Chris Bates's reaction to the Aurora theater shooting last summer was one shared by countless other Coloradans. "I felt this really strong urge that I had to do something," says the Fort Collins artist.
But Bates was initially at a loss as to what. After listening to a talk about "art's ability to heal the world," he says the idea came to him: He'd contact the families of the deceased victims and offer to make them a custom drawing of their loved one. The girlfriend of eighteen-year-old A.J. Boik was immediately interested.
Bates contacted her on Facebook, where she found his message among a slew of others offering condolences and requesting media interviews. "The biggest thing that stood out to me was that he was also an artist who wanted to do a project to remember A.J.," says Lasamoa Cross. "A.J. was an art student as well."
Boik, a recent Gateway High School graduate, dreamed of becoming an art teacher, Cross says. He'd been accepted to the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.
Boik was one of twelve people killed in the shooting at the Aurora Century 16 theater.
Bates was thrilled when he received Cross's reply on Facebook and when he heard that Boik's mother was interested in the project as well. "With A.J. being an artist, I didn't have to convince them of the value of what I was trying to offer," Bates says.
What he's offering is part portrait, part memory book. Bates specializes in a certain kind of drawing that he calls "finetooning." From far away, the finished product looks like a pen-and-ink drawing of a person, a couple or a family. But up close, it's possible to see that the larger drawing is made up of many smaller ones that represent the subject's history, interests and memories. "The whole thing is filled with a thousand small images, so it's filled with a thousand small memories," Bates says.
The first "finetoon" portrait he ever did was of Questlove, the drummer of the band The Roots. Bates was a big fan, and his piece wound up in an art show hosted by The Roots in Paris. It also helped win him admission to college, where he studied painting. He eventually did "finetoon" portraits of all of the Roots band members, which he displayed at shows.
"People started approaching me and asking for custom ones for their family," he says. For the past five years, the 37-year-old Bates has worked full-time as an artist doing custom "finetoon" portraits and murals around Fort Collins. And for the past seven months, he's been working with Cross and Boik's family to create an art piece to help them remember A.J. He's actually decided to do two: one of Boik that he'll give to Cross and a second, larger portrait of Boik, his mother and his brother that he'll give to them.
"It's a combination of three different photos that I pieced together," Bates says. "A.J.'s mom didn't have a good family photo of the three of them and she really wanted that. An added bonus is that I'm giving her the family photo she never had."
Bates has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $6,000 to complete the portraits. He says Boik's family felt strongly that he should be paid for his work, and they decided that crowd-funding was the way to raise the money. "There's a lot of people that want to do something, but they're at a loss of what to do," Bates says. Contributing to the creation of something tangible that will help a grieving family could be the answer, he says.
Cross says the portrait is part of her healing process. "To see it and understand and see the life of A.J. from beginning to end.... It's more of a healing tribute," she says. "It will remind us that we're all connected through him even though he's not here."
Below, watch the video Bates created for the Kickstarter campaign; it features Cross, who was at the theater with Boik that night. For more on how another surviving victim of the theater shooting is coping with the tragedy, read our cover story, "Sticks and Stones."