Tuesday, July 5, 2016

49 Portraits, One Night.

Once a month I host an event called Orlando Drink and Draw. After the tragic event at Pulse, I decided to ask artists to come together to produce 49 portraits in one night. I was running late and managed to leave the list of victim's names back in my studio. When I got to the Falcon Bar (819 E Washington St, Orlando, FL), Melissa Marie quickly helped me set up a method of assigning names to artists so we could get to work. A chalk board was used to write the artist's name and then the name of the person they were to draw. Everyone had cell phones, so they did a search on Google Images to find the needed photo reference. 

After all the artists were assigned, I was assigned, Cory James Connell age 21. I knew nothing about Cory, but he was an athletic looking young man with a warm smile. His T-shirt said, "Built Not Born." As I was starting to add color washes, a man stood behind me and said, "That's Cory. My daughter knew him in high school." He was a graduate of Edgewater High School and was studying at Valencia College while working at the Publix in College Park. Cory hoped to be a firefighter some day.
At the funeral, Orange County Fire Rescue firefighter/paramedic Lori Clay told the crowd that Cory  was a regular at the firehouse and was interested in pursuing a firefighting career when he left college, even after he was warned that the profession wasn't the most lucrative. Cory told her, "I don't care about money," Clay told the gathering. "'I want to do it because I want to save lives. I want to help people.'" Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs made a proclamation during the service that officially made him a firefighter. After friends and family carried the casket carrying Connell out, three fire engines followed a procession of more than 20 cars. When that was all clear, nine motorcycles pursued the caravan as they transported Connell to the cemetery.

According to the man standing behind me, Cory Connell went to Pulse that evening to dance with his girlfriend Paula Andrea Blanco.  When the gunman went inside he fired off several rounds one of which struck Paula in the forearm area. Her teammate managed to grab her arm to apply pressure and pull her down to safety. They patiently and quietly waited to get out to safety. Little did they know that Paula was not the only member of the group injured. Paula's boyfriend Cory Connell was also gravely wounded. With the help of her teammate Paula got up and ran outside holding her wrist where she was met by an officer and the teammate who was outside trying to get to the other members of the Anarchy group. Her forearm bone was shattered. From that moment onward I felt sorrow and intense gratitude for all the artists who had gathered to do these 49 portraits. I experienced heart break and joy all at once. The bar as full of love and hope as we all rushed to complete the work at hand. These faces all had stories and since Orlando is a small town, those stories were close at hand. 

Javier Jorge-Reyes, age 40, was a salesman at Gucci which arranged for the body to be transported and for the family to go back to Puerto Rico. Jorge-Reyes had a flair about him and went by the name Harvey George Kings on Facebook. It's an English translation of his Spanish name. Friends knew him as "Javi" and on Facebook recalled his smile, sass and energy.

 Juan Carlos Nives Rodriguez, age 27, started working at McDonald's at the age of 15 to help support his family. He was recently made a manager at a check cashing store. He purchased his first home this spring so that his mother could live there too. A friend called him a big teddy bear who was most happy when everyone depended on him. His funeral was in his hometown of Caguas, Puerto Rico, June 20, 2016.

The last portrait I did was of Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velasquez, age 50. He was the oldest of the
victims. As I did the sketch, I could not shake the idea that he looks just like me. Fearing it was turning into a self portrait, I turned the sketch multiple times to try and view the features more abstractly. Franky worked at Forever 21 as a visual merchandiser, a crucial role for a retail store. He joked that he was older than the store's demographic. In his younger days In his younger days, he traveled the world as a professional Jibaro folk dancer. Velazquez lived in Orlando at the time of his death. But his original home was in Puerto Rico, more specifically San Juan. A native Puerto Rican, according to his Facebook he attended Josefina Barcelo High School in Guaynabo. From there he returned to San Juan for university, attending the Inter American University of Puerto Rico, at the Metro Campus.

As the evening wore on the his of names grew smaller and the art began to pile up on several tables inside the Falcon Bar. Melissa who we handling the artist assignments signaled that we were getting close and she gave me an air high five. Much of the magic that evening came from walking around and seeing the wide variety of artist styles. The evening gave me faith that art do have the power to bring people together and to heal. Orlando is a vibrant city with so much talent and this collaboration among 18 of Orlando's best artists.

Contributors included:
Andrew Spear
Betsy Brabandt
Bob Hague
David McWhertor
KC Cali
Charles Richardson
Colin Boyer
Jamie Gibson
John Hurst
Lauren Jane
Lisa Ikegami
Mitch Scott
Plinio Pinto
Shelaine Roustio
Thomas Thorspecken
Tony Philippou
Wendi Swanson
Yuki

Now I need to find a place to exhibit these 49 portraits. If you have any suggestions or know a curator who would be interested, please let me know. Three of us are pursuing leads to get this amazing work viewed in public.

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