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    “I choose my favorite picture of the victim,” says 23-year-old Jaylin Stewart. “I always go for a picture where their eyes have the most innocence or they simply look overwhelmed with joy and happiness.” The self-taught painter depicts people who have lost their lives to violence. A handful of the 200-plus paintings she has completed hang on the yellow walls of the spare room-turned-studio in her 42nd Street apartment. Above a wire rack holding blank canvases and acrylic paints is a portrait of Kendrick Earl “Fresh” Bell Jr., with “Fresh!” popping in white against the bright blue background. Bell is handsome, his expression soft. In August 2017, he was murdered in Victory Park in west Louisville, not far from where he and Stewart both grew up. “Victory Park, to me, always looked like family,” says Stewart, whose entire family is from the neighborhood surrounding the park, bounded by West Kentucky Street, Greenwood Avenue and 22nd and 23rd streets. That part of town is where Stewart drew inspiration to begin her career as an artist.

    In 2016, Louisville saw 122 homicides, the city’s record. “I lost count of how many people I had lost in my life,” Stewart says. Her 23-year-old cousin Demond Ramsey died in a 2015 shooting. “I had to figure out what I wanted to do to bring some joy to my life and help me grieve,” she says. A year after Ramsey’s death, she decided to paint him. “That picture really made me feel something,” she says. “When I first started…it was very painful for me. I was sad. I missed my cousin. I was admiring him, thinking, Gosh, he’s so handsome. As the portrait would come along, it felt real. It felt like he was right there in front of me.” In the painting, Ramsey wears a gray suit against a dark-red background. His facial features are strong, and his hair is clean, like he just left the barbershop. After an overwhelmingly positive response from friends and family on social media, Stewart decided to keep painting and sharing her work. “Painting is healing,” she says. “When you look at these portraits, a lot of people don’t know (the subjects are) dead because they’re so beautiful.”

    After selecting a photo and printing it off at Walgreens, Stewart will draw the person onto a blank, typically 24-by-36-inch canvas. “I paint upside-down, I paint sideways,” she says. “I paint very quickly. Some artists take years to complete a work. I can do mine in a couple of hours. I don’t know if it’s because I’m so anxious and excited, but sitting here, I get so much energy when I do my art.”

    Behind her wooden easel and above a pink neon sign that reads “love” is a painting of teen brothers Larry Ordway and Maurice Gordon, who were brutally stabbed to death east of Shawnee Park in 2016. On a blue-and-gold glittery background, the painting captures the brothers’ youth. “When I first heard about it I felt the whole city was hurting,” Stewart says. “The way it happened was just so disgusting to me.” After she saw an interview with the boys’ mother, she says, she had to paint them. “It wasn’t a good interview in that the city didn’t respond well,” she says. “It was like they were pointing the finger at the mother. I was so upset about that that I wanted to use my platform to try to bring a positive image to them, because I felt people almost forgot it.” Though she tried to give the painting to the boys’ family, they wanted her to keep it. “Whatever exhibition I’m doing or wherever I travel, I want them to go,” she says.

    Stewart has had about five exhibitions since her first art show, in 2016 at the California Community Center in west Louisville. In 2017, she started a nonprofit called Adah School of Art, which takes her to different organizations and community centers to lead workshops for kids. She recently got a full scholarship to the Kentucky College of Art + Design, in Old Louisville. Her artist statement reads, in part: “Behind every single artwork, there are generations of people that have been affected by the loss of their loved ones and are in need of healing. I seek to humanize the people represented in this exhibition and to raise awareness about a topic that people find uncomfortable to talk about.”

    Stewart will spend many hours a week painting after coming home from her part-time job at the Louisville Urban League. “Some days I don’t go to sleep,” she says. “This is my favorite place. I love these people so much, and they give me motivation.”

    This originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Gone But Not Forgotten." To read more from our 2019 West End Issue, click here.

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    Photo by Mickie Winters, mickiewinters.com

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    About Katie Molck

    Loretta Lynn is the best country music singer of all time and if you don't like pickled foods, you can leave.

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