Baltimore artist Michael Kirby completes chalk art portraits of the five slain Capital Gazette staffers at the intersection of Fawn Street and South High Street in Little Italy. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)
The mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis deeply shook Michael Kirby, a Baltimore artist whose 11-year-old daughter is nurturing a dream of becoming a writer.
The attack, which killed five people on June 28, felt like a grievous assault on freedom of speech, he said.
Desperate to do something in the face of such horror, Kirby — a renowned chalk artist who lends his talents to the Madonnari Arts Festival each September — brought his chalk kits to South High Street in Little Italy, where he has created lifelike portraits of each of the victims over the past few days.
By Sunday, editor Rob Hiaasen, 59; writer Wendi Winters, 65; editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, 61; sportswriter John McNamara, 56; and sales assistant Rebecca Smith, 34, each smiled up from the pavement.
Jarrod W. Ramos, a 38-year-old Laurel man with a long-standing grudge against the paper, has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder in the attack.
“When you attack the press, you’re attacking everything that is great about our country,” Kirby said, standing by his nearly finished mural of Smith. “This is about creating something in the face of a horrible act. It’s about standing up for freedom of the press and free speech.”
Kirby said he had the idea for the portraits last week and called Cyd Wolf, the executive producer of the Madonnari Arts Festival and co-owner ofGermano’s Piattini, to ask whether it’d be feasible to do.
The festival, which lines the streets with intricate chalk drawings in the Italian tradition, isn’t until the first weekend of September. But getting permission for the Capital Gazette memorials didn’t take long.
“Within 60 minutes we were out here, drawing these portraits,” Kirby said.
Art and cultural events like the Madonnari Festival are designed to bring people together, Wolf said.
“I think when people are kept separate, that’s when all the hatred, the misunderstandings, evolve,” she said.
As Kirby completed the first few pieces, Wolf suggested coating them with hairspray, which doubles as a fixative that can preserve them for up to six weeks.
“He said, ‘No, no. It’s temporal, like life, and it’s intended to be here today and gone tomorrow,’ ” Wolf said. “But at least through art and our memories, we hope to keep the spirit of these people alive and the spirit of freedom.”
But street chalk is also among the most inviting forms of art, Wolf said, not least because it involves the artists sitting or kneeling in the street while they draw.
“You could sit around watching these artists create these works of art and not realize the time is going by,” she said. “It’s a miraculous experience to watch a masterpiece come to life before your eyes.”
Rachael Pacella, a reporter for The Capital who was hurt while trying to escape, felt a measure of calm as she sat and watched Kirby work Sunday morning.
Pacella stopped by to see the portraits with fellow Capital reporter Phil Davis on Saturday night, after a friend tipped her off about them. She returned the next morning to meet the artist responsible.
Kirby’s drawings made her late coworkers look “larger than life,” she said. “And they really were.”
“I liked that somebody else who wasn’t me, or wasn’t tied to this, was still thinking about my friends enough to bend down on their knees on the pavement and color in the lines on their wrinkles,” Pacella said.
Kirby said he urged Pacella to keep up the good fight. “Please,” he said, “don’t stop.”