The call for artists from Souls Shot Portrait Project came in all caps, but I didn’t quite register the urgency.
They’ve made similar asks in the past, I thought; the process to create a personal work of art with families who’ve lost someone to gun violence can be emotionally grueling. Some artists can only bear to go through it once.
But after coming across the call a few more times, something finally clicked:
Wait, do they need more artists because of the increasing number of homicides?
The gutting response: yes.
There are the obvious ways to measure Philadelphia’s soaring gun violence:
The numbers, of course — not just of those who died (more than 200 so far this year), but also of the hundreds more who survive a bullet only to face a lifetime of trauma.
And then there are the measurements of our unchecked epidemic that can be easier to miss, like a local nonprofit peppering social media with calls for artists to create portraits of an ever-growing roster of gun-violence victims — increasingly within the same family.
Artists have created portraits for multiple sets of brothers and cousins, even a father and son.
“It’s such an indictment of what’s going on in the city,” said Laura Madeleine, the project’s executive director.
As the number of homicides grows, so does the waiting list of families who want their loved ones’ lives memorialized.
I’ve written about Souls Shot in the past. I’ve attended their traveling exhibits, powerful and personal displays of loss, and love. But the artwork is also a creative call to action.
“The portraits act as ambassadors for these families that have been affected and for the people who are no longer with us themselves,” said Madeleine. “But it’s really meant to travel to places other than the communities where most of the violence happens because it really takes people to a place of empathy. And ideally moves them to take some sort of action to effect change.”
The program started in 2016, when the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill asked Madeleine to curate an exhibition for Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence, a faith-based movement that still supports the project.
The exhibit was supposed to be up for about a month, but five years later it’s expanded in and around Philadelphia, with volunteer artists creating well over 100 portraits — admittedly, Madeleine said, a fraction of the people affected by gun violence, though they learned that displaying about 30 portraits at a time makes it easier to find spaces to host the exhibit, including libraries, hospitals, and churches.
Two shows are currently on display at Charles Santore Library in Philadelphia and Main Line Art Center in Haverford. But call ahead before visiting. And before we get too far along, here is the link to the project’s website for artists: www.soulsshotportraitproject.org. I’ve already received inquiries from a few artists after a quick mention of the project’s needs in a previous column. But my hope is that after this column, the project can build a book of revolving artists so that no family has to be put on a waiting list.
Ann Price Hartzell is a local artist who has created the most project portraits, seven when she’s done with two in the works.
Looking back, Hartzell said she would never have predicted how involved she’d become with the project when she first spotted a blurb about it on her church’s website.
She definitely never imagined that the bonds formed with families over the years would be the reason she’s now thinking of stepping away from the project.
While painting the portrait of Charles Johnson, fatally shot in 2011 in a case of mistaken identity, Hartzell became close with his mother, former State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell and her family. Hartzell could often be found helping out on projects for the Charles Foundation, created by Johnson-Harrell for at-risk children after her son’s death.
In 2019, Hartzell asked his brother, Donté, to speak at an artist’s reception for the project.
In a moving speech about the impact of gun violence on his family and his community, he told the crowd: “I am an endangered species.”
The words struck Hartzell then, but since March they’ve taken on even more weight.
Donté was killed in Los Angeles on March 5 in what officials there called a drive-by shooting.
As Hartzell did for Charles and a Johnson family cousin, killed in 2013, she will paint Donté's portrait.
She thinks it might be her last.