Opening Words from Sun. November 4 by Jane Schaefer: “Faces Not Forgotten”

The art exhibit now hanging in our galleries features portraits of young, happy faces captured on large, canvas quilts. Their striking eyes are what stand out. The portraits are even more powerful when you learn that all of these happy children died as the result of gun violence. There are eight portraits per quilt, representing the number of children who die of gun violence every day in America.

Christine Ilewski, an artist based in Alton, Ill., has dedicated her life to painting portraits of these children. Her project, “Faces Not Forgotten,” will be on display here for the next six weeks.

The not-for-profit organization “Faces Not Forgotten” has grown exponentially since Ilewski began painting the portraits nine years ago. In 2009, her friend, the Rev. Lorenzo Rosebaugh, was gunned down during a mission in Guatemala. It was not the first time Ilewski lost a loved one to gun violence — her father passed away 30 years earlier.

As Ilewski grieved, she turned to her art. She painted a portrait to celebrate Rosebaugh’s life but found herself drawn to the stories of young victims of gun violence — “I imagined the loss to the parents would be unbearable,” she says.

Then Ilewski began contacting families who lost children younger than 20 years old to gun violence, offering to paint a portrait of the child for free. In the first two years of the project, she completed more than 30 portraits, their features detailed in wildly colorful acrylic, and soft watercolors.

In the beginning, Ilewski painted all the portraits herself. “But I got overwhelmed — I even thought about stopping,” she recalls. “A friend stepped in and said, ‘You need help.’” So Ilewski got to work recruiting artists from across the country with the same request: to donate portraits to families of young gun violence victims. Now, “Faces Not Forgotten” has created more than 150 portraits of children from 12 states.

Each portrait takes weeks, sometimes months to complete. The originals are sent to the families, while a digital copy is superimposed onto a vintage handkerchief and printed onto the canvas. Ilewski uses the handkerchiefs — a myriad of bright, floral patterns from a vintage collection she owns — to represent grief. The flowers that surround each child’s head are meant to mimic the circular floral arrangements common to funerals.

The process of creating the portraits is an emotional experience for the artist and for the victim’s family. The main goal of “Faces Not Forgotten” is to provide comfort to victims’ families. They will not paint a portrait without the family’s permission, and if the family is unhappy with the results, the portrait is redone.

The portraits in our exhibit are of children from St Louis, Chicago, Texas, …

Following Platform today, we will have a reception in our Foyer. We hope you can join us. Families of the children portrayed in the quilts have been invited to be with us. Kate Lovelady and Christine Ilewski will speak about this project and you can meet some of the families of the children.

Faces Not Forgotten is a not-for-profit organization. If you would like to make a donation to support their work, you can make a donation at their website or contact me for information.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.