chestnut Hill community, who although residents of Philadelphia, may feel like the issue doesn’t affect them.
“Those people are talking about the art,” she said. “Once they talk about art, they might talk about people in the art — who they are and what they could have contributed to society.”
In 2017, McCleary started Moms Bonded by Grief, a support group for parents who have lost children to gun violence. It’s her way of giving back the love she received after Tamara’s death.
It’s also an opportunity to save lives, she said.
The group visits schools to talk to children about the unintended consequences their choices can have.
They also recently partnered with other community organizations to hold a summer job fair for youth. Companies like Starbucks and Rita’s Water Ice and the Philadelphia Fire Department attended. One company hired five teens, McCleary said.
Research shows poverty is one of several factors that drives urban gun violence, along with institutional racism that limits opportunities and the inequity that results.
Studies have found that the neighborhoods with the highest rates of gun violence in Philadelphia today are the same places that were redlined in the past. Redlining is a banking practice that made it harder for black people to get mortgages by denying loans in certain neighborhoods, leaving them impoverished for decades to come.
A job fair alone won’t solve the gun-violence problem, McCleary said, but it can be one piece.
Anton Moore, founder of the nonprofit Unity in the Community, agreed: A complex problem requires multiple solutions, he said.
In addition to helping to organize the job fair, Moore’s organization awards college scholarships, provides mentoring, holds a peace concert with artists from his South Philadelphia community, and holds expungement clinics to help people whose criminal cases have been dismissed or withdrawn navigate the complex process of clearing their records.
A 2017 study showed such programs can make a tangible difference. Researchers found that for a city of 100,000, adding 10 anti-gun-violence community programs reduced the murder rate by 9 percent.
If the portrait series moves even one person to participate in these types of initiatives, Harris said, it will be a success.
As she walks past the portraits in the hospital hallway, she’s reminded of the potential every victim had.
“It can be sad because you’re looking at something that’s now gone,” she said, “but you’re seeing their essence and it’s almost like they’re alive again.”