Artists bring comfort to families and put real faces on tragedy of guns killing children
Kendric Henderson was lying on the bed with her daughter Jamyla Bolden, doing homework, when bullets burst through the window of their Ferguson home. The gunshots killed the 9-year-old and wounded her mother.
Nearly a year later, the pain is still agonizing. But local artists are trying to help keep the good memories alive for Jamyla’s loved ones. They're also helping dozens of other families around the country.
Artists who work with St. Louis’ Faces Not Forgotten organization create professional portraits of children killed by guns. Jane Martin, one of the artists, painted Jamyla from a photograph seven months after she was killed. As Martin worked, a news update caught her attention.
“I said, ‘Oh, Jamyla, look, you’re on television.’ And then I thought, ‘I’m talking to a painting; I’m talking to a photograph?’” Martin recalled. “But you do feel their presence. You do.”
On Monday, Martin met the mother of the girl with whom she built a bond by bringing her child to life on canvas. Still, as she stood at the door with her husband Ivan, Martin felt uneasy.
“You don’t what to expect or how you’re going to be received,” Martin said.
A stolen future
Henderson answered the door with a friendly hello. Ivan Martin asked Henderson how she was doing as Jane Martin unwrapped the portrait. Henderson’s response melted Martin's apprehension.
“It’s really nice — so pretty. Thank you so much,” Henderson said.
With words of gratitude, not grief, Henderson guided her visitors into the dining-room. Its wall speaks volumes about the family's loss, with pictures of Jamyla, a plaster impression of her small hand and a collage featuring a school assignment about herself that Jaymyla finished one week before she died.
“It says ‘My favorite color is pink.’ Her favorite meal was chicken, macaroni and cheese,” Henderson said.
Henderson uses both past and present tenses when she talks about her daughter. But one tense she’ll never be able to use again, is future.
“To have that taken away has been the hardest thing,” Henderson said. “I’ll never get a chance to see her graduate from high school. I’ll never have a chance to help her get ready for prom … the things that a normal parent gets to do.”
The shooter wounded Henderson in the legs but spared her now-11-year-old son, Kyndal, who was on the bed that evening with his mother and sister. She sometimes beats herself up, wondering “What if?”
“I’m constantly replaying that night in my head, like is there anything we could have done differently? Maybe if we had went to my cousin’s house earlier in the day?” Henderson said.
After tragedy, Hope
Many questions may never be answered, like why did a 21-year-man arrested for the killing allegedly shoot into her home that night? Authorities arrested De'Eris Brown nine days after Jamyla died and charged him with second-degree murder. He remains in the St. Louis County Jail, awaiting a trial date.
Knowing he’s behind bars helps Henderson feel safe. It also helps to know that people like Jane and Ivan Martin are thinking about her and her family.
“I think that’s the biggest thing because you always think that nobody cares that this happened or anything like this, so I think it’s great that you guys do this,” Henderson said.
Henderson said she’s doing as well as can be expected. She’s moved out of the house where Jamyla died, into a home in Overland. She and her son attend group counseling, and have met other people who've lost children and siblings to violence. With the anniversary of her daughter’s death coming up in a few weeks, Henderson has taken the whole week off. But she has no definite plans.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel,” Henderson said.
Jamyla’s parents separated before she died. Faces Not Forgotten also gave a portrait of Jamyla to her father, James Bolden. He has eight other children, including a daughter born just a few weeks after Jamyla's death. Her name is Hope.
Hope reminds him a lot of Jamyla, something he can see in Jamyla’s painting.
“Besides having a look-alike baby sister that I can look at, I also have this portrait I can look at every day,” Bolden said.
‘A bigger picture’
Christine Ilewski founded Faces Not Forgotten as a shoestring project. Its work is made possible by artists and framers who donate their time and talent. The organization also brings parents together at its exhibitions and provides banners with pictures of children for anti-gun-violence marches.
Ilewski hasn’t lost a child to gun violence. But she understands the pain of losing a loved one. Three decades ago, her father committed suicide with a gun. More recently, a treasured friend was shot and killed. Six years ago, Ilewski was touched by the story of an Illinois teenager, killed in a robbery attempt at the fast-food restaurant where he worked. She painted his portrait and gave it the family. She soon had requests for 10 more.
“Suddenly, I realized that there was going to be no end to this,” Ilewski said.
Ilewski recruited other artists, then came up with the idea to display quilts of portraits printed on handkerchiefs to increase awareness of children killed by guns. She knows her work takes only a tiny stab at a huge systemic problem.
“There’s a bigger picture here of guns on the streets,” Ilewski said. “And there’s a bigger picture here of poverty and situations that force people to live ... in a place that might be dangerous for their children.”
Another St. Louis artist, William Burton, Jr. also understands the big picture. Burton, who has painted several portraits for Faces Not Forgotten, said the pictures may bring comfort to families but that’s only a start.
“I don’t know if just painting portraits will be enough to get people aware,” Burton said. “There has to be legislation put into place. There has to be education. But a lot of people with the power to do something are so disconnected from these low-income communities where these things are going on.”
A local Faces Not Forgotten quilt is on display through tomorrow at the Jacoby Arts Center in Alton. The next exhibition will open Sept. 17 in connection with Union Avenue Opera at Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 N. Union Blvd. The quilts have also been exhibited in Washington, D.C. and Chicago.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL