Janine Lieberman of Roxborough doesn’t have to try hard to relate to victims of gun violence — because she’s one of them.
At 18 back in the ’60s, she was shot in an incident that left her friend dead. And to help herself and others heal, the artist signed up for the Souls Shot Portrait Project in Philadelphia.
Each year, a cohort of artists produce a series of portraits of gun violence victims for a year-long traveling exhibit. Several of these volunteers are members of the Jewish community, including Lieberman, whose father was Jewish. In the current exhibit, Lieberman used color pencils to create a portrait of a gun violence victim, a 20-year-old woman killed in her neighborhood.
“I saw it as an active way to help heal myself and to help draw closure. I don’t know that one ever draws closer to that kind of thing, but because I feel empathy with other people who’ve been through that, I felt I could help,” she said.
Souls Shot was started by artist Laura Madeleine of Wyndmoor. In 2017, her church, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, invited her to lead an art exhibition for a fundraiser for gun violence prevention. Madeleine teamed up with other local artists to create a series of 30 portraits.
What was at first planned to exhibit for a single month ended up traveling to more than 10 locations throughout the year, including the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Madeleine said the families of gun violence victims often get asked about the circumstances of the death and victim-blame. The project aims to confront that narrative.
“It’s just to spread awareness in a way that really isn’t out there. We find that people become numb to all the statistics and stories in the media, especially in Philadelphia, it’s just constant,” Madeleine said. “The exhibition, being invitational rather than confrontational, in that we focus on the loss and don’t focus on the details of the deaths … it really draws people and brings them to a place of empathy that really wouldn’t happen if it was just a room full of photographs or news stories.”
Elisa Abeloff of Narberth is one of the artists participating in the project’s third and current exhibition. She first heard of Souls Shot from a fellow member of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.
Abeloff was paired with the family of Alan Gray, who was killed during a confrontation in 2018 only a couple blocks away from his mother’s house. Abeloff was put in contact with Gray’s mother, Lisa Harmon, and the two arranged to meet.
Harmon later sent her photos of Gray, which Abeloff said made it hard to sleep that night. The weight of the photos of a lost soul bore down on her. But soon she got to work, completed the portrait and showed it to Harmon.
“I sent her an image of it on the phone and then I felt like I wanted to throw up because I was so nervous. And she said, ‘It’s beautiful,’” Abeloff recalled. “It was a difficult but really wonderful experience, and there’s the piece of feeling really good that I was able to use some skills I have, both in terms of inner personal and the art, to have a positive effect on someone’s life.”
In January, the exhibit came to Beth Am Israel, and the synagogue hosted a panel of mothers of sons murdered by gun violence who have participated in the project. Abeloff said the exhibit has been well-received.
Another artist who participated is Keisha Whatley of Mt. Airy. When not painting, she works part-time as a volunteer delivery coordinator with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Mitzvah Food Program.
She learned of the project from a postcard in an art supply store. She reached out and has participated in two of the three exhibits, with plans to do more.
Whatley encourages any artist who has the stomach for it to participate, adding that it’s a powerful experience that’s both challenging and rewarding. She said the hardest part is to create a portrait that conveys the person’s spirit and story which is a lost story, often of people who Whatley said society doesn’t value.
“We don’t think that the young boy who grew up in North Philly could have actually grown up to cure AIDS or cancer or come up with some amazing invention because those lives are seen as expendable,” Whatley said. “We’re left worse off by not valuing those lives and what they could actually contribute to society if they were valued.”
Madeleine said the program is expanding, starting a chapter in southern New Jersey and working to start another in Baltimore.
The exhibit is now traveling around to various schools, religious institutions and galleries, including The National Liberty Museum in May, the Logan Library in August and Mishkan Shalom synagogue, tentatively scheduled for November.