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Artistic expression rises from tragedy

Artistic expression rises from tragedy

Artists comfort themselves, community with songs, paintings, slide shows

  • Updated

A Nashville singer wrote and recorded "A Song for Christina" to honor and remember the youngest victim of the Jan. 8 shootings.

An R&B quartet from Boston and a student at Yale University recorded John Lennon's "Imagine" and added a slide show of iconic images from Tucson.

A Tucson teenager sampled Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" as the backdrop for his rap video "1-8-11," filmed at the memorial that blossomed on the University Medical Center lawn.

The shrine was the first tangible expression of a city's grief and its hope after the devastating shootings that killed six and injured 13. It's gone now, boxed up and carted away along with the makeshift memorials at the midtown office of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and at the supermarket where the congresswoman survived an assassination attempt.

And in their place all manner of artistic expression has risen: songs in nearly every genre, video slide shows by the dozens, photography projects and paintings and drawings and …


When Bohemia, an arts emporium, issued a call for visual artists to create a piece in response to Jan. 8, Suzanne Hodges went to work immediately.

In a single weekend, she created "Simple Gifts," a pictorial collage that was inspired, in part, by President Obama's soaring speech at McKale Center five days after the mass shooting. Crafted from paper she made herself, it takes its name from the Shaker song sung by UA students at the public tribute to the victims.

"Over the long weekend that followed, it was great to have something to think about and to work on," she said. "And you knew that when you were finished, it would go to a really good cause."

Her depiction of cacti, the Catalinas, a dove and the sun was one of nearly 100 works from more than 60 artists auctioned at "Piece of Peace," an art event held simultaneously at Bohemia and Borealis Arts two weeks ago.

She doesn't know who bought "Simple Gifts," but she knows that all of the money went to the Christina-Taylor Green memorial fund and the Gabe Zimmerman memorial fund.

Hodges, whose day job is chief compliance officer for the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, gave her piece an intentionally childlike quality.

"I wanted to represent iconic things about Tucson, and I wanted it to be very positive and hopeful," she said. "I made the mountain pink in honor of Christina-Taylor Green."

Tana Kelch, a Tucson native who owns Bohemia, said her part of the event raised about $4,000.

"Like everybody who loves this town, I felt like I had to do something," said Kelch. "The response from artists was just phenomenal."

Hodges was among those struck by the insight and impact of children's drawings left at the UMC memorial. Struck, but not surprised.

"Art is one of those things that forces us to reach deep inside and pull out something important," she said.

Imagine all the people

Of all the tributes online, and there are scores and scores, the shimmering John Lennon cover is quickly developing staying power.

Some videos offered as a tribute to the victims of Jan. 8 have fewer than 1,000 views. But "Imagine" went viral almost immediately and now has more than 2.3 million views, thanks in part to the established fan bases of Sam Tsui, an earnest dreamboat, and Ahmir, a vocal quartet with reason to bill itself as "the most popular R&B group on YouTube."

The singers in Ahmir have no ties to Tucson, but "each of them has personally experienced, through friends or family, what a bullet can do," said Kathy Horn, who has worked with the quartet for two years.

Ahmir's Mike McDonald, 26, works as a counselor at the Boston Urban Youth Foundation.

"One of the young people I work with was shot and killed last year while he was riding his scooter, just two weeks before his eighth-grade graduation," said McDonald on the phone recently. "It was a senseless act, and this whole thing in Tucson was senseless. A young girl's life was stolen, and for what?"

"Those gunshots were not only heard and felt in Tucson," he added. "Those shots were heard and felt around the world."

"Imagine," which Ahmir recorded a few days after the shooting, is a timeless plea for peace and love. Lennon, whose own violent death shocked the world 30 years ago, has written one of those songs that will live forever, McDonald said.

The final image in the "Imagine" video is a handmade poster that says "Violence solves nothing."

Fans of the "Imagine" video are urged to make a donation to the Christina-Taylor Green memorial fund at the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona and/or the Gabe Zimmerman scholarship fund at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Links to both funds are provided, and everyone who donates $10 or more and forwards the e-mail receipt to will be entered into a drawing for tickets, hotel accommodations and backstage passes to an Ahmir concert.

L'il Zay weighs in

Isaiah Amparano, who turned 19 last Sunday, said he couldn't help but feel connected to the victims and survivors of the mass shooting because he grew up in the Old Pueblo.

"Tucson is a big family," said Amparano, whose stage name is L'il Zay, which should not be confused with Lil Zay, an East Coast rapper who died two years ago.

Amparano has been writing rhymes since he was at Erickson Elementary School. He wrote "1-8-11" a couple of days after the shooting. He filmed the bulk of the video at the UMC shrine.

"Several of the nurses who took care of Gabby are big hip-hop fans," said B.J. Godard, who works at UMC as a critical-care administrative assistant. "Everyone around here loves the video. He's really talented."

The CD version of his song is available at the UMC gift shop in exchange for a donation to the American Red Cross.


Folk singer Tom Paxton has long been a master of the timely, politically driven song.

Paxton, a lifetime achievement winner at the 2009 Grammy Awards, said on his website that as he watched the first news reports from Tucson, he felt a "deep anger and disgust at the sheer senselessness of it all."

Even so, the songwriter known for such topical songs as "In Florida," about the 2000 election, and "Without DeLay," about the convicted former congressman from Texas, resisted writing about Tucson because he feared he would "probably just go incoherent."

But a question kept coming into his head, a question he verbalized for the first time at his neighborhood coffee shop in Alexandria, Va., the Monday after the shootings.

"I always see the same Secret Service agent at Starbucks, who waits at the door as a high-government official goes in and orders his coffee. I said to him, 'What if he had no access to a gun?' "

The agent didn't need to ask who "he" was or what Paxton was referring to.

The 73-year-old Paxton went home and wrote "What If, No Matter … ?"

What if, no matter how angry he was,

How outraged he was,

How furious he was,

What if, no matter how angry he was,

He couldn't lay hands on a gun,

He couldn't lay hands on a gun?

You can watch his low-tech video at


Stephen Peck, a self-taught guitarist who lives in a small town in West Virginia, said he was devastated when he saw Christina-Taylor's picture on television Jan. 8.

And he gasped when he learned the aching symmetry of her birth on Sept. 11, 2001, and her death on another tragic day in America.

But it was Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik who got his creative juices flowing.

"You could see that this man, who has had such a long career, was so clearly shaken," said Peck, referring to Dupnik's now-famous press conference. "His demeanor just pushed me over the edge."

"The way I described it to my wife after seeing the sheriff is that I had to write this song," said Peck, 55. "I couldn't do anything else. The process of writing it was powerful and mystical."

A heart stopped short by madness,

Lives forever steeped in sadness,

May her hopes and dreams bring healing to this land.

"I felt better after I wrote it," he said. "I really did."


"The lights on Arizona will fade, but we will never forget what happened on that day," sings Sandy Flavin of Nashville, Tenn. "America won't shine as bright without Christina's light."

"It's so sad that people feel like they have to resort to violence, and we know he wasn't mentally stable, but he thought that this was the way to get his message across," said Flavin on the phone last week.

"And such an innocent life paid the price. Just think what this child could have contributed in her life."

Flavin, 49, a dinner-theater performer whose father lives in Cottonwood, said last week that she, too, felt better after she wrote "A Song for Christina."

"I can only hope and pray that it brought some comfort to others," she said.

Contact reporter M. Scot Skinner at 573-4119 or

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