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21 murals in Uvalde honor the 19 students and 2 teachers killed in school shooting

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Artists from across Texas have come together to honor the 19 students and two teachers killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. They've created giant portraits of each victim hoping to help the community heal. Texas Public Radio's Jack Morgan has the story.

JACK MORGAN, BYLINE: It's morning time but already sweltering just off Uvalde's pecan tree-lined town square. The artist who goes by the name Uloang has been up all night painting to avoid the blistering midday sun.

ULOANG: I'm half awake (laughter).

MORGAN: A few hours earlier, he'd put the finishing touches on a 20-by-20-foot portrait of Maranda Mathis on the side of an office building. She's one of the fourth graders killed at Robb Elementary School.

ULOANG: As I was painting her face, once I felt like I was getting her smile down, I could see her personality coming through. And I just kind of felt like, oh, hi, Maranda. I could barely hold it together. Yeah, definitely shed a few tears.

MORGAN: The mural is based off Maranda's mom's favorite photo.

ULOANG: Her mom mentioned that she loved being in nature, just picking up river rocks.

MORGAN: In Uloang's portrait, Maranda stands smiling in turquoise waters. Eleven koi fish swim around her because she was 11 years old. Maranda holds a brilliant amethyst crystal instead of river rocks like in the original photo. Uloang says the idea came to him when he was sketching. And when he shared his drawing with Maranda's mom...

ULOANG: She told me that when she saw that it was amethyst crystal in the sketch, she got chills.

MORGAN: Amethyst is her birthstone, and purple was Maranda's favorite color. Uloang also added pink water lilies, which turned out to be Maranda's mom's favorite flower.

ULOANG: I felt like I was being guided in a way, to be honest.

MORGAN: Guiding the portrait project is Abel Ortiz. He teaches art at a Uvalde college. As the project's spearhead, his idea was to make the 21 murals monumental.

ABEL ORTIZ: We never want to forget their faces. That's why they had to be murals of portraits and not just regular murals.

MORGAN: Ortiz didn't know 21 Texas muralists, so he put out a call for help. Monica Maldonado answered. Shortly after the shooting last May at Robb Elementary, she drove the three hours to Uvalde to pay her respects.

MONICA MALDONADO: And at that moment, I knew that God was going to use me. I didn't know how, but I knew that I would be involved in some way in the journey of healing for Uvalde.

MORGAN: For Maldonado, that journey involves dozens of gallons of paint. She helped find the buildings to host the murals, and she found the muralists who have all volunteered their time.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOORS CLOSING)

MORGAN: Many Uvalde residents have stopped by to thank the artists and bring them meals. One afternoon around the corner from Maranda's portrait, a family stands in front of two murals side by side.

VERONICA LUEVANOS: That's my daughter's. And that's my nephew's.

MORGAN: Veronica Luevanos lost both her nephew Jayce Luevanos and her daughter Jailah Silguero.

LUEVANOS: She loved dancing, playing outside, just being around her friends.

MORGAN: Jailah's portrait shows her smiling in her cheerleading uniform. Luevanos says Jayce was a sweet, little boy.

LUEVANOS: Always had everybody laughing. He was just - same like Jailah.

MORGAN: Artist Ruben Esquivel chose to show Jayce with his favorite dinosaur ninja and a cup of coffee like he made for his grandparents every day.

RUBEN ESQUIVEL: And this is like his final cup of coffee to them. He also used to write them love letters, so the paper plane is his kind of final letter. And it's going to say I love you on the wing in his handwriting.

MORGAN: Veronica Luevanos says the portraits are beautiful.

LUEVANOS: It brings a lot of joy to us, a lot of comfort.

MORGAN: She says she plans to visit Jailah and Jayce here all the time. For NPR News, I'm Jack Morgan.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATALIA LAFOURCADE FEAT. LOS MACORNIOS' "GAVOTA (VERSION INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jack Morgan
Jack Morgan has spent 35 years in electronic media, doing both television and radio.