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Art speaks for youth killed by gun violence

“The handkerchiefs are symbolic of grief,” said Christine Ilewski founder of “Faces Not Forgotten,” a group established in 2009 when Ilewski was fired up, angry and grieving over personal losses due to gun violence.

Ilewski said, “I felt my own art was not meaningful.” She took action by expressing what youth gun violence looked like in portraits of those who lost their lives. In “Faces Not Forgotten” quilts the life-like images trade statistics and faded memories of real people with unpleasant reality. For some, that reality may need numbers to get attention.

Gun violence not only ends lives but shapes the lives of millions of Americans who witness it, know a victim or live in fear due to the incident.

As per, a group dedicated to improving our understanding of the causes of gun violence and reducing it, 100 Americans are killed by guns daily. Even more outstanding is that the gun homicide rate is 25 percent higher in the U.S. than in other developed countries.

On Friday, April 5, Catapult Creative House in Cape Girardeau opened its doors to a “Faces Not Forgotten” Exhibit featuring six quilts of Saint Louis children who were victims of gun violence. At this time, the names of youth who are victims of gun violence from the southeast Missouri area have not been submitted to Ilewski for consideration of a quilt. Individuals of loved ones or friends of loved ones may contact Ilewski at or Jane Linders at for consideration of a future quilt.

Artists wishing to help can use the same contact information. Ilewski said color images of their work are most important — especially those with a good likeness of the subject painted.

The opening reception on April 5 enabled the public to fully grasp the magnitude of the topic art was speaking through when Ilewski pointed to the portraits and named the victims.

Together with Lynda Stewart, representative of the Southeast Missouri Moms Demand Action group, and Cape Girardeau’s First Presbyterian Church Rev. Ellen Gurnon, Ilewski recognized the lives of 54 youth under the age of 20 with prayer and the toll of a bell.

Gurnon said she joined the Moms Demand Action Group in 2016 when she was in Springfield. She has pastored First Presbyterian Church in Cape Girardeau for about a year.

“It was Sandy Hook that got me drawn into taking action. When I came here I looked it up and joined it,” she said.

Lynda Stewart, representative of the Southeast Missouri Moms Demand Action group participated in the panel discussion at Catapult Creative House. The SEMO Moms Demand Action group was formed in 2016 to support stronger laws and policies to reduce gun violence and save lives. Their mission statement includes promoting gun safety, supporting reasonable limitations on guns carried and used in public and mobilizing popular support for policies that respect Second Amendment rights and protect people.

The next SEMO Moms Demand Action meeting is from 6:30 to 8 p.m., Wednesday, May 8, 2019.They will be preparing for Wear Orange Weekend, June 7 to 9. National Gun Violence Awareness day is the first Friday in June. SEMO Moms Demand Action will co-sponsor Stop Needless Acts of Violence Please in an annual prayer march Saturday, June 8. Details to follow in CBJ calendar.

The expressive portraits are displayed at the gallery until April 25. Some have QR codes that communicate the child’s story when scanned. Lack of funding limits the ability for each to have QR codes.

Quilts start with a photograph of the child provided to Ilewski by parents. Color portraits are painted by volunteer artists. The original portrait is given to the parents and then the image is superimposed onto a handkerchief and printed on 16 by 20 inch canvas panels. Grommets on the corners of the panels provide a place for tying them together with black ribbon in rows of three for a quilt of eight portraits; one panel is for the FNF logo.

Jon Kasten, an area landlord, seemed interested in viewing the portraits. He said, “I’m just visiting the gallery on First Friday. Not really involved. They don’t get the death penalty,” he said. He believes that those convicted of the shootings are released from jail in short periods of time.

There are challenges Ilewski faces in her plight to bring awareness to the subject of gun violence. It can be distressing to family members if the likeness of the child is not quite close enough. Ilewski said she feels like she’s “doing art therapy with the parents when to them it just doesn’t look like their kid.”

But there’s more to just creating the quilts. Arranging places for them to be displayed at to bring awareness to the public takes time, money and energy. Ilewski, volunteers on every level of the project.

A panel discussion at the opening reception included a slide presentation of past “Faces Not Forgotten” events. Ilewski showed an image of a pop up exhibit held in a U-Haul trailer parked on the streets of Saint Louis. “It made people uncomfortable. I think that’s important,” she said.

“Sometimes parents want the quilt block for a street march to honor their child,” she said.

The march may include visiting the place where the child was killed. Detaching the blocks from the quilt and using them in that way can bring comfort to families.

“I keep asking if they want us to stop (exhibiting their child’s portrait in a quilt) and families always respond by supporting the continuation of displaying FNF quilts,” said Ilewski.

Still, she is frustrated in just not being able to do more.

“We have been active in 15 states. I’m frustrated for having done only 200 portraits,” she said.

Funding the project and finding artists and families are other challenges Ilewski identified.

Upcoming new quilts include the addition of a black and white one for Miami, Florida and a Tennessee quilt done in sepia tones.

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