Kelly Thomas and his Mother by John Sollom
Kelly Thomas and his Mother by John Sollom

New Art Exhibit In Fullerton Takes on Police Killings in OC and Beyond

The Magoksi Arts Colony in Fullerton is quiet when local painter Valerie Lewis arrives late Tuesday night with portraits in hand. A painting of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old unarmed Ferguson, Missouri man killed by police officer Darren Wilson is surrounded by flowers and a quote that reads "love is a song that never ends." Next to that portrait is another piece by Lewis showing John Crawford, a 22-year-old African-American gunned down last month by police in Beavercreek, Ohio, holding a newborn child in his arms. Paintings from the Kelly Thomas memorial art show are laid out, waiting to be stationed.

The human faces of those killed by police in OC and beyond frame the Our Lives Matter: Portraits of the Unprotected exhibit slated to open Friday night during Fullerton's art walk.

Spurred by images from Ferguson of protesters fighting police, Lewis organized the exhibit just three weeks ago. News stories of others killed by law enforcement in the wake of Brown's death only increased her sense of urgency.

"I think that's why it hit me so hard," Lewis says. "All these deaths happened in a row. "Nothing has changed. We need to scream louder."

Prior to Thomas' beating death, Lewis' art had a personal, not political bent. She credits fellow Fullertonian Stephan Baxter with introducing her to the social impact art can have. Lewis participated in the "Art with an Agenda: An Exhibit Inspired by Kelly Thomas" show that he organized in 2012.

"The experience painting Kelly Thomas was tough," she admits. "I had news clippings all around the studio. It's really heavy. It's really emotional, but it was cathartic."

Michael Nida
Michael Nida
Jason Margos

In addition to Thomas, other artists are contributing pieces to those killed by law enforcement in OC, including Justin Hertl in Yorba Linda and Caesar Cruz in Anaheim. The featured portraits go beyond our borders, too: Kendric McDade in Pasadena, Michael Nida in Downey, Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, Oscar Grant in Oakland, Eric Garner in New York--the list goes on and on.

"I want people to walk in and have the art make them stop and realize how overwhelming this is," Lewis says. That's not the only visceral reaction she's aiming for. The artist hopes the portraits will paint a fuller picture of those killed than is often portrayed in the media. "They will see a human being, and they will see love."

Lewis plans to expand the exhibit to include 100 portraits that will be published in a book one day. For now, none of the paintings on display this weekend will be on sale. Our Lives Matter is about impact, not profit. Lewis struggles with whether or not a brush, paint and a canvas can really make a difference, but finds solace in her efforts.

"Sometimes you worry, 'Does this matter that I painted them?'" she says, "but every time someone says, 'Thank you,' or an artist says, 'I've wanted to do this and now I have forum,' you know that it's important."

The 'Our Lives Matter: Portraits of the Unprotected' exhibit opens at the Magoski Arts Colony at 223 W Santa Fe Ave., Fullerton. Fri., 7-10 p.m.

Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2

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