On their front lawn in Richardson, a mid-size city in Northern Texas, Brandon and Heather O’Neill arranged 21 backpacks to memorialize the victims of the May 24 mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, when a gunman entered the small town’s Robb Elementary School and killed 19 children and two teachers.
The O’Neills lined up 21 backpacks in neat rows, mimicking the formation of a “picture day” class photograph. Two pink backpacks in the front row honor the teachers who lost their lives defending their students. It was Heather’s idea to add shopping bags across the steps up to the O’Neills’ front door, each dedicated to one of the 10 victims of the mass shooting at a Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, New York that took place only ten days before the Uvalde massacre.
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Six hours away in Uvalde, Dallas-based artist Roberto Marquez painted a mural inspired by Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937), the Spanish artist’s violent and chaotic masterpiece created in response to the German bombing of the painting’s namesake town.
Marquez’s work and the O’Neills’ solemn front yard installation are some of the tributes that have surfaced in Texas in recent weeks, as the nation grapples with a horrific spate of mass shootings and government inaction on gun control. There have been 240 mass shootings so far in 2022, 33 of which occurred after the Uvalde massacre. Gun violence has been rising steadily year over year: 2021 saw 700 mass shootings in the United States. But in the last decade, no significant government action has been taken to restrict the sale of guns.
Brandon O’Neill told Hyperallergic that neighbors and community members in Richardson have stopped by the installation to reflect and have conversations about the mass shooting crisis. The memory of two young children approaching the lawn was especially haunting for him.
“Seeing it through children’s eyes was one thing I had never fully visualized — seeing children come to this knowledge of what it means to live with this gun violence issue,” O’Neill told Hyperallergic.
Marquez traveled to Ukraine earlier this year and painted a similar version of his “Guernica” on a fallen bridge in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv that suffered extreme destruction and loss during the ongoing Russian invasion. He views his painting practice as a form of journalism, one which calls attention to tragedy but also helps people heal.
“I’m bringing the tragedy to the canvas,” Marquez told Hyperallergic. “When a painter comes in, it’s part of the healing. I’m a strong believer that no matter how difficult it is, we can help to relieve, to make it easier for people to manage.”
Three other murals were painted in Uvalde this past weekend, sponsored by MAS Cultura, an Austin-based nonprofit that partners with emerging Latinx artists and strives to make music and art accessible to a diverse audience. The organization’s founder, Monica Maldonado, said she used to travel through Uvalde as a kid and knew two artists from the town in her native Austin: painter Kimie Flores and photographer Jay Ybarra, both of whom had friends and family still waiting to hear about their loved ones after the shooting.
Maldonado started a GoFundMe to raise money for Flores to paint a mural and reached her goal within 48 hours. Over Memorial Day weekend, she traveled to Uvalde to scout walls, but Flores’s high school cheerleading coach reached out to offer her own. The concrete wall, visible from the school’s stadium, now flaunts Flores’s image of a mother coyote and her pup below a night sky dotted by 21 stars, one for each victim of the Uvalde massacre.
In a small community gathering on Sunday, Maldonado provided children’s books and created a space for grieving children to speak with a social worker. “These people are not getting up and moving from Uvalde. The media leaves, we leave, and they’re stuck there in that little town, they have nowhere to go,” Maldonado said.
Maldonado plans on returning to Uvalde to pay homage to each individual who was killed. She’s also helping local art professor Abel Ortiz-Acosta fundraise for a sprawling mural depicting each of the victims of the shooting — 21 portraits that she expects will line the town’s main street in two months.
And four hours away in Killeen, Texas, an entire city has united to send a “caravan” carrying tributes including a large painting to Uvalde. Spearheading the initiative are Nancy Rodriguez and her daughter-in-law Vickie Valladares, a children’s author and illustrator who painted “It’s Beautiful Here,” a 40-by-60 inch canvas portraying each victim of the May 24 shooting. Uvalde’s Chamber of Commerce will hold the memorials until it finds a place to display them.
“The fact that it was in Texas, that it happened to a majority Latino community, it really hit me,” Valladares told Hyperallergic.
“These kids aren’t a spectacle, their parents aren’t a spectacle,” Valladares continued. “This is a real thing that happened to real children.”