Victims of gun violence memorialized by portrait painters

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (WPVI) -- "It's a shame that they had to die for this to happen," said Stephanie Johnson, standing amidst beautiful portraits of smiling faces.

Johnson's world was turned upside-down when her daughter, Erica Elyse Hillyard, 27, was shot and killed by her boyfriend in the summer of 2019.

"Erica's death affected so many people," she said. "And it didn't have to be this way."

Hillyard leaves two children behind, who are now being raised by several individuals in what Johnson calls her "village."

Johnson herself continues to wear a smile on her face while working the cash register at Weaver's Way Co-Op. That's where she grew friendly with Garth Herrick, a portrait painter from Germantown.

Herrick hopped on board the Souls Shot Portrait Project to depict the life of a victim on a canvas. Each artist is randomly paired with the victim's friends and family. Perhaps as a sign from above, Herrick was paired with Johnson.

"I remember meeting Erica a couple times when she was a little girl," said Herrick. "I can paint, but it was emotionally heart-wrenching to paint this."

Herrick spent weeks painting a vibrant depiction of Erica as part of the project, now in its fourth year at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. He chose to recreate a serene photograph taken while Erica was pregnant.

"This is a loss of a mother. She'll never get to see her children grow up. And I thought, this is what we have to do," said Herrick.

The gallery is open to the public per reservation for the remainder of this week. Another permanent installation exists at Logan Library, however, it is temporarily closed.

To learn more about the schedule of exhibitions and how to get involved with this project, visit their website.

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