Every year Dr. Marietta Dantonio-Madsen, Cheyney University’s Professor of Art and Chairperson of the Department of Humanities, leads an annual healing arts project to give students an opportunity to experience new perspectives on societal issues by expressing their creativity. This year, Dr. Madsen and 32 students took the difficult, impactful journey to tell the stories of gun violence victims through their family members portraying the lives lost through art.
On May 8, 2023, a 21-foot banner was unveiled at Marcus Foster Auditorium presenting the 44 painted canvasses that memorialized victims of gun violence. The exhibit is entitled, “Healing Arts Anti-Gun Violence: The Power of Love.” Students, faculty, alumni, media, and the families of the victims joined at an opening reception that featured live music by the Pan-African All Stars African Drumming group.
Dr. Madsen opened the event with remarks, and other speakers included President Aaron A. Walton, Zarinah Lomax of Apologues, several student artists, and several mothers of the victims, who shared their personal stories. Every family received their own print of canvas created in memory of their loved one.
Dr. Madsen partnered with Apologues, a nonprofit that focuses on assisting individuals to heal, empower, and advocate against violence, to help guide the project and connect students with victims’ families. The students, many who were non-art majors, shared individual experiences with someone who was killed by gun violence.
“This project was an incredibly emotional and spiritual journey that centered around loss, trauma and healing,” said Dr. Madsen. “Our students forged life-long relationships with the families, which was an unexpected result.”
The course began in September 2022, when the parents of the victims came to Cheyney to meet with the students to learn about their children and how their devastating loss impacted them. The students gave the parents a survey and used the answers to spark ideas and themes for the paintings. Additionally, students could not pass the course unless they issued their own statement on how expressing a loss from violence impacted them and how they now look at life.
Jamilah Phillips, a senior who participated in the in the project, said the words of Maya Angelou were an inspiration throughout the project, “As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else.”
“This quote stuck with me throughout my entire project,” said Phillips. “My experience with the Anti-Gun Violence Project was life changing. I’m truly blessed to have been able to experience this new platform and I hope we have more projects in collaboration to come.”
The class collaborated on what medium to use to express the families’ stories and decided on using a heart as the shape on fabric canvas. They all drew hearts on canvas to tell each victim’s story. There were many discussions on violence in the world.
“Students agreed that violence doesn’t discriminate,” said Dr. Madsen. “If there isn’t love within communities and society, people can resort to violence.”
The discussions helped the class determine what background would work best for the paintings. They all believed violence doesn’t discriminate, so they chose to use all shades of human skin for the backgrounds of the paintings. Dr. Madsen had to teach students how to create their skin color shade which created a whole new level of design.
Each parent wrote a message to their slain children and these statements are displayed on every canvas panel and on the back of the prints the parents received. Students added symbols and imagery somewhere in their painting to embody the victims. The project grew to include paintings that addressed the issue of gun-violence and how it impacts communities. Dr. Madsen enlisted the help of faculty and alumni to help the students finish the paintings.
“Despite loss and pain, these families persevere and despite how they see it that is the true definition of strength and a survivor which is shown intertwined through each piece of this art,” said Zarinah Lomax, executive director, Apologues.
The individual stories of victims and artwork can be viewed here.