In one way, the front room of Kimberly Sheridan's Pigtown home is almost empty. There is a futon frame with no cushion and a dresser with an easel on it. Blankets hang from the ceiling to cover the door to another room and the staircase. But the walls are full of paintings that make the room feel crowded, over-occupied, even.
"We have everyone here, from a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher to a bus driver to a photographer to a city councilman to a felon to a young possible gang member to the minister and the Sunday school teacher to a budding chef, to an exchange student who went to Barcelona . . . To the tiniest of wee tiny tots," Sheridan says before pausing to sigh, almost overwhelmed.
All of these people share two things: They were killed by guns and Sheridan has painted portraits of them. Her head is full of the details of their lives.
"Tyreka Martin was not yet 21 years old in March of 2013, she and her friend Kishawana Pinder and a young man named Brian Powell," she says, pointing at one of the brightly colored paintings. "I don't know why they were all in that apartment or why they were all in the same apartment but two guys broke in and gunned them down, it was a triple murder that is still as far as I know unsolved to this day. It was near Mondawmin Mall. Her mother tells me that Tyreka did leave behind two little ones. They are motherless now. So did Brian. He has a fatherless child as far as I know."
She points at a young man with a camera. The figure, Alex Ulrich, with a beard and a tall forehead, stands out against a bright yellow background. He is smiling with one hand on a camera, the other giving a thumbs up. "He was a budding photographic artist, he was just getting his first show," Sheridan says. "He and Lawrence Peterson were shot from across the street. Shortly after Lawrence died a few weeks after that, they arrested a main suspect and now I understand why Alex is giving the thumbs up. There's a bizarre tinge to my life that has a slightly surreal aspect to it."
It is not a stretch to say that Sheridan, full of humor despite her grim occupation, is haunted by these faces, which she pulls from a Facebook page where people post photos of murdered loved ones. "It's easy to talk about this in the abstract—about why we need basic gun safety like we do for every other object we own, but it's different if you can bring out each and every single individual," she says. "And not just bring out a face and a name but I wanted to paint what their hopes and dreams were, what would they be doing if they weren't shot. I want to bring each individual face out and bringing them all together. If an artist can do that, the impact might ram through all the denial and the attempts to pretend it's not a problem."
The wall of paintings does have an impact. All of them have a certain outsider quality, but also display an almost iconic power as the thick impasto of the paint seems to capture personality and set it off against bright, often monochromatic backgrounds. Each one notes the name of the person and the dates of birth and death, as if on a placard or a badge.
She calls her project, an attempt to paint as many victims of gun violence as possible, "The Million Gun Victims March," though there is no real marching involved. It officially began after the Sandy Hook shootings in 2013. "I got furious at Congress. Beyond furious at Congress. I got volcanic, raving furious at Congress. After the Sandy Hook shooting, Yoko Ono put an editorial in the New York Times, saying that since her husband was shot, John Lennon, in 1980, over a million Americans have died by guns. So my mind started casting: Who are the million Americans?"
But in another sense, the project began long before that when she lost her best friend Ron, a lover of Mozart, who was shot in the head four times while walking in the neighborhood.
"I should have done this when Ron died in 2004," she says pointing at her T-shirt, emblazoned with her portrait of her slain friend depicted with a black shirt with a high white collar and glowing yellow glasses, his hands on a bust of Mozart. "I think I was going through a subliminal grieving—I don't know why I didn't do this till now." She adds this last bit almost angrily, as if kicking herself.
She calls her subjects "volunteers," though she is highly aware of the irony that none volunteered to be shot. "The idea comes in an instant, but it might take me a week to paint that instant. If someone is a young parent, for instance, I tried to do something to indicate that," she says looking up at another painting on the wall of Cafe Jovial down the road from her house on Washington Boulevard, where some of her work is displayed. "This young couple was gunned down by a neighbor who broke into their house apparently in some argument about whether they owed him $10. Two other people were wounded in there. I can't believe their baby wasn't hit. But unless things change we're going to have a little girl grow up thinking that her parents lives were worth less than $5 apiece."
She reels off dozens more names and stories. Most of her subjects are Baltimoreans, but a few are a bit further afield. Sheridan says the furthest from the city is Aaliyah Boyer and she is almost entranced as she tells the young girl's story. "Ten years and maybe the first time she got to stay up till midnight on New Years at granny and grandpa's in Cecil County, but for a 10-year-old midnight does seem like an awful long time to wait, and she might have dozed off and when she woke up thought 'I missed it' and when she ran outside to ask, a bullet hit her in the head."
Sheridan says she had a lot of "volunteers" waiting, but when she saw the three-year-old McKenzie Elliott, who was shot while playing on her porch in Waverly in August, "It was as if all the other ones in the back of my mind just looked at her and stepped back and let the little lady step to the front."
Though she is acutely aware that her work will never bring back the dead, she doesn't know how else to respond to what she sees as an overwhelming problem. "I know people will think I'm being rude just doing portraits willy-nilly, but I hope when the mission comes out they will understand that I've got to do this because I don't know what else I can do," she says. "I don't do anything else. This is what I want to contribute to the discussion."
There are 30 of these portraits in her house and over a dozen more at Cafe Jovial. As an artist, she is both entirely dedicated and entirely self-taught. "I've never been to art school, I don't live in the arts district," she says. "I wonder why does the city want to separate the artists from everybody else. I'd never heard about art or painters in my entire schooling anywhere. I'm my own teacher and the artists who influenced me—Goya is a favorite and Frida Kahlo, she's the most obvious one, but there's a touch of Hogarth in it and a touch of Alice Neel in it, there might even be a touch of Lewis Hine, who took photographs of child laborers and brought them out in 1912. And it was so new then. Now there are so many photographs, we don't even see them. It's reverse. Painting a class-act portrait to the best of my ability, it might become new again."
The paintings are not for sale, but she has made a series of T-shirts, which she hopes to sell in order to share money with the families of the victims, whom she tries to contact when possible, keeping only a couple of dollars to cover her cost. "I don't need much," she says, describing how she spends most of her time painting. And though she is a practicing Buddhist, she says there is nothing religious about the paintings. "I don't want to imagine them in an afterlife, but what they would be doing in this life," she says.
She has learned some lessons. "First, what we don't know is killing us," she says. "And second, we are racist. Look at these faces." Most of them are brown-skinned.
Occasionally, she wonders about what this mission says about her own state of mind.
"I do wonder if I am going to come across a subject that gives me a nervous breakdown," she says. "It's like I'm trying to take on this personally, because I can't stand to see if stay invisible. These victims have to come out. Anyone could have thought it up, but I seem to be the only one willing to put what's left of my sanity on the line to bring the victims to the light so I can share that with other people." She pauses and takes a sip of coffee and looks up at the wall. "If other artists would like to join me on this emotional roller coaster ride, I wouldn't mind. I need help for the other 999,953."