Portraits offer lessons on healing, humanity

Teacher donates artwork depicting Virginia Tech shooting victims

August 12, 2007|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

It didn't hit Cheryl Peterson until she saw all 32 portraits leaning side by side against two adjoining walls in an art gallery on the campus of Virginia Tech.

Her chalk pastel portraits of each of the students and teachers who were gunned down by a student on April 16 had been stored at home and at school and taken at different times to get framed. Peterson, an art teacher at Chesapeake Bay Middle School in Pasadena, had not seen all of them together until she made the 5 1/2 -hour trip July 22 to deliver the gifts and remove their brown paper wrapping.

"You do these portraits, and you know they're going to have an impact, but you just never know how much," Peterson said. "It was such a silent reverence."

Thousands of such memorials -- from elementary schools to universities nationwide -- have flooded Virginia Tech, prompting the university to commission a research team to start archiving the gifts at an off-campus site, said Steve Estrada, administrative assistant for Virginia Tech's University Unions and Student Activities.

University officials have decided to offer the gifts first to the family members before they decide whether to display them. At least four families have asked to keep the Peterson portraits after seeing digital photos of them. They will pick them up at a dedication service on Aug. 19 for a permanent memorial archway outside the campus' drill field, where students initially erected a makeshift memorial with photos and flowers.

Estrada said he hated to break up Peterson's set, but the university feels that the portraits belong to the families. Virginia Tech officials are not sure how the remaining portraits will be displayed because they still are planning how to commemorate the grim one-year anniversary next April, Estrada said.

The volume and range of gifts have left university officials scrambling for the appropriate way to thank donors and honor their contributions. Researchers are tagging and photographing each gift, which ranges from a letter from President Bush to a 106-foot banner signed by students from Western Michigan University. The information will be included in a searchable online database.

The overwhelming size of the collection is a comfort to the current and former students who make up "the Hokie nation," Estrada said.

"I try to tell people, [your gift] may seem like a drop in the bucket, but you have no idea how much of an impact this stuff has here," he said. "You can't stand in this room and say people don't care."

Peterson's spiritual journey to the Blacksburg campus began shortly after the devastating news broke about the attack by gunman Seung-Hui Cho, 23.

"I was just dumbfounded," Peterson recalled as she watched interviews with family and friends of the victims. "Then you start to say, `I wish I could do something.' "

Peterson, 44, noticed that her students also struggled to process the news. Because the students were working on portraits during her art classes, she encouraged them to do portraits of the fallen students and teachers. Peterson's students didn't take to the idea.

"I didn't push the issue," said Peterson, who lives in Curtis Bay. She latched onto the project herself and started searching for images of the Virginia Tech students and faculty online within a week after the murders.

Peterson tried to draw with the victims' families in mind.

"When they look at these [portraits], I wanted them to see the person they remembered living with and loving," she said. "I wanted them to look into the eyes and feel that person."

At first it took her nearly three hours to do a portrait, but then she quickened her pace, finishing a painting in as little as an hour and 15 minutes. She did some at home and worked on some of them in class, stopping at different points in class to demonstrate how portraiture is done. Students took interest once they saw the portraits come alive, Peterson said.

Principal M. Jacques Smith approached the school's National Junior Honor Society to raise money through lunch-time collections to ship the portraits to the campus. At first, Peterson was going to ship the portraits in folders. Then her father suggested that she frame the portraits so that the victims' families wouldn't have to do that themselves.

The portraits cost $70 each to frame, for a total of $2,240. Students raised $2,100, including $400 at a band concert. Smith and teachers made up the difference.

Smith said the portrait project gave students a way to deal with the tragedy. "When something like this happens, young people don't know how to react," Smith said. "It gave the students a way to respond. They jumped on this."

Peterson finished the portraits by the end of May. After making arrangements with school officials, she planned the trip to deliver the portraits with Smith and family and consumer science teacher, Debbie Thacker.

Peterson expected little fanfare from Virginia Tech. She was surprised when Estrada and Bob Smythers, the assistant director of gift planning, offered to take them to see other donations and then take them to lunch.

A few visitors walked into the gallery and fell silent when they saw the portraits along the wall, Peterson said. One of the visitors stopped by a portrait and reached out to touch one of them.

"That satisfied me beyond words that someone can be touched like that," Peterson said. "To me, the door closed when I delivered them."

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