Not far from the Tree of Life building is artist and anti-gun violence advocate Kyle Holbrook’s latest mural, a memorial to the 11 victims of the 2018 shooting — Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, David Rosenthal, Cecil Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Dan Stein, Irving Younger and Melvin Wax — as well as all victims of gun violence.
The mural depicts the Tree of Life building lined with hearts and Stars of David. Holbrook wanted to echo the memorials erected immediately following the shooting. A chain of people holding hands stretches across the mural, emphasizing that the shooting did not kill the love and strength in the community, Holbrook said.
“The Tree of Life is still living, and that’s why I wanted the tree on the right side,” he said. “On the right side, they see it turning back to life with the tree reforming and the life still being there.”
The mural is purple, a color commonly used in memorials, because Holbrook did not want bright and cheerful tones to undercut the message of the work. A bright orange stop sign is the only exception, symbolic of the need to end gun violence. Next to it is a hand forming a peace sign with a QR code linking to Tree of Life, Inc.’s Remember. Rebuild. Renew. campaign.
Holbrook has an extensive career as a muralist in Pittsburgh and across the country. He’s created murals in every state but Alaska and is responsible for many local murals through his Moving the Lives of Kids Community Mural Project, which encourages young artists to paint murals.
Holbrook spent two days painting the mural at 5819 Phillips Ave. before it was unveiled on June 28 during National Gun Violence Awareness Month. The mural was painted on the back wall of the Coriander India Grill and faces the parking lot.
While he lives in Miami now, Holbrook is a homegrown Pittsburgh artist from Wilkinsburg. His parents, both teachers, encouraged his love of art. He painted nude models to learn anatomy when he was 7 and took weekend classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
“I always went to the Carnegie Museum’s Saturday classes. You know, ever since elementary school, every Saturday,” he said. “Even when I got in trouble later in high school. My dad had cancer. He died in my arms when I was 18. But I always went to my Saturday art classes and never missed those even when I missed regular school.”
He’s created several murals in Squirrel Hill with community members, including one of Gandhi near the synagogue shooting mural. His murals often focus on the desire for peace and the end to gun violence.
And for Holbrook, it goes beyond the hypothetical. Now 45, Holbrook has lost dozens of friends to gun violence.
“I mean, the guns were so readily available, you know, in Wilkinsburg growing up,” he said. “I’ve been shot at. I’ve had that experience of selling guns. It’s so embarrassing. But also, so many of my friends were killed.”
A signature element of his work, the hand forming the peace sign rising from the ground, represents those lost to gun violence.
“I mean, a lot of times I’m channeling my friends, a lot of times. That’s why I started doing the hand coming from the ground, almost like the voice for victims,” he said.
Holbrook emphasized that, unlike many of his anti-gun violence murals, the synagogue shooting mural is also about antisemitism.
“I think it was my duty as an artist to use the public nature of murals to draw attention to this, especially since the trial is going on at this time in our city,” he said. “Every mural is different and a lot of the other murals that I do that are just about, I don’t want to say just about gun violence, but the Tree of Life was also about antisemitism.”
His connection to the Jewish and Squirrel Hill communities inspired him to create the mural.
“I went to the [Squirrel Hill Jewish Community Center] and played in the JCC league as a kid, basketball and baseball,” he said. “I went to several bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs as a middle schooler. I have a great relationship with the community in Squirrel Hill. … and so the antisemitic part really touched me as well.”
Holbrook chose to paint the mural in the parking lot because he wanted to give people a private but accessible space in Squirrel Hill to mourn the deaths and cherish the moments spent with lost loved ones.
“I wanted it to be quiet but also right in the middle of everything,” he said. “Some of my really great and close friends, and a lot of my memories, are friends that have been victims of gun violence. So, there’s a lot to think about. I like to think about the good times and the good things, and good memories, so they’re not forgotten.” PJC
Abigail Hakas can be reached at email@example.com.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.