By BONNIE MELTZER
The Beautiful Lives Lost exhibition at the Art Institute of Portland during July is a tribute to honor the fifty-eight people whose lives were cut short by senseless gun violence in Las Vegas on Oct 1, 2017. Artist Quin Sweetman organized the project to help us grieve this national tragedy, in which a lone gunman firing into the crowd from above at a country music concert killed 58 people and injured another 851. She gathered 55 artists to make portraits of the 58 people murdered.
“We really don’t like referring to the people who lost their lives that day as victims,” said Sweetman. “All of them were people, not statistics, living rich, rewarding and beautiful lives. They were invisible to the perpetrator, but all the artists who committed to this project clearly see their humanity. The artists recognize, remember and honor those lost lives with their artworks. They volunteered their time, materials, and talents as a loving gesture to bring some comfort to the families, loved ones and communities by showing that people care about their loss.” Following the exhibition, all portraits will be given to the families.
A powerful visual impact is created by showing all of these portraits together. Each face told a story of a life lived. We are all reminded of that the common thread that bound them together — their love of country & western music and their curtailed lives. The opening reception was a joyous event even though its origins were seeped in sadness. The portraits evoked life and joy.
The art styles shown are as varied as the subjects of the portraits. Thirty-four year old off-duty police officer, military veteran, husband, father, and author Charleston Hartfield is depicted in a soft impressionist style by Sweetman. Stephanie Brockway’s portrait of Christopher Hazencomb, a 44-year-old cashier at Walmart, is a sculpture of bold painted carved wood that showed him winning a sports event. His love of all sports was so great that his friends and family were asked to wear their favorite sports jerseys to his funeral.
The process of making the portraits was a challenging, creative and emotional journey for each artist. The artists had to bring to life the person who was no longer alive. The struggle was to make a portrait that speaks to the person’s life. Newspaper articles, Facebook, Go Fund Me sites and other webpages were the only resources. The artists dug and found details of their lives from which to craft moving portraits. Below are a few stories of how the artists grew their artworks.
When I was choosing a subject to portray I was moved by Erick Silva, a 21-year-old Hispanic security guard who was stationed at the stage. He removed barricades and led seven people to safety. In a time when Mexicans are maligned, my thought was that Erick Silva was a good American, a hero who deserved to be painted with our flag.
Alea Bone used unusual materials for symbolic purposes. She was first struck by the name Topaz, then references to Jennifer Topaz Irvine’s bubbly personality and interest in skydiving as a reason to incorporate topaz-colored sequins throughout the background. Recycled denim, the very fabric of country & western music, was used instead of canvas.
Hilarie Couture had a hard time starting, so instead of facing a blank white canvas she put an older, unfinished abstract painting on her easel. Then the portrait of Candice Bowers, a mother of three who loved horses, could emerge from the background.
U.S. Navy veteran Christopher Roybal, who was 29, said of his combat experience: “What’s it like to be shot at? It’s a nightmare no amount of drugs, no amount of therapy and no amount of drunk talks with your war veteran buddies will ever be able to escape.” Naomi Segal Dietz drew in charcoal and graphite two portraits of Christopher Roybal on the same page. Behind a recent portrayal was the ever-present soldier always hovering nearby. The irony of surviving combat and dying at a concert is overwhelming.
Hans-Dieter Honscheid’s watercolor painting of Carrie Barnette is full of hummingbirds, including a hummingbird necklace because Carrie had written on Facebook that whenever she saw a hummingbird, it reminded her of her father, who not too long before had passed away of Alzheimer’s disease. Now people will think of her when they see hummingbirds.
Finding the right photo in order to make the most expressive painting was often difficult for the artists. Jason Kapus searched until he found one that would do justice to Derrick Bo Taylor, a lieutenant and commander of a California agency responsible for one hundred inmates who fight forest fires. The classical acrylic and pencil on wood portrait is beautifully painted. The face is luminous and jumps off the wall to engage the viewer. It was a good choice for Kapus to find a snapshot with civilian clothes instead of the ubiquitous one of Taylor in his uniform with a formal stiff pose.
Beautiful Lives Lost is an important exhibition for the participating artists, the greater community, and the families. A visitor to the gallery, Josephine Bridges, noted, “This show is about people who care about strangers.” More than one participating artist mentioned that the artists focused on the person’s life rather than political statements. Their lives were prematurely cut short no matter what they thought. Naomi Segal Dietz noted the differences between her subject’s life and her own, but the overriding goal was to find the threads that connect us, to feel compassion for those unlike ourselves. The Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam, which means repair the shattering world, is appropriate here. ‘Beautiful Lives Lost’ attempts to heal the shattering world through art.
Beautiful Lives Lost Portrait Project
- Art Institute of Portland, Marcia Policar Gallery
- 1122 N.W. Davis St., Portland, OR 97209
- Through July 27: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays