Portraits with a Purpose: Faces Not Forgotten Honors Children Lost to Gun Violence
The portraits in a Faces Not Forgotten quilt exhibit share a commonality: These beautiful children, with their bright eyes and big smiles, should star in endless prom pictures and graduation photos, and, in time, perhaps wedding albums or the business sections of local newspapers.
But there are no next chapters in their lives, no college classes and careers to plan for, no more big milestones to capture with a camera. Because someone fired a gun in their direction, these young lives ended before they really had the chance to live them.
To honor their memories, comfort their families and put a face to the gun violence epidemic in America, more than 200 artists around the country have volunteered to pick up a paintbrush and tell these children’s stories through oils and acrylics—stories that are then woven together into eight-panel quilts, representing the eight children killed by guns each day.
“I want people to look into the eyes of these children and recognize that each child is a whole life lost,” says Christine Ilewski, founder and executive director of Faces Not Forgotten. “All the potential they had, what they might have done, who they would grow up to become—that’s all gone. As a society, we can’t keep letting this go on.”
A heartfelt mission, a national movement
Ilewski painted her first Faces Not Forgotten portrait more than 10 years ago. Grieving after the murder of her close friend, Fr. Lorenzo Rosebaugh, an Oblate priest and social activist who fought on behalf of the victims of gun violence, Ilewski began researching the epidemic’s effect on children. That’s when she came across the story of 16-year-old William Jenkins, a Chicago teen who was shot on the second day of his first job at a fast-food restaurant.
Touched by Jenkins’s story, she reached out to his father, asking if she could paint William’s portrait for the family. The grateful response she received and the friendship that grew between the two led the artist—who’s based in Alton, Illinois—to offer her talents free of charge to other families who had lost a child under age 20 to gun violence.
But Ilewski quickly realized the tragedy’s toll made continuing her passion project alone impossible. “The sad truth is, these numbers are not slowing down,” she says. “We took a step off the ledge, and I knew we needed other St. Louis-area artists to help us tell these children’s stories.”
Today, Faces Not Forgotten connects artists—including professionals, college students and even high school students from St. Louis’ Central Visual and Performing Arts High School—to families across the country who provide their child’s photo and story to the nonprofit.
Once a portrait is painted and before it’s donated to the family, a digital copy is superimposed over an image of a vintage handkerchief and surrounded by a wreath of flowers—both symbols of mourning. The image is then printed onto a black canvas panel which is eventually tied together with eight other panels, including one with the Faces Not Forgotten logo, to make up a quilt. Throughout the year, these quilts are displayed at cultural centers, art museums and events across the country.
According to Ilewski, what makes Faces Not Forgotten unique from other projects is that everything is done with the family’s permission. In order to respect a family’s grieving process, artists never reach out to parents. Instead, families contact Faces through the connections it has built through partners such as the St. Louis’ Crime Victim Advocacy Center, Moms Demand Action and the Brady Campaign.
“Our families have become heavily involved through our Facebook page and regularly attend the exhibits. I hear from a lot of families who say they can’t believe a total stranger would take the time to do this portrait for them—that someone outside of their family cared about them and their story. On the other side, the artists feel it’s such a small thing in the sight of losing a child, but this is one thing we can do for them to provide comfort.”
Faces Not Forgotten’s goal is to reach families in all 50 states. They currently exhibit eight quilts in the St. Louis area and have collections in states ranging from New York to Tennessee to California.
What makes the movement so devastating to Ilewski, who lost her own father to suicide by gun, is that there’s a need for Faces Not Forgotten at all.
“We have a crisis that we don’t recognize. These kids aren’t numbers, and they aren’t statistics—they’re real, live people who are gone. We’re losing so many children, especially in St. Louis, that we can’t even remember all of their names. I used to be able to connect a name to every face in our quilts, but our project has gotten so big, it’s become impossible. It’s heartbreaking, but we’re doing everything we can to give respect and dignity to these children and their lives.”
Images courtesy of Faces Not Forgotten.