– By India Westbrook
University of West Georgia Art Professor Erin Dixon and UWG alumna Justine Aldridge are two of 49 artists who were selected to participate in a project honoring the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting victims, who lost their lives on June 12.
The project, dubbed 49 Portraits, was created by Mia Merlin, an art professor at Armstrong State University who was inspired by a similar project that was done for the victims of the June 17, 2015 Charleston Emanuel AME Church shooting.
“After the Pulse attacks, as well as other violence occurring in this country and around the world, I felt so helpless and overwhelmed–like so many of us–and was searching for a way to do something,” Merlin explained. “I knew finding 49 artists to do portraits might be difficult, but I thought that if I could pull it off, it would be incredibly powerful and meaningful.”
Merlin found artists from all over the country, and two of them are right here at the University of West Georgia. Dixon painted a portrait of Joel Rayon Paniagua. When reflecting on the piece, she says she hopes this act of kindness will bring comfort to the victim’s loved ones.
“I hope that by making this gesture I am sending love out into the world, which desperately needs it, and of course to the family of Joel Rayon Paniagua, who experienced this horrific trauma and loss,” Dixon said. “I hope I was able to capture some essence of his personality and that this portrait capturing him at a particular moment in his life will give them something to remember him by.”
Alumna Justine Aldridge, who painted a portrait of Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, heard about the 49 Portraits project through Dixon. Aldridge believes being a part of this project was a way she could honor the individuals who lost their lives.
“As a member of the LGBTQ community, my friends and I were very emotional about what happened because this could have happened to any one of us,” Aldridge said. “When I first learned about the project, I knew that this was something I had to do without a doubt.
“I hope that this project helps the victims’ families as a coping mechanism,” Aldridge continued. “I would love for them to all know that even though their loved ones are no longer with them, they were important, wonderful people who deserve to be remembered.”
Merlin plans to have an exhibit of the portraits in Orlando at the Terrace Gallery during the winter and spring months of 2017. She then plans to present the families with the paintings close to the anniversary of the attack. Merlin also will be creating a permanent website gallery for the portraits.
“I hope they feel all the love that went into this project and that they are deeply moved by these efforts,” Merlin said about the families. “I hope that for the rest of their lives they feel the presence of their loved ones in the portraits.”
However, Merlin said these portraits can be used to help any person affected by the tragedy heal, not just the victims’ families.
“I think the impact of this project is not just for the family and friends of those lost, but for anyone and everyone who needs it,” she said.