A Portrait of Hope

Dec 16, 2013, 4:46 PM, Posted by Jeff Meade

Artist Chuck Connelly Artist Chuck Connelly and his monumental remembrance of the children of Sandy Hook

I first came to know Chuck Connelly in April of last year. He’s a gifted, famous and often controversial artist, whose work has appeared in countless galleries, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s very much his own man, and that man can be difficult. A writer once described Connelly as “Norman Rockwell on acid—a maverick narrative painter pushing the limits of myth into a modern malaise all his own.”

It’s a left-handed compliment, but there’s no getting around the undeniable truth: Chuck Connelly is an extraordinary talent. He may come across as a rumpled, dark-witted cynic, but on the inside, he is a luminous soul.

So here’s how I came to know Chuck Connelly. He’s an Irish-American who lives in Philly's East Oak Lane neighborhood, and I co-author a blog devoted to Irish culture in Philadelphia. So for our purposes, Connelly was grist for the mill.

And so it was that I found myself on the topmost floor of a ramshackle barn one dreary day last April, gazing upon Connelly’s most recent magnum opus: twenty painstakingly detailed oils on canvas, each one bearing the likeness of a first grader murdered by a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. All of the paintings were clustered in a simple 10- by 12-foot wooden frame. The entire assembly towered over us. It was a breathtaking, shattering remembrance.
 

When news of the shooting broke, Connelly reacted as the rest of us did, with horror, frustration and anger. A couple of days later, he started painting a portrait of one of the young victims, 6-year-old Emilie Parker. At first, he wasn’t sure where the project was taking him. At that point, it really wasn’t a project. “I started to do the one, Emilie, when it first happened,” Connelly explained to me. “Her face was everywhere. I just thought ... what a tragedy. So I painted her. Then I made Dylan (Hockley), and then I thought ... you know what? I gotta do them all.”

Last week, Connelly’s “Children of Sandy Hook” went on display at Villanova University to commemorate the one-year anniversary.

As that anniversary arrived last weekend, I thought about Chuck Connelly’s heartfelt tribute. It caused me to wonder, probably for the millionth time, when we’re ever going to come to grips with the problem of gun violence. Every shot fired wounds us all.

Here at RWJF, we have devoted a great deal of effort toward understanding gun violence and how to prevent it. One well-known example of our work in this area is grantee Cure Violence, formerly Ceasefire.

Here’s how we describe the program:

Cure Violence uses a public health model to reduce gun violence. By treating violence as a learned behavior that can be “unlearned,” Cure Violence offers a solution to a problem that had been seen as unsolvable.”

Obviously, gun violence is one aspect of a much broader and disturbing picture. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that violence of all kinds is a plague in the United States, and from our description of Cure Violence, you can begin to understand our response to it. We approach violence as a critical public health issue, and that point of view determines our course of action.

A recent example of our work to curb violence further illustrates that particular approach. It revolves around the issue of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. That’s a wonky term, but it is meant to describe and encompass the horrors routinely visited upon children, mostly in the form of abuse and neglect. Many of these children live a nightmarish existence.

Some might say we’re swimming against the tide on this one, but we are, as my colleague Susan Promislo wrote in this space a few months ago, “witnessing a health revolution.” Childhood trauma was the subject of a recent summit in Philadelphia, a confab that garnered a great deal of national attention. Throughout the country, more and more experts are turning their expertise to the problem of ACEs, and many of them are doing pioneering work to understand the problem’s causes, document its long-term emotional and physical damage, and develop creative and effective long-term solutions.

From our work, we know that there are no simple answers to countering childhood trauma—or any other kind of violence. Just a few weeks after the Newtown tragedy, a report by Kevin Freking in the Huffington Post cited a particularly painful statistic: “The United States has about six violent deaths per 100,000 residents.”

I find myself pondering those damning numbers. Can we really do what we want to do? Can we really make the country a better, less violent place? Sometimes it seems impossible. But if there’s one thing I have come to know about this place, it’s that most of us are incredibly hopeful. You can’t work here and not be an optimist at heart. It would be easy to throw up our hands and give up, but no one here gives up.

If the tragedy of Newtown tells us anything, it’s this: When it comes to the challenge of violence in America, if we are to prevail, we must be guided by hope. And to paraphrase one of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes: We can never, never give up.

Jeff Meade is a senior writer/producer for rwjf.org.