South Jersey’s Souls Shot Portrait Project tells the stories of gun violence victims through art

"The important thing about the Souls Shot Portrait Project is that these are real people and not just statistics. This was a person who lived, may have had a wife, and had children and all of that was taken. This exhibit highlights that these were not just statistics, and they were real people with families." 

Kevin Miller had dreams of being a carpenter and was employed at a hardware store in Camden. He was a running back at Camden Catholic, Camden High and Woodrow Wilson High School and loved the Dallas Cowboys.

Miller was known for being a good friend and sticking up for classmates who were bullied. He loved driving around in his Crown Royal that his parents got him for graduating high school, and if you enter Camden Forward School, you will see his art awards posted on the walls. 

Almost 770 miles to the west of Camden is Chicago where Diane Mokos Kriz lived.

She had a master’s degree in midwifery, and worked at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Mokos Kriz was a beloved sister and aunt, whose sense of humor brought laughter to her family. She was involved with the March of Dimes, and was active in her religion.

Miller and Mokos Kriz had different life paths, careers, and lived in different parts of the country, but their lives ended the same way, which is by gun violence. However, their legacy is still being carried on today by their loved ones, and by the Souls Shot Portrait Project

The Souls Shot Portrait Project was founded in 2016 to honor victims of gun violence in Philadelphia. Six years later the project has expanded to include gun violence victims from the greater Delaware Valley, and currently there are two traveling exhibits. Right now, the Souls Shot Portrait Project is on display at Rowan College of South Jersey in Millville. 

Judy MacKenzie, an instructor at Rowan College of South Jersey, and a member of Moms Demand Action NJ, helped bring the exhibit to Gloucester and Cumberland counties.

“I’ve been reading about the Souls Shot Portrait Project, and I knew it was going to be at the Willingboro Public Library,” says MacKenzie. “So a group of us went, and I found it to be very moving and beautiful. My intention was to bring it to the college.”

Souls Shot Portrait Project pairs the families with an artist free of charge who will paint a portrait of their loved one. The artist gathers information from families about their loved ones, and then the artists will paint a portrait that is displayed in the exhibit.

Due to COVID-19, the artists and the families didn’t have a chance to meet in person, and the first time they met was at the opening reception at Rowan College of South Jersey in Sewell this past November. One of the artists involved with the paintings is Eoin Kinnarney, an art professor at RCSJ.

Kinnarney was responsible for drawing the portrait of Kevin Miller, and met virtually with Carla Reyes-Miller, who is also a student at Rowan College of South Jersey studying social work. Kinnarney also was born a couple blocks away from where Kevin was killed in Camden. 

“I wanted to show the vibrant life that Kevin had,” says Kinnarney. “I added some imagery of his love of carpentry. I was born a couple blocks away from where Kevin was killed, and it became kind of a personal experience for me. It was really my honor to work on this project. 

Kevin Miller was killed in Camden on June 8, 2011. He was murdered by his then-girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend. 

“She lives in a messed-up household, and I just want to show her something better,” recalls Carla Reyes-Miller on what her son told her on the night he was murdered. Reyes-Miller reminded her son to get home early for his sister, and to visit his aunt as well.

Kevin never made it back home, but his legacy lives on today with the work of his mother, Carla Reyes-Miller, who is finishing her final semester at Rowan College of South Jersey with a degree in social work. She is also involved with the Students Demand Action gun violence prevention advocacy group on campus.  

“He had a heart that people gravitated towards,” says Reyes-Miller about her son. “He was kind, compassionate and real. When it was time for the funeral, I realized how much of a legacy he left behind. One of his customers, Krystal, came to the viewing, and when she came to the casket she said ‘Kk you were my only friend,’ and that still pierces my heart today.”

Reyes-Miller not only had to go through the trauma of the murder of her son, but also had to deal with the trial as well, and having to prove to the defense that her son wasn’t affiliated with a gang. For Reyes-Miller, it means everything that her son—Kevin—is remembered by Souls Shot Portrait Project, and she was moved by the portrait.

“I gave Professor Eoin a piece of who Kevin was, and I sent him pictures,” says Reyes-Miller. “As soon as I saw the portrait, I bawled, I cried. He captured every part of who Kevin was from a little boy to his time working at the hardware store. I was just so amazed how much love was put into this portrait like he became family. He created a portrait of Kevin like he knew him.”

Diane Mokos Kriz by Loren Dann

The portraits have been on display at Rowan College of South Jersey in Millville since Jan. 21. At the opening reception, Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennnifer Webb-McCrae spoke, and said that she sees the “exhibition as a blessing” and that “it is important to humanize people affected by this gun violence epidemic.” At both receptions in Washington Township and in Millville comfort dogs were in attendance for guests. 

Another person who spoke at the reception was Charlene Mokos Hoverter, a Monmouth County resident who is the Survivor Membership Co-Lead for Everytown for Gun Safety NJ. Her sister Diane was killed in 1986 by gun violence in Chicago. 

“For so many years, I felt alone outside of my family,” says Mokos Hoverter after the death of her sister. “I found by talking to other survivors and contacting other survivors that there is some comfort in that and I will say that survivors agree with this. You’re with people who understand what you have been through. We may all have different experiences, but the fact that we have experienced gun violence and understand the grieving and how it stays with you is comforting for some reason.”

Gloucester County-based artist Loren Dann was responsible for making the portrait of Diane Mokos Kriz.

“It was a beautiful experience,” says Dann about the Souls Shot Portrait Project. “They gave me photos and told me about the person that Dianne was, what she loved and what people loved about her. I took all of that and made a painting about who she was. Her family thought of her as a super religious, kind person and when she was shot, she was shot going to the food bank to help feed the community. She was into a religion that was based on an Indian religion that focused on humanitarian work. Which is why I painted her as a saint.”

Dunn has been an artist for a long time and has been to her fair share of opening receptions, but nothing prepared her for the opening reception of the Souls Shot Portrait Project. 

“It was absolutely touching, and I wasn’t prepared for it when I went in there,” says Dunn. “I’m used to going to art shows that are celebratory and fun, not that this wasn’t those things because it was. But there was a lot of emotion, hugging and support dogs. The families got up and spoke about personal stories and it was really powerful. It helped us connect more truly to art.”

The Souls Shot Portrait Project is on display until Feb. 24 in Millville and will then be displayed in Central Jersey at Monmouth University. 

Charlene Mokos Hoverter hopes that when people attend the exhibit, they will put faces to names of people affected by gun violence and will be moved to take action.

“The important thing about the Souls Shot Portrait Project is that these are real people and not just statistics,” says Mokos Hoverter. “This was a person who lived, may have had a wife, and had children and all of that was taken. This exhibit highlights that these were not just statistics, and they were real people with families. 

“People get very upset and motivated when we see mass shootings on TV,” explains Mokos Hoverter. “I’m happy that these things get brought up by the media because it does bring attention to gun violence, but there’s 110 people every day who are shot and killed. I hope these exhibits bring this into people’s minds— that shootings happen every day—and maybe they will become gun violence prevention advocates. Because for the families that were there at the reception, this is our Sandy Hook. Diane was my Sandy Hook and this is the pain that we are experiencing. I want other people to get motivated and say, ‘We have to do something.’

The Souls Shot Portrait Project will be on display until Feb. 24 at Rowan College of South Jersey Cumberland Campus in Millville. For more information about the Souls Shot Portrait Project, go here.