“Senseless” a tribute to needless killings

Ten years ago last month, Trayvon Martin died from a gunshot fired by a man who followed Martin as he walked through a gated community near Orlando, Florida.
His death stirred “the activation of an entire new generation of civil rights leaders,” according to President Barack Obama. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter disseminated after his killer, George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder.

To Nacogdoches artist Gary Roberts, Martin’s death and that of 24 others under questionable circumstances prompted a series of work he calls “Senseless.”

“God gave me a series idea and what to name it,” Roberts said. He worked on the series for a full year. Roberts said “Senseless” is a tribute to both known and unknown people who needlessly died an early death. Roberts’ drawings include those “killed by police, white on black, black on white, brown on brown, white on white.” Fourteen of his 25 drawings portray victims killed by police officers.

Roberts took pains to humanize the person in each drawing. “I did a lot of research on each subject to gain a sense of who they were. Media has a way of demonizing individuals. About George Floyd, they say, ‘He didn’t follow orders.’ Or with Tamir Rice, they say, ‘He didn’t have an orange cap on his play gun.’ But none of them had to go like that … I wanted to draw each person as someone’s daughter, son, mother, father, brother, sister,” he said.

Roberts said creating the series was physically and emotionally taxing as he learned the circumstances of these needless killings, some of which were “more horrific than others.”

Roberts’ research and work connected him with family members of the deceased. “I now have the privilege of working with the James Byrd Jr. Foundation, the Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley Foundation, the Richard Collins III Foundation and Tamir Rice’s mother, SaMaria Rice,” he said.  

Last month, Roberts’ series was shown at the Solid Foundation’s after-school program; Angelina College; Nacogdoches Memorial Hospital; Stephen F. Austin University; and David Memorial Church of God in Christ.

Roberts said Lamar University, Prairie View A&M, The Museum of East Texas and People Magazine, among others, have shown interest in an exhibition.

Roberts is poised for what the series may bring.

“Where this body of work leads me, I am not sure of. Whatever door opens, I will humbly and boldly walk through. My main goal is ‘to God be the glory.’”

The Tyler Loop chose eight of the 25 works in the series to feature here. You can find more of Roberts’ work at Charcoalartbyg.com

Sandra Bland

Sandra Bland, 28, was found hanging in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, July 13, 2015, after being arrested during a traffic stop. Bland was pulled over for a minor traffic violation by State Trooper Brian Encinia. After the exchange escalated, Bland was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer.

Philando Castile

Philando Castile, 32, died by gunshot during a traffic stop July 6, 2016, by police officer Jeronimo Yanez in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul metropolitan area. Castile was driving with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter when he was pulled over by Yanez and another officer. After an exchange wherein Castile said he had a firearm but said he wasn’t pulling it out, Yanez fired seven shots at Castile.

LaVena Johnson

LaVena Johnson, 20, of St. Louis County, Missouri, was found dead in a tent July 19, 2005. An E3 Private First Class in the United States Army, her death was officially ruled as a suicide by Department of Defense officials, but evidence indicating she had been raped and beaten led advocates and petitioners to demand an investigation into Johnson’s death and the U.S. Army’s handling of her case.

Elijah McClain

Elijah McClain, 23, of Aurora, Colorado, died Aug. 20, 2019, after an encounter with three police officers responding to a call about an armed person who “looked sketchy.” The officers, Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema, said their body cameras came off during a struggle with McClain, who was forcibly held to the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back. Later, paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec administered ketamine to McClain. McClain went into cardiac arrest and died three days later.

Tamir Rice

Tamir Rice, 12, died by gunshot in Cleveland, Ohio, by police officer Timothy Loehmann. Loehmann shot Rice after a police dispatch call about a male with a gun. Rice carried a replica toy gun.

Matthew Sheppard

Matthew Shepard, 21, was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming Oct. 6, 1998, by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Shepard was a gay student attending the University of Wyoming.

Daunte Wright

April 11, 2021, Daunte Wright, 20, died by a gunshot from Kim Potter, a former suburban Minneapolis police officer. Officers pulled over Wright for having expired license tags and an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. They discovered Wright had a warrant for a weapons possession charge. They tried to arrest him, but he pulled away. Potter, who fired a handgun once into Wright’s chest, said she confused her handgun for her taser.

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Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop and storytelling director of Out of the Loop: True Stories about Tyler and East Texas. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and attends Sam Houston State University remotely, where she studies sociology. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She is a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former teacher of French at Robert E. Lee High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories. Jane and her husband Don have four children.