In the wake of the many police killings of unarmed young men in recent years, Sylvia Maier sent an email to Kadiatou Diallo, whose son Amadou had been killed by New York city police officers in 1999. Ms. Maier, a Brooklyn-based figurative artist, had done a painting of Amadou shortly after the incident, and wanted to do more to help through her art.
Ms. Diallo introduced her to the Circle of Mothers, a national support group founded by Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, who was killed by a neighborhood watch coordinator in Florida in 2012. Ms. Maier had envisioned painting at least three of the mothers, as a way to humanize their children and encourage healing. Before long, she had embarked on a new series, titled the Circle of Mothers Project.
Selections from the series, along with related paintings and drawings, will show at Gallery Josephine in Oak Bluffs through June 13. Ms. Maier will attend an opening reception this Saturday, May 28, at 6 p.m. along with three of the mothers she has done portraits of — Iris Baez, Kadiatou Diallo and Hawa Bah.
The Circle of Mothers Project grew out of Ms. Maier’s earlier Currency Series, which features everyday people, along with some of animals and skeletons. The circle of a U.S. coin and the words “Liberty” and “In God We Trust” are drawn over each portrait. The artist took a similar approach to the Circle of Mothers Project, although in this case the coins include the names of children: Amadou, Mohamed, Ramarley, Anthony and others.
Ms. Maier’s work focuses on everyday people, often crossing into the conceptual, with settings and scenes that explore cultural identity. Much of her work is influenced by her upbringing on the Upper East Side of Manahattan. Her close relationship with her mother partly inspired the Circle of Mothers Project, which she hopes will shed light on senseless killings in a way that anyone can understand.
“The mothers are the real revolutionaries of our time, and they are not really heard of,” she said this week in a conversation with the Gazette. “Everybody knows Martin Luther King, they know all of these wonderful leaders, but I am always searching for the underdog, the ordinary, the everyday person that does extraordinary things.”
The mothers themselves could wrap around a city block many times over, she said. “The sheer numbers show you what is really going on in our communi
ties, where there are so many mothers that are dealing with this. It made it very, very real to me.”
Among other things, the Circle of Mothers network has been working to improve the relationship between police departments and their communities. “Which is something you don’t hear about, because they are really making a change, and it’s not just about the bashing of anybody,” Ms. Maier said. “It’s about acknowledging that we have a situation and it needs to be fixed.”
The recent portraits — each one is painted in oil on a 48-inch square piece of wood or copper — capture some of the grief that comes with losing a child, but also the strength and hopefulness that the mothers have found. Each mother stands alone against a dark or neutral background, giving her a warm and luminous quality.
“I tried to represent different levels — of acceptance, of fight,” Ms. Maier said of the grief that remains even after many years. “They just have such a gentle nature, such a royalness about them. They are such different people that maybe under different circumstances wouldn’t have been in the same circle.”
Gallery Josephine, which opened last year, connected with Ms. Maier while she was preparing an exhibit for Art Basel, an international art fair with locations in Basel, Hong Kong and Miami. Tim Okamura, who was also involved in the fair, will show at Gallery Josephine this summer, as will Jules Arthur, a mutual friend of Ms. Maier, who showed at the gallery last year.
The upcoming show will include up to 16 pieces, including some from the Vigil Series, also featuring the mothers, and some charcoal drawings from a rally scene. It will be the first show to include selections from all three bodies of work. Gallery manager Lydia Nichols said the pieces align well with the gallery’s mission to show art with a sociopolitical theme while encouraging dialog. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Circle of Mothers.
“Humanizing these stories of police brutality, through the narrative of the women who mourn those who were lost, that was what drew us to her work,” Ms. Nichols said.
Ms. Maier hopes the project will shed light on the persistence of racism in America, but without necessarily pointing any fingers or stirring controversy. Instead, she hopes that everyone, regardless of their past, will consider their own role in finding solutions.
From the beginning, she said, the project was about uniting people around a common theme, since the bond between a mother and child is universal.
“It’s not about police bashing, it’s not about any political means,” she said. “It’s really about healing and showing them as human beings, and their children as people and not just victims. Their names are important, and their lives mattered.”
The Circle of Mothers Project will show at Gallery Josephine, 91 Dukes County avenue, Oak Bluffs from May 28 to June 13. For more information, visit galleryjosephine.com.