UCF community uses art to heal after Pulse shooting

June 12, 2016, is a date that will be remembered forever in the Central Florida community.

Marking one year since the Pulse shooting, the UCF community gathered together at the UCF Remembers event on June 8 to showcase the ways art helped them to heal.

“UCF Remembers provides an opportunity for the UCF community … to remember Pulse, to remember the lives lost [and] to also celebrate the legacy of those that perished that night,” said Edwanna Andrews, director of UCF’s Social Justice and Advocacy department.

UCF students and staff united to showcase art, donate blood, write letters and light candles in honor of the Pulse victims.

“It’s important to remember [this day] because we lost two members of our UCF family,” Andrews said, referring to Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22, and his boyfriend, Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen, 32.

Following the UCF Remembers memorial,  Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith and mural artist Michael Pilato unveiled the mural of Guerrero and Leinonen, which portrayed the two wrapped another one another reading a book.

In the Student Union students poured their hearts out in letters, exchanging stories and sentiments with strangers. During the memorial, they rejoiced at the Orlando Gay Chorus’s beautiful harmonies, moved to their feet. On June 8, the Pegasus Ballroom was home to the most inspired dancing you will ever see.

The UCF Art Gallery featured “Resilience: Remembering Pulse,” an exhibition curated by Keri Watson, an assistant art history professor at UCF,  in collaboration with the Citizen Curator Project, an organization that encourages citizens to become socially aware by engaging with local museums, libraries and archives.

“I’m interested in art as activism, and curating for social justice,” Watson said.

For Watson, this was personal.

One of Watson’s students was at Pulse that night and several others had planned to be there. As a self-described advocate for art as a healing tool, Watson said she recognized the importance art plays in the grieving process.

“Art is a transformative experience,” she said. “You want to do something that will help your students make sense of a tragedy like that, or at least heal.”

Heidi Vance, a UCF sophomore and studio art major, said she witnessed the gallery’s impact on the Central Florida community.

“Through this show, we’ve had a lot of different people who were affected by this come together, meeting each other and exchanging their stories,” she said. “I think that’s probably a healthy way for them to heal … because they know they’re not alone in the grieving process.”

The exhibition pieces display remembrance, resilience and resistance, Watson said. Joel Strack, a member of GLBT  History Museum of Central Florida’s Board of Directors, said he tried to capture these themes in his gallery exhibit “Love in Chaos,” which portrayed a metal, tree-like structure with pieces of paper displaying social media and text messages from family and friends following the Pulse shooting.

Strack said he felt waking up on the day of the shooting to the pings of phone messages and social media alerts was a poignant moment; it was a search for life.

Strack’s piece focused on the ephemerality of modern forms of communication and the chaos of the moment, which is why the structure has uneven branches and beams, he said.

“I wanted it to feel like that morning on Sunday when you didn’t know, messages moving past you,” Strack said. “But it was all motivated by love and caring.”

As the UCF community continues to grieve and heal in positive and creative ways, people remain hopeful for change and action.

Andrews recalled getting involved with last year’s Pulse vigil after receiving a text message from a group of students that said, “We want to do something.”

“Okay,” Andrews said. “Let’s make it happen.”