Baltimore artist Kimberly Sheridan paints portraits of gun victims

The Baltimore Sun
Self-taught artist Kimberly Sheridan is on a mission to paint 1 million portraits of gun victims.

Kimberly Sheridan's 63 paintings line the west wall of Liam Flynn's Ale House in Baltimore's Station North. Their blazing colors form portraits of people in the prime of life: strolling the seashore, playing pickup hoops, attending to a child. Each canvas features the name of the subject, the year of birth and the year of death.

Most were residents of Baltimore. All were killed by guns.

The self-taught artist and Pigtown resident is on a mission to paint 1 million of these portraits, calling her display of shattered dreams and lives lost the "Million Gun Victims March." Her works hang at Liam Flynn's as the city is reeling from a year in which 344 people were killed — the highest number since1993.

Sheridan has been painting since the early 1990s. The initial impetus to depict gun victims came in April 2013, when the U.S. Senate failed to expand gun background checks after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The decision to portray 1 million victims was prompted by a tweet from artist Yoko Ono stating that more than a million Americans had been killed since her husband, former Beatle John Lennon, was fatally shot in December 1980. (Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention back up that number.)

"A volcanic rage blew up inside of me," Sheridan said. "I asked myself, 'Who are the million? What can I do?'"

Sheridan channeled her anger into a 20-hour flurry of work using her weapons of choice — brushes and oil paint. The result was a portrait of James Smith III, she said. Three-year-old James was shot in the head while getting his first haircut at a barbershop in Baltimore in 1997.

Her second portrait was of her older brother, Ron Waggener, who was shot in the head in 2004 as he was getting out of his car, just around the corner from Sheridan's home.

Both homicides remain unsolved, but Sheridan's portraits don't depict the tragedies. Instead, her brother is shown, dressed in deep blue, next to a sculpture of Mozart, one of his favorite composers.

"I paint dreams," she said. "It's my way of serving."

Since 2013, Sheridan has painted 76 victims on 63 canvases. In 2015, she managed to paint 11 portraits of Baltimore victims — a fraction of the number of people gunned down last year.

There's a pattern in the portraits. Most of her subjects are black men.

"There is a slow genocide of black males occurring," said Sheridan, who is white. She noted that many of the victims she has painted were young fathers or older brothers. "I am so appalled to actually see it, but now that I have seen it, there's no going back."

Sheridan, 55, finished her latest portrait Tuesday. Tyrik Adams, 17, Marquis Caldwell, 19, and Franklin Morris III, 17, were fatally shot Aug. 13 in North Baltimore. Theirs will be the only portrait featuring three people in her show. Adams holds a bag of Skittles while Marquis holds a bottle of iced tea. Caldwell, once a competitive club dancer, stands in the middle extending his hand to the viewer.

With these paintings, gun violence in Baltimore and across the country is no longer abstract, Sheridan said.

"It brings the faces and names and dreams behind the statistics forward," Sheridan said.

Sheridan moved to Baltimore from upstate New York with her then-fiance in 1984. She first picked up a brush while the two were in England during their honeymoon in 1990. When her husband died in 2002 of heart disease, Sheridan began to dedicate herself to art full time. Now she is dedicated to gun victims, as well.

Sheridan walks through the exhibit, pointing to the portraits, rattling off details about her subjects — what they liked to do, where they were from — with great enthusiasm, as if she knew them. Some she does know, in a way.

The artist has found most of her subjects through news reports and through Facebook — particularly the group "Hood to Hood Memorial Page," where she has connected with family members and friends of gun victims.

Created by Princess Williams of East Baltimore, the invitation-only group welcomes members to connect with others and pay homage to loved ones who were victims of gun violence.

Williams, 30, started the memorial page about three years ago. Her first post was a picture of her brother, Dominic Nathanael King, who was shot and killed in Baltimore in 2005. She welcomed others from Baltimore and elsewhere in the country to share their memories, keeping the page private out of respect for those who are grieving.

"Sometimes people are judged. You don't get to hear about the good things that they've done or how they made their mother smile or the way they loved their children. You only get to hear the bad things," said Williams. "I wanted this page to be a place where you can only hear the good things. And I wanted an in-your-face group to show that [gun violence] is a problem."

The Facebook group now has close to 8,000 members and a strong supporter in Sheridan. She shares her paintings and offers to paint portraits using the pictures and information other members post. One of the first images she painted from the group was of Williams' brother.

"My reaction was 'Wow' once I talked to her," Williams said. "She's such a sweet lady, especially knowing that she's been through what I've been through. We had so much in common."

Overall, response has been positive, Sheridan says. When relatives and friends people have qualms about her intentions or fear that their loved ones could be exploited, Sheridan said she does her best to explain.

Patrons of Liam Flynn's have also been intrigued by Sheridan's work, some comparing it to that of artist Alice Neel, one of her inspirations. Owner Liam Flynn said some customers have gotten reacquainted with old friends through Sheridan's work.

"People have been coming in [who] have been saying, 'I know this person,'" Flynn said. "Whether it's municipal workers or people that live in Loch Raven, Dundalk or Sandtown and Falstaff, everywhere in between, any customers who come in, it seems like more and more are going to have a chance of knowing someone up there, given the gun deaths in the city."

Customers have also approached Sheridan, offering their help in getting the works displayed in places like City Hall, Flynn said.

"We're in the arts district and we see a lot. We see classically trained artists come in, but rarely do they have the impact of this and the connection with the community," said Flynn, who has been hanging artwork at the bar since its opening in 2011. "It's something I hope we have more of."

The artwork will be up through the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and then will be in search of a new home, but the paintings are not for sale — not until the project is complete and Congress hears her message, Sheridan said.

Instead, the artist has two editions of adult T-shirts and five editions of postcards featuring her portraits for purchase in order to raise money to make art for the next family.

"My regret is not being a better artist. None look as good as they do in my head. None of them, but I seem to be the only one available to do it," Sheridan said.

With 999,924 victims left to paint, Sheridan knows that a big task lies ahead of her, and she said she's open to other artists' help.

"I may not paint a million. I will paint as many as I can," Sheridan said. "But it might be what it takes to reveal the truth."

bbritto@baltsun.com

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If you go

Kimberly Sheridan's portraits will be on display at Liam Flynn's Ale House, 22 W. North Ave., through Jan. 18

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