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By Maggie Menderski
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—Jaylin Stewart's brushstrokes have such a way of bringing paintings to life that you'd never know so many of her subjects are dead.
But buried beneath the bright colors and vibrant technique lies the 23-year-old artist's grief. It's a pain that dates back a decade to her cousin's murder near Shawnee Park, and it grew as more people she loved went into the ground.
Today, the Louisville native is an artist and activist who uses her art to speak out about the gun violence that plagues both her city and the country.
But back when her cousin was killed, she was a kid with a paintbrush and a broken heart.
What started as an art class project at Butler High School has evolved into a mission to use art to heal her community. Her close friend was murdered her sophomore year, and she painted him in art class. She'd always loved portraits, but watching him take form on the canvas in front of her was therapeutic.
Gun violence, poverty, illness and drugs were prominent near Victory Park where she grew up. This year alone there have been at least 28 homicides in west Louisville, according to information from the Louisville Metro Police Department.
A number like that isn't just a statistic to Stewart. Those aren't just homicides. Those are family members, friends, and neighbors. People.
She calls the work she does in her studio space “pain and healing,” and she uses her art to honor lives lost and the people working to lift up her community. She even runs a nonprofit art school that teaches artistic therapy to others struggling with pain and loss.
Death isn't pretty, and while her paintings captivate her audience, it's not supposed to be pretty, she said. It's supposed to help people see something most don't want to see.
“I don't come from beautiful scenery, I come from Victory Park,” the west Louisville resident said. “I've grown up, and I've hung out in all kinds of neighborhoods, and there ain't nothing beautiful about them besides the people and their spirits and their souls.”
Those spirits and souls helped her as she lost people she loved, dropped out of high school and worked her way into the local art scene.
Her love for her neighborhood is real, but with it comes a painful reality. People die in the streets at a rate no teenager should have to grieve.
When she paints the victims, you can see the humanity in their eyes. And you can see the determination in her own to stop the violence.
‘I don't want it to be the norm'
If you stand in her studio at the old Shawnee High School, you can see her memories preserved in paint. She imagines her subjects how they were when they were alive.
One is smiling.
One looks tough.
Another sports a big grin. “He was a player,” she says.
Her cousin's death was the first murder that hit her family closely. Her mother and grandmothers shielded her from the trouble in her neighborhood as much as they could, but she lost at least one person she knew well to violence every school year, starting with her cousin.
“I was losing so many people that it almost became normal to me,” she said. “I don't want it to be the norm for my life, and I don't want it to be the norm for other people's lives.”
Hearing her list the way death followed her through high school feels like reading an obituary page. Instead of going to her first day of school her senior year, she went to her cousin's funeral.
The losses changed her. She cried a lot. She chopped off her hair. She lost weight.
And then she put that grief into her art, and everything changed.
Sometimes she paints people she knew, and sometimes she paints people she doesn't, but she calls them all “her people.”
Several of them have been killed, but she's lost people she loves to illness too. Grief knows no boundaries, so her work doesn't either.
She never met rapper Nipsey Hussle, but she was devastated when he was murdered earlier this year in Los Angeles. She ties his “Victory Lap” album to her own experience in Victory Park, and she grieved his murder as though she grew up with him—and really, through his music, she had.
When she doesn't know a subject well, she'll use their family's stories and photos as inspiration.
Shaunta' Miller-Crumes, who lives in the California area, has known Stewart since she was a little girl with a sketchbook. When her brother died of a heart attack three years ago, Miller-Crumes' daughter asked Stewart to paint a portrait of him.
Her brother was energetic and outgoing. He always kept a smile on his face, and that was the first thing Miller-Crumes noticed about the commissioned work—his big, bold grin.
“I looked at it and held the picture to my heart and tears just started flowing; he's just always going to be here with me,” Miller-Crumes said.