The shirtless man crouches down to dip his paintbrush into plastic tubs that once held cottage cheese and oatmeal.
He puts bristle to canvas, smearing shades of brown that will form a wooden beam on one of several floor-to-ceiling panels that line the stuffy room of the apartment above a pizza place in Orlando.
Clad in denim cut off at the knees, Yuriy Karabash quietly works through the humid afternoon just a few feet away from his fellow artist Michael Pilato, with only soft music cutting through the silence. Pilato leans forward to craft the details of a man’s face that is nestled in a rainbow-colored heart, a victim lost in the Pulse tragedy.
Pilato, of State College, Pennsylvania, and Karabash, of Moldova, a land-locked country in Eastern Europe, are finishing a mural to commemorate those 49 killed, the 53 hurt and the broader community impacted by the massacre. Those heart-framed faces float around on the panels between several survivors, first responders, activists and public figures who were involved in the community following the shooting.
Pilato and Karabash see their work as a narrative journey through aftermath of the shooting, and they’ve put in the legwork to make it so. They’ve brought in victims’ families and survivors to tell their stories, recording a history of the tragedy and translating it into a piece of work that is, at once, a visual celebration of the lives lost and somber reminder of the community that is still healing.
The visitors show the artists old photographs, tell stories, and literally leave their mark on the work through hand prints that pepper the mural.
For Pilato, part of what brought him to Orlando was a personal understanding of the grief that comes with the sudden loss of a loved one. He unexpectedly lost his daughter three years ago, and he says her spirit moved him when he learned of the massacre at Pulse.
“I felt her pulling me to Orlando,” he says, adding that the work is healing for him.
The mural, which stands 12 feet tall and is 36 feet wide, will debut at Pulse on Monday morning, exactly one year after the shooting. Then the work will be displayed at Lake Eola in downtown Orlando at 3 p.m. for a remembrance event.
Visitors will be able to use a mobile app, which can be downloaded from geogram.co, to leave digital messages at the mural. Anyone with the app will be able to see the notes and videos others have left. Next year, the goal is to include messages from those depicted or loved ones so they can tell their stories in their own voices.
As sunlight streams into the studio, Pilato studies the face on the panel propped against the wall. Hunched forward, he gingerly dabbed the male visage before him. He whispers to the face as he put the finishing touch on it.
“Now you’re smiling, buddy. Yes.”