The Souls Shot portrait exhibition on campus in the spring of 2023 inspired Dr. Bryce Johnson to offer his services to the project. The work he created is part of a collection on display at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill from November 3-25.
The Souls Shot Portrait Project attempts to memorialize victims of gun violence through art. The project connects artists with the families of victims to create intimate portraits of the lives that have been lost. According to the project’s website, the goal of its exhibits is to use “the transformative power of art to bring an end to gun violence … By exhibiting the artwork to the public, we invite the community to recognize what has been lost.”
Johnson was paired with TK Kallon whose son, Haddy Sacko, was killed in March of 2020. He was just 19, apparently the victim of mistaken identity. In conversations with Kallon that began in April of this year, Johnson discovered that “Haddy was a good kid who had never been in trouble. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The grieving mother shared photos of Haddy with Johnson, and both agreed on the image that would be the basis for the portrait: Haddy in an Islamic religious school, wearing a prayer robe. “He has a wistful look,” says Johnson, “a little sad but peaceful.”
A professed perfectionist, the associate professor of English and humanities started the portrait in watercolor but admits that it didn’t feel right. He switched to color pencil and finally to pen and ink – with some blue watercolor as well.
In his artist’s statement for the exhibition catalog, Johnson writes: “To me, the stark absence of color in the pen and ink signifies the fact that Haddy’s life had only just begun when it was cut short. However, the portrait begged for color and TK told me Haddy’s favorite color was blue. Thus, I added the second element – the watercolor that flows from right to left towards and behind Haddy’s image. The third and final element is the Arabic script. The text, which comes from the second chapter, or the Surah Al-Baqara, of the Qur’an, adorns Haddy’s tombstone. It reads ‘Inna Lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un’, which translates to ‘Surely we belong to Allah, and surely to Him we return.’”
Johnson never had any formal training as an artist, but he traces his artistic roots back to the summer of 1974. “My mother was tending to my newborn sister and to keep her two-year old son busy, she placed a pile of crayons and paper in front of me. I haven’t really stopped since.”
He sells his work, accepts commissions, and has his own website: www.brycemjohnson.com.
The portrait of Haddy, however, was his contribution to the cause. “You see stuff like this on the news, and you don’t really have a sense of who these people are. The exhibition puts some substance to the victims. This is one tiny, little thing I could do.”
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill is at 8855 Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday from 10 a0.m. to 12 p.m., or by appointment.