When guests walked into the Markeim Arts Center in Haddonfield on Jan. 6, they were greeted with colorful portraits of lives taken by gun violence, part of “Souls Shot: Portraits of Gun Violence,” a Philadelphia-based exhibition with portraits from the 2021-’22 collection.
They are pictures of brothers, sons and daughters. There is Bryant Heard II, whose portrait is called “Million Dollar Smile” (by Lisa Hendrickson). It depicts the 20-year old in glasses and a hoodie, smiling. “Forever Fresh” captures Alan Christopher Gray’s essence in a collage where photos of him and loved ones are incorporated into a larger portrait. Dominique Xavier Milton Williams was 17 when he died, and his image is memorialized as a child etched on a drum head, representing his dreams of being a professional drummer.
“It really brought into clear focus the inequity of who is affected most, and it’s just really heightened my sense of unfairness for systems that have been in place for generations that are racist and classist,” said Laura Madeleine, the exhibit’s executive director, founder and a participating artist.
The idea for the project came about in 2016, when Madeleine was tasked with putting together a month-long exhibition to raise awareness of gun violence.
“It was only supposed to be for a month, but the response was so great that we kept going,” she recalled.
Philadelphia and New Jersey artists were paired with families of gun violence victims and asked to recreate pictures of their loved ones based on photos, mementos, videos and shared stories. While many of the artists did not know each family prior to the project, several of them knew the victims personally and created personal portraits in their memory.
“Team Ricks,” by Heather Rippert, recalls Jamie Ricks, the brother of Rippert’s best friend, Kellie Ricks, and Ricks herself. Jamie Ricks was killed in 2017, and Kellie Ricks died of heart failure exactly three years later.
“We want people to take notice and take action and connect with these people and realize that they’re not just numbers, not just gory statistics, they are people, they’ve left loved ones behind,” Madeleine noted.
“They left a huge impact and we want people to come into our exhibitions and really interact with the artwork and come away thinking, ‘I’ve got to help stop this.’”
The opening night’s reception was held in partnership with Moms Demand Action and included representatives from Every Town for Gun Safety and Crisis Response K-9. Susan Anolik, co-leader of the South Jersey chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, described gun violence as the leading cause of death in children and advocated for safer gun storage.
“Moms Demand Action is not anti-gun,” she insisted. “We’re not here to abolish the second amendment; we support it. We are anti-gun violence. We have mom volunteers that are responsible gun owners. They bought their guns legally and practiced secure storage of their firearms and ammunition.”
Carla Reyes Miller and Charlene Hoverter spoke about their loved ones, who were also memorialized in the exhibit. Reyes Miller recounted the last time she talked to her son Kevin, who told her he would be taking a female friend to lunch.
“The young lady’s ex-boyfriend made a senseless decision to take Kevin’s life by shooting him – one bullet to the heart as his arms were raised up to surrender,” his mother recounted. “Kevin was only 19.”
Reyes Miller advocated for common-sense gun laws, such as background checks on all gun sales and disclosure of juvenile records for any non-adult who applies for a gun.
“Today I’m here along with the Souls Shot Portrait Project, Everytown, Moms Demand, becoming the voices of those who cannot share their story because their lives were cut short by gun violence,” she said.
Hoverter lost her sister Diane to gun violence in 1986, and described the state of their family before and after her passing.
“To this day, 36 years later, I am still so aggrieved,” Hoverter acknowledged. “Diane never saw her daughters walk down the aisle, nor did Diane ever have the joy of holding a grandchild in her arms.”
She added that her dad, who loved harmonizing with his sisters, never sang again.
“My family suffered greatly for years and continued to do so,” Hoverter continued. “Tremendous anger displaced, depression, anxiety, intergenerational trauma, and after I spoke with others, I found that this is a common occurrence after an intentional killing.”
According to the Gun Violence Archive, as of Jan. 12, there have been 1,373 gun violence deaths in the U.S. this year, with about 40 percent homicides, murders, or unintentional shootings, and 60 percent suicides.
There have been 22 shootings, more than one per day, and two mass murders. Thirteen children under 12 have died, as have 55 teens under 18.
The “Souls Shot: Portraits of Gun Violence,” exhibition will be at Markheim Arts Center through Jan. 23.
To learn more about the Be SMART message for gun safety, visit https://www.camdencounty.com/service/be-smart-for-secure-gun-storage/. To learn more about the Soul Shot Portrait Project, visit https://www.soulsshotportraitproject.org/. For information on Moms Demand Action, visit https://momsdemandaction.org/