LOUISA COUNTY, Va. (NEWSPLEX) — A local artist is one of dozens of artists across the country participating in a project to honor victims of the June shootings at the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando.
It’s called the 49 Portraits Project, and it was started by Georgia art professor Mia Merlin, who teaches at Armstrong State University in Savannah.
Merlin says she was inspired by a similar portrait project following the June 2015 shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
“I thought it was the perfect response,” said Merlin.
When she reached out to fellow artists with the idea for the project to honor the Pulse victims, the response was overwhelming.
“I could feel there was a need being met by the call for artists to do this,” she said. “That they were yearning to do something like this.”
Louisa County resident Sharon Shapiro was one of the artists who answered Merlin’s call. She says she wanted to do something to keep the victims’ memories alive.
“The shooting was in the news for about a week constantly, and then I felt like people kind of stopped talking about it,” she said. “I was glad that it was being brought back up and that we’re not going to forget. It’s activism through memory is how I see this project.”
Shapiro painted a watercolor portrait of Martin Benitez Torres, a 33-year-old student who lived in Puerto Rico and who was visiting family in Orlando when he was shot and killed.
She read online accounts and found a video he took of himself at a family member’s house just hours before he died. She says she was captivated by his smile, but painting a portrait of a young man whose life was cut short through violence was “emotionally difficult,” she said.
“It just made me so sad, but it also made me glad that I could do something, some small something to cherish the life of this person and to commemorate him,” she said.
All 49 portraits will be shown in Orlando in the spring, and then given to each victim’s family.
Merlin says those families are just now discovering the project through the Facebook page, and Shapiro hopes Martin Torres’ family will find comfort from her painting.
“I hope that it gives them the sense that there are good people out there and there are people who were touched by this outside their family and who are lifting them up in their thoughts and their feelings,” she said. “We never want this to happen again.”