Urban Martyrs

My project is a series of egg tempera portraits of murdered children of color painted in the Byzantine icon style. I have selected portrait subjects ranging from 14 year old Emmett Till, lynched in 1955, to 8 year old Tanaja Stokes, who was gunned down by another youth while jumping rope in front of her house in August 2010. I want to call attention to these tragic killings in a way that honors the humanity of the victims while encouraging the viewers to grieve and find solutions to urban violence.

The lives of ordinary people are often marred by violence and tragedy. Modern western art is reluctant to address the plague of crime that remains an inexorable component of life in the inner city. Although studies indicate crime rates have recently dropped in several major urban areas that does not ease the pain of the individual families that have buried their children.

Each of these unfinished lives is a significant symbol of the continued marginalization of the urban underclass in the US. When the news media does pay attention to these killings it does so with voyeuristic curiosity as if the dead children were merely fictional characters in an episode of a popular crime drama. Purely journalistic coverage of these deaths is too detached to fully acknowledge the humanity of the victims or the depth of their relatives’ grief.

My project will focus on these murders in a way that honors the personhood of the victims. I have chosen to paint icons in a painstaking technique practiced by the Orthodox Church to create timeless and spiritual images that invite contemplation. The paintings in this series would not be conventional orthodox icons because they will not depict church authorized models or have a liturgical function. However, they will portray the subjects with a dignity that is traditionally reserved for angels, saints, prophets and martyrs.

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