By Carolina Chacon
Photos by Jeff Scheid and Nissa Tzun
Grief, happiness, anger, laughter, and sorrow ebbed and flowed as Las Vegans who have survived or lost family members to police violence joined artists to remember their loved ones during a live-streamed panel discussion for the virtual opening of “Water Slipping Through Our Fingers,” a new exhibit available online and at the West Las Vegas Library.
Mothers recalled their sons’ musical hobbies and their favorite meals. Sisters struggled to find words and instead turned to sounds. Nieces described finding peace and purpose in returning to the site of the shooting. And survivors reminded viewers that the toll of trauma isn’t just physical or mental, but societal and long-lasting, the pain of thousands of lives lost to state-sanctioned violence rippling through decades.
For the exhibit, 13 local artists were paired with 15 victims’ families and three survivors to share their stories through different modes of art, from paintings and embroidered banners to audio montages and orgonites. Victims’ families and survivors were brought together over the years by the Forced Trajectory Project (FTP), a Las Vegas-based multimedia and public relations organization advocating for communities impacted by police violence in Las Vegas and nationwide. FTP helped them form Families United 4 Justice Las Vegas (FU4JLV), a network of impacted families calling for accountability and searching for community with others who are also enduring the trauma of police violence.
Artist Emily Budd created memory orgonites for the families of Nicholas Farah and Rafael Olivas.
In 2020, FTP connected FU4JLV with the Desert Arts Action Coalition (DAAC), a Las Vegas-based group of arts professionals, patrons and concerned Nevadans advocating for policy changes in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Together, the three organizations began to plan an art memoriam to the lives impacted by police brutality, wanting to refocus attention on the lives stolen by police violence here in Southern Nevada. While national attention has moved on from the high-profile killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Atatiana Jefferson, dozens of Nevadans who have died at the hands of police have not received the same public recognition. Some of the stories highlighted in the exhibit include:
Nicholas Farah, detained for suspected trespassing, killed by asphyxiation in 2019.
Rafael Olivas, approached by police during a mental health breakdown, shot and killed in 2011.
Most of the victims featured in the exhibit were killed or harmed by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department; some victims with roots in Las Vegas but visiting other states were killed by police in those municipalities. None of the officers involved have been indicted in criminal court for their deaths.
Unfortunately, this is not rare. The average conviction rate for police officers who take a civilian life is less than .6%, according to Unarmed Black Male. On average, approximately 1,500 people are killed by police each year in the United States. That means for every thousand who die, maybe six or seven officers are ever convicted.
The lack of accountability for these injustices is what compelled the exhibit’s title. Alma Chavez, mother of Rafael Olivas and witness to his killing, said watching her son draw his last breath felt like having water poured on her hands -- she could do nothing to stop his death.
Rather than focus on the victims’ senseless and unacquitted deaths, artists with the DAAC and photographers with FTP chose instead to feature each individual’s humanity and their family’s quest for justice for the exhibit.
A portrait of Nicholas Farah with his two daughters, by Sean Jones.
Photographer Jeff Scheid and artist Erica Vital-Lazare created a photo narrative to capture the emotional impact of Byron Williams’ life and death, using bicycles and shadows, under the direction of his niece Teena Acree. Artist Emily Budd used orgonites, stones and crystals believed to emit positive energies, to give healing and peace to the families of Nick Farah and Rafael Olivas. Sean Jones illustrated a vibrant family portrait for Nick Farah, to contrast the falsehoods police told about Nick to justify his death. Visual artist Rebecca Gabrielle crafted a reliquary of items collected by Thomas McEniry to honor his memory and his innocence, which his family fought to maintain when the police labeled McEniry armed and dangerous.
Kate St. Pierre, an installation artist, reimagined what New Year’s Eve would be like for Keith Childress, Jr, had his life remained uninterrupted by police violence. Robin Slonina painted Jorge Gonzalez, who dreamt of starting an animal rescue, smiling in a field, a leafy tree behind him, his hands extended, as birds fed from seeds in his palms. Erik Beehn compiled images of Rafael "Ralfy" Olivas, printing and layering them one on top of another until a darkness remains, a faint shadow of Ralfy's face shining through next to a moonscape etching of a palm tree -- like the island scene Olivas had once drew on the envelope of a Mother’s Day card.
Wendy Kveck composed watercolors for a zine full of recipes collected from victims’ families, as well instructions for candle-making from survivor Cristina Paulos, turning the ritual of food and light into fuel for those who remain and still fight. Those like Milu Gonzalez who, in collaboration with sound producer Oja Vincent, memorialized her brother through an audio montage of her brother’s story set to her own drumming. Rick Ledesma, Eduardo Rossal-Cabrera and Nissa Tzun photographed family members at their most powerful and most pained.
Cover of the zine compiling recipes.
“Artists are activists, art creates change,” explained Demecina Beehn, with the DAAC. “Art gives us different ways to look at things, different ways to tell a story. This was a way for artists and art administrators to be involved in creating awareness of what’s happening in our community.”
The exhibit is on view now through March 30th at the West Las Vegas Library, and available virtually through the Forced Trajectory Project website. Please be advised that viewing the exhibit can take between 60 to 90 minutes, but processing it may take much longer. Exhibit curators recommend guests take their time, perhaps over a few days, to take in the content, which includes graphic depictions and first-hand accounts of police violence. FTP contributor Micajah Daniels provides a suggestion: “Fear, anger, frustration, pain -- let us allow us to feel these feelings, accept them, and use these growing pains so that we can heal.”
The participants in the virtual opening’s panel discussion, moderated by Oja Vincent, co-founder of the Forced Trajectory Project, included:
Demecina Beehn with the DAAC
Nissa Tzun, co-founder of the FTP
Milu Gonzalez, member of FU4JLV and sister of Cesar Gonzalez
Alma Chavez, member of FU4JLV, and mother Rafael Olivas
Erik Beehn, a visual artist with the DAAC
Diane Bush, an artist with the DAAC
Rebecca Gabrielle, an artist with the DAAC
Carol Luke, member of FU4JLV, and mother of Thomas McEniry
Erica Vital-Lazare, a writer and professor in Las Vegas as well as a member of the DAAC
Teena Acree, member of FU4JLV, and niece of Byron Williams
Jackie Lawrence, member of FU4JLV, and mother of Keith Childress, Jr.
Cristina Paulos, member of FU4JLV, a police brutality survivor from 2011 and an artist
Robin Slonina, an artist with the DAAC
Kate St-Pierre, a visual installation artist with the DAAC
Rick Ledesma, a photographer with the FTP
Terry Rogaczewski, member of FU4JLV, and a police brutality survivor