(September 8, 2016) – After the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando that left 49 dead in June, Mia Merlin, a full-time lecturer of Art Appreciation and Foundations, felt helpless in the face of yet another national tragedy.
“It was so horrifying, so traumatic, that I was trying to figure out as an individual and as an artist, what I have to contribute to help in some way,” says Merlin, who holds a M.F.A. in Painting and Drawing from Georgia State University. “I wanted to do something.”
Merlin was aware of a recent project at a Charleston, S.C., gallery, in which portraits of the victims of the 2015 Emanuel AME church shooting were rendered by nine artists who donated their time and talent. The pieces were presented to the victims’ families after an emotional unveiling and month-long exhibit. Unable to participate in that project, she wondered if she might be able to coordinate a similar memorial for the families of the Orlando victims.
“My personal passion and vision is about art becoming more of a part of people’s lives,” she says. “I teach in my classes that one of the functions of art is to help people feel their feelings. It helps people grieve, it helps people come together.”
Merlin shared her impassioned vision for the “49 Portraits Project” in a Facebook prompt. The call was open to artistic styles and interpretations; her only request was that there would be an image likeness to the fallen individuals. Merlin asked her friends, family and colleagues, largely based in her hometown of Atlanta, to share the post widely.
The response was overwhelming. From notable master pastelists to tattooists from across the country, celebrated artists responded in droves, all but begging to be a part of the project. Currently, there is a waiting list.
“The caliber of the work is so high,” notes Merlin. “The portraits are stunning. There is a lot of time, heart and skill put into them.”
Nearly all of the portraits are completed with the remaining few to come soon. Merlin herself contributed a canvas of 30-year-old U.S. Army Capt. Antonio Devan Brown, “a gentle soul,” depicted in soft oil brush strokes. The portrait hangs in Armstrong’s Fine Art Gallery through mid-September, and she hopes it will soon relocate to Orlando.
Merlin is in talks with Orlando’s mayor to organize an exhibit in City Hall, followed by a gifting ceremony for the victims’ families.
“This has created an experience so heartening,” notes Merlin. “I like that art can transcend the politicization of tragedy and loss.”