With #PortraitsofParkland, Mt. Airy woman turns gun violence anger into activism

Laura Silverman’s drawings will show up during Saturday’s March for Our Lives.

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Laura Silverman / Courtesy of the artist

The drawings are simple. Smiling faces with bright eyes, traced from the photos that have been circulating online since Feb. 14.

The words are simple as well, hammered onto notebook paper with a manual typewriter. With lines stacked for impact, the kind of bios you’d find under yearbook photos are shot through with the terse language of a breaking news report. The effect is a gut punch.

These are the Portraits of Parkland, a series of illustrations made by Mt. Airy resident Laura Silverman.

Silverman, a warm, petite woman who works as a communications strategist, said she doesn’t usually watch TV news. But on that day in mid-February, she couldn’t look away.

She was at the gym, and news reports about the mass shooting of 14 students and three teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., were playing during her workout.

“I looked up and saw the faces of the students start to flash across the screen, and my visceral reaction was to look away — it was too awful,” Silverman said. “The next instant, I said, I have to look.”

She came home, pulled up photos of the victims online, and started to draw.

Silverman has a graphic design background, but has never thought of herself as a fine artist. Yet she felt compelled, and so she made her first portrait. After outlining the face of 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadef on tracing paper, she began pounding out a caption on notebook paper with her typewriter — which reminded her of gunshots. The student’s name and age were all she could get through.

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Laura Silverman / Courtesy of the artist

For the next two and a half weeks, she made a portrait a day, spending a few hours drawing, typing, and researching each of the victims.

Silverman isn’t exactly sure why this act of violence in particular — after months and years of horrific mass shootings across the country — spurred her to create. But students and teachers are her community: She volunteers at a local school; her family are teachers and professors. Her son, now grown, is thinking of becoming an English teacher. Which now feels like a high-risk profession, she noted.

“I was so touched by the way that the survivors of the massacre were speaking out on their own behalf,” she said. “The line between government policy and action and inaction to the deaths of these young people and their teachers seemed so clear.”

When Silverman shared some of her portraits on social media, she got an immediate response.

She decided to turn them into postcards, and then posters — tools for citizens who felt the same anger and heartache about these deaths as she did to make their voices heard and push for a change that would stanch the violence.

“We could be sending postcards of Niagara Falls or Punxsatawney Phil to Pat Toomey,” she said, “but I want him to look these kids and these teachers in the face and realize what has been lost on top of all the other losses.”

Silverman completed portraits of the 17 victims, and created high-resolution files of postcard- and poster-sized graphics, formatted for home or professional printing. She uploaded them to Google Drive, made a Facebook page, and emailed them to friends, encouraging people to share.

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Laura Silverman / Courtesy of the artist

In a few short weeks, there have been around 250 downloads of Silverman’s postcards and 80 of the posters, and she has seen the Portraits of Parkland pop up across the country.

An art teacher in Massachusetts spent 17 minutes on March 14 reading from the cards. At Augustana College in Illinois, the posters were displayed outside during the walkout. In Sterling, Pa. — near where a pro-gun church recently held a commitment ceremony for gun-toting congregants wearing bullet crowns — a Quaker group used the cards to write to their legislators. And in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., a group of women turned them into thank-you notes to corporations who had cut ties to the NRA. Silverman’s niece, who attends a Quaker school in Germantown, brought three of the posters with her to last week’s student walkout.

On Sunday, Silverman stopped by the Old City home of her friend Diane Luckman, who had organized a postcard writing gathering inspired by the project.

The Luckman home was full of friends and neighbors writing messages to Senator Pat Toomey, Representative Ron Marisco, and state senator Steward Greenleaf on Silverman’s cards, asking for gun control legislation.

“The postcard itself is a powerful message,” said Luckman. “It hits your heart and your brain at the same time.”

Neighbor Olivia Chiaravalli, a senior at Friends Select School, sat at the dining table, pen in hand.

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Laura Silverman / Courtesy of the artist

On the back of a postcard, she wrote a message imploring Toomey to co-sponsor Senate Bill 2095, the Assault Weapons Bill. Silverman’s drawing of Stoneman Douglas senior Carmen Schentrup — “Loved red lipstick / Taught herself German” — smiled perpetually on the front.

Chiaravalli walked out with her classmates the week before, heading to City Hall for a 17-minute silent vigil with other students from around the city.

“One of the values at my school is community,” said Chiaravalli, who participated in a City Hall vigil with her classmates during the National School Walkout on March 14.

“We were standing with Parkland as a community and with the communities around us that are affected by gun violence every day. Young people do have something to say, and it’s our time to be heard.”

Chiaravelli said she would bring postcards and organize a lunchtime postcard writing session with her friends this week in advance of Saturday’s March for Our Lives solidarity action in Philadelphia.

“I see the portraits, postcards, and posters as tools of change in support of a movement,” Silverman said. “It feels like change is happening when I hear that people are using them in these ways.”