For the past 13 years, Towson-based artist Will Brown has sought to memorialize victims of gun violence with portraits for the loved ones they leave behind.
Brown has painted about 600 acrylic portraits, he says, and has hand-delivered many of them — some are vibrant depictions of the deceased as their favorite superhero or pop culture icon or video game character. Others are realistic, like the one he’s working on now, a likeness of a boy posing with his high school prom date. He was shot and killed outside a gas station, Brown recalled.
“I felt like if I can paint them a portrait, that could somewhat fill that void. And they won’t feel as empty,” he said.
“They lose someone and they don’t get to see them anymore — a picture can do so much” even through grief, he said.
The Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts alum said he pours himself into every piece, and each one feels personal. But the work that has affected him most are his portraits of those who have battled cancer, like his grandparents, who died from bladder cancer and bone cancer.
In a new partnership with the American Cancer Society, Brown is selling paintings of cancer survivors and victims, donating 10% of profits earned from each painting and print he sells to the organization, whose mission is to root out cancer by raising billions for cancer research over the last 75 years, and serve patients with resources like free lodging and rides to treatment.
The partnership came about after Chrissy Schifkovitz, a Baltimore resident and senior community development manager at the American Cancer Society, came across Brown’s work on social media. Brown agreed to give an original painting to the cancer society’s virtual Taste of Life auction — a portrait of Chadwick Boseman, the Black Panther star who died in August after privately battling colon cancer for years.
After U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died of pancreatic cancer a month later, Brown proffered an original painting of her for the society’s auction, too, raising $2,700 from both sales, Schifkovitz said.
This year amid the pandemic, Schifkovitz said the American Cancer Society was down $200 million from what it expected to receive this year due to canceling fundraisers. Brown’s artwork in the Taste of Life auction was a large draw for donors, she said.
Through the partnership, the American Cancer Society will connect Brown with patients and their loved ones and those who have lost family due to cancer through Portrait of Life, which Brown launched in partnership with the organization.
Schifkovitz said she came across Brown’s painting of Boseman as the Black Panther before he died weeks later, and thought it would make a “really, really great addition” to the silent auction, which featured mostly wine, jewelry and travel packages and raised about $11,000 total.
“Will is an extremely positive person,” Schifkovitz said. “It’s really nice to see some positivity shining through right now.”
Brown, who moved to Towson this year after living in Baltimore City, was an artist from an early age; he began painting at 3 years old.
He grew up in Dundalk watching his father paint with acrylics and watercolors and listening to his mother, Millie Brown, a Johns Hopkins Medicine operating room technician, recount the young people she’d seen come in on stretchers, suffering from gunshot wounds from which they often never healed.
“I’d always see kids come in shot and stabbed and lose their lives,” Millie Brown said.
“It has been a really heavy burden on her heart,” her son said.
Across the state, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in its Vital Statistics Annual Report 2018, the latest data available, showed that the rate of killings among kids younger than 18 was 9.3 per 100,000 Marylanders.
That death rate since 2009 has been consistently higher than the juvenile death rate in the U.S. — in 2017, the latest national data available from the state health department, the death rate among children was 10.2 in Maryland compared to 6.2 deaths per 100,000 people nationwide.
That rate spiked between 2014 and 2015 — from 6.6 to 10.2 children killed by violence.
Millie Brown started Tears of a Mother’s Cry in 2007 as a way to comfort grieving parents whose children had been lost to gun violence. As part of that goal, she and Will, in normal times, would take mothers whose children have died out to dinner or the movies and raise money for funeral expenses.
“I somewhat feel like a son to them, because I — I just wanna love them,” Will Brown said, his voice catching with emotion.
It was through that effort that his mother connected Will with parents who shared with him stories and photos of their children, which he uses to re-create timeless images of them that seek to capture not only their likeness, but who they were.
Now, Millie and her son are hoping to establish a nonprofit, called Little Hearts United, to reach children from 7 to 16 who have lost loved ones to gun violence. The plan is to connect them with mentors and mental health resources, Millie said.
Will would teach art classes as a therapeutic exercise, he said.
“Most of these children, they don’t have that experience,” he added. “All they know is trauma.”
Those who wish to commission a painting may reach Brown directly by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.