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Graton artist’s Parkland victim portraits being turned into mural

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A GoFundMe site has been started to fund a Santa Rosa project to the Parkland, Florida teens killed. To contribute, click here.

On Feb. 14, Graton artist Tony Speirs woke up just like any other morning — first checking the news to see “what kind of crap show” was going on in the world before beginning the rest of his day.

When he first heard about a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, news reports said there were two confirmed deaths, a fact that washed over him like any other daily news item.

“It was like, ‘Oh, OK,’” he said. “Because that’s what happens every other day now.”

It’s not every other day, but guns are fired on American school campuses about once a week, according to the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, a nonprofit that collects data on gun violence in America.

The next Speirs heard, the deaths had climbed to 17.

When the names and photos of the dead started coming out, he studied each face intently.

Those faces now make up a series of portraits the 59-year-old has been working on for about two weeks: photo-realistic representations of images culled from news reports, social media pages, wherever he can find them. He first sketches a rough outline by placing a 5-by-7-inch piece of cream stationery over a photo printout, and then gets to work filling in the details with his mechanical pencil, saying each of the victims’ names before he begins ... and then apologizing.

“It felt like we are all somehow responsible in some weird way,” he said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do, but I’ve got to do something. I don’t want to forget you kids, and I’m going to make a promise this time not to let this wash over me.’ ”

Speirs has completed 11 of the sketches. He hopes to have the rest finished by Friday.

Next week, Santa Rosa muralist and self-described public art advocate Judy Kennedy will paste the sketches, enlarged to 2-by-3-foot printouts, on the side of a building at the corner of Cleveland and College avenues in Santa Rosa.

Kennedy found Speirs’ project on Facebook, where he has been posting the completed sketches as he finishes them, along with a paragraph or two reflecting on the shooting victims, their personality traits and the life stories he reads in news reports. His posts have been shared hundreds of times, reaching all the way to Parkland, where friends and family members of the students killed in the shooting have gotten in touch with him, inquiring whether they might be able to have the original portraits.

“That’s put an extra weight on it,” he said. “But that’s fine. It’s kind of my job in some ways as an artist. I want to affect people.”

When Kennedy saw the first portrait, she began to cry.

“After a couple of them, I just thought, ‘Oh, God, everybody in Santa Rosa needs to see this,’ ” she said. “It needs to be large scale. ... I was compelled to turn it into something larger, just as he was compelled to draw them.”

And so she got to work, calling around town to see if there were any available walls or large window spaces she might use for the project, before settling on the wall of a condemned property that currently hosts one of her own murals. The children’s faces, wheat-pasted onto plywood boards in a semipermanent installation, will be placed over it.

“One of the people I talked to said, ‘This isn’t Florida, and that happened two weeks ago. Nobody’s paying attention to it anymore,’ ” Kennedy said. “And I walked out and said, ‘This is exactly why I want to do this. So nobody forgets.’ ”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

A GoFundMe site has been started to fund a Santa Rosa project to the Parkland, Florida teens killed. To contribute, click here.

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