Utah artist creates portraits to honor victims of May 24

JR Johansen with Sandra Torres as she holds a portrait of her daughter, Eliahna Cruz Torres, who died as a result of the May 24 tragedy at Robb Elementary. Johansen is a Utah-based artist who created portraits to honor the victims of the school shooting.

The following information was submitted by Giles Lambertson on behalf of the Eagle Pass District of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

After horror descended upon Robb Elementary School in late May, one of the many compassionate responses was one family’s commitment to honor the victims of the shooting through painting of individual portraits. 

In January, that resolve resulted in presentation of the poignant artwork to stricken family members.

The artist is JR Johansen, who lives 1,300 miles away in a small town in Utah. 

That isn’t so far that he didn’t hear about the May 24 school tragedy.

Johansen immediately felt prompted to contribute his talents to any effort to comfort the surviving family members.

His resolve became fixed when he received a call from Ross Davidson, who lives in Uvalde. Davidson, too, had felt an impulse to try to commemorate the lives of the victims. 

Who did he call? His brother-in-law, who happens to be JR Johansen. The men’s wives are sisters.

“As we talked, it became apparent that each of us had received this same impression to try to help the bereft families,” Davidson says.

Davidson contacted some grieving family members in Uvalde and was assured that such portraits would be well-received. 

He then coordinated the project, first collecting publicly available or favorite family photos of victims and sending them to Johansen.

At the end of the year, the pastel portraits were transported to Uvalde.

Over two days in late January at the Davidson home, Davidson and Johansen privately presented the artwork to individual family members. 

“Tears were shed and smiles lit up faces,” says Davidson.

The gifts, of course, were without cost to recipients, with frames being donated by a Layton, Utah, frame shop and other materials and transportation costs being absorbed by anonymous donors.

Johansen is a Vietnam War veteran who during the war was injured in an Agent Orange air-drop that went awry. 

His lungs were severely damaged in the incident and he later developed a heart problem. Many years later, Johansen began painting as a therapeutic activity, focusing on portraits of children with terminal illnesses.

Because he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he began to be requested by church members to create portraits of missionaries who lost their lives during their missions. His focus on young people has led him to produce more than 500 paintings of children who died in a variety of circumstances. “When I began painting,” Johansen says. 

“I realized I looked forward to getting up every morning to paint. There were days I didn’t feel good, but it was a positive thing for me because of some of the experiences I’ve had. It has helped me to be happy and I love it.”

He credits his charitable portrait activity with extending his life, his heart seeming to find strength in the work, which now has touched the lives of some families in Texas.