Utah artist delivers portraits to families of Uvalde shooting victims

Feb 8, 2023, 10:21 PM | Updated: May 21, 2023, 4:27 pm

UVALDE, Texas — A Utah artist recently took a life-changing trip to a small Texas town to make a special delivery for residents who are still recovering from a horrific mass shooting.

JR Johansen, 78, painted portraits of all 21 women and children who were killed in the attack and personally delivered those paintings to each one of the victims’ families.

It was May 24, 2022, when a lone gunman entered Robb Elementary School and killed 19 children just 9, 10, and 11 years old, and two of their teachers.

Thirteen hundred miles away in the small town of Huntsville, Utah, Johansen watched that story unfold.

“It just broke my heart,” said an emotional Johansen. “I thought, oh if I just weren’t so busy. I would love to paint a portrait for their parents. Because I believe it would bring them comfort.”

Turns out Johansen’s brother and sister-in-law, Ross and Jolene Davidson, lived in Uvalde. They were on a leadership assignment by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Weeks after the shooting, Ross Davidson called his brother in Utah.

“Have you considered you might be able to paint a portrait of those who have passed away? And I could hear him break into tears in his voice as he said that it has been on my heart and mind as well,” Davidson said.

“I said well, you’re the answer because I’ve been wanting to do it and didn’t know how I would do it with the schedule I have,” Johansen said.

For years Johansen has painted missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who lost their lives while serving. He’s donated those portraits to their families. To date, he’s done over 150 missionary portraits.

Veteran says painting missionaries who have died helped save his own life

“I have experienced pretty tender moments, painting missionaries who have died,” Johansen said.

But never had he undertaken a project like this. The Davidsons gathered the photos and bios from the Uvalde victim’s families and sent them off to Johansen. His first two portraits were done in August.

On Wednesday, Jan. 25, Johansen arrived at the Salt Lake City International Airport with two big wrapped boxes that read, “Uvalde Children Portraits, Extremely Fragile.”

KSL TV’s Dan Rascon and photographer Tanner Siegworth traveled with Johansen to Uvalde for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look as he handed out the portraits to the families inside Davidson’s home.

There were plenty of tears and emotion as parents, grandparents, and other family members picked up the portraits and saw their loved ones come to life on the canvas.

Words like, “thank you so much,” “you captured him so well,” “it just spoke to me,” and “I just love her so much” could be heard.

“It looks beautiful. I love it,” said an emotional Evadulia Orta, mother of 10-year-old Rojelio Torres. “It shows me him. This is how I saw him. I’m going to put him in my living room and see him every day.”

“This is Nevaeh. She’s my daughter. She was 10,” said a tearful Maria Garcia. “For these past eight months, it’s been really hard. As much as I try to be really strong, but each time it gets harder and harder. But I have to be strong because I have three other kids.”

“This is Xavier James Lopez,” said an emotional Amelia Sandoval as she looked at the portrait of 10-year-old Xavier. “It’s beautiful. It’s awesome. He really captured him. Just his eyes and mouth and nose.”

Sandoval too is having a hard time moving forward. “Rethinking the day over and over. It plays back in our minds over and over. Have to keep ourselves busy to not think about it,” she said.

“It means a lot seeing her. Seeing her smile, seeing her face, like she’s still here,” said an emotional Dora Mendoza about her granddaughter, 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza.

A trip and a moment in time Johansen said he will never forget.

“Having them come here and be able to meet so many of them was just a monumental moment in my life,” Johansen said tearfully.

Rascon is putting together a 30-minute documentary on the “Uvalde Angels” that will air on KSL TV during General Conference weekend which is scheduled to take place April 1 and 2.

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Utah artist delivers portraits to families of Uvalde shooting victims