When she sat in front of the television Dec. 14, Joanne Bowring knew she had to do something.
It was the day a man gunned down 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn. Bowring, a Wauwatosa resident, was shocked but compelled. She was compelled to help the grieving families the only way she knew how — through art. Her art, a portrait of every child killed at Sandy Hook last year, as well as a poem remembering each child, is on display at the Wauwatosa Public Library though Oct. 31.
She wanted to bring all the victims together and make them beautiful. She wanted to capture their lives as they lived. She wanted to send a message. She wanted people to never forget what happened at Sandy Hook.
Bowring set out to paint a portrait of every child killed at Sandy Hook, each accompanied by a painted butterfly and a poem. The collection of poems, titled "Angel Things on Butterfly Wings," tells a short story of each child through poetry and can be read at a first-grade level.
She wanted not only parents to understand the slain children's stories, but to let other children learn them through what she calls a gentler medium.
Each poem begins with something the child enjoyed: recess, the New York Giants, cowgirl boots or wearing a pink dress to school. Each poem ends with the words "on butterfly wings."
"I want to make these children beautiful and forever in the moment," Bowring said. "Forever in the baseball uniform or forever in their cowboy boots. Forever that little girl who wanted her first horse."
She researched every child's life based on news reports and accounts from their parents. She started in January, and it didn't take her long to finish all 20 paintings. She had the paintings copied and sent the originals to the victims' parents, along with a note explaining why she painted the children. The letters say, among other things, that Bowring hopes the painting can help them smile.
"I wanted parents to feel peace," Bowring said.
This isn't the first time she's immortalized a life taken at a young age. When local 7-year-old Kaylen Birk died of a brain tumor last September, Bowring sent her mother a painting. The painting was of Kaylen and a butterfly and was inspired by a butterfly release honoring Kaylen at Lincoln Elementary School.
Kaylen's love of butterflies inspired Bowring to paint butterflies next to the Sandy Hook victims.
Bowring also has painted soldiers who've passed away and says that anyone who wants their loved one painted can come to her and ask.
"It's a labor of love," she added.
There is a logbook at the Wauwatosa Public Library where people are encouraged to write their thoughts about Bowring's artwork. Since Sept. 3, more than 20 pages have been filled out. Some responses are filled with feelings of disbelief, others with outrage, while others simply say "rest in peace."
Bowring, while amazed by the amount and speed of response from Tosans, said she still sees some people pass by it in the hallway who can't bear to look.
"You have to be very careful when you're doing this," she added. "They have to look wonderful and sweet, and I knew I was capable of that. I could get every single one of them to look wonderful."
She hopes her paintings will someday be on display in the Newtown library and is in talks with residents there about how to make that happen.
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