When 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof exited the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on the night of June 17, 2015, he left 12 victims behind him. Of those 12, only three survived, and on December 15, 2016, a jury convicted Roof on 33 separate federal charges, including nine murders and 24 federal hate crimes. On January 10, 2017, an unrepentant Dylann Roof was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
Among Roof’s victims was Clementa “Clem” Pinckney, a South Carolina state senator and the senior pastor at Mother Emanuel, as the church is known in Charleston. The trial revealed Roof to be one of the most disturbing figures in American criminal history. He freely admitted that he wanted to start a race war with his murders and laughed on several occasions when the suffering of his victims and their families was under discussion.
Needless to say, the Mother Emanuel shootings opened a wound not only in Charleston but also in the hearts and souls of feeling human beings everywhere. That’s why Ojai artist John Aaron created his beautiful work of ceramic relief sculpture — to portray the Mother Emanuel Church and to memorialize those killed in the shooting.
Responding to a call in May from the organizers of Lowcountry Freedom Reigns Festival, an annual Charleston event held to educate legal professionals and the public about issues of contemporary justice, and from the International African American Museum in downtown Charleston, Aaron accepted a commission and went to work on his monumental piece. Aaron, who has lived in Charleston and was raised here in Santa Barbara, is both an experienced ceramic relief sculptor and a longtime peace activist. He founded CHALK4PEACE in Arlington, Virginia, in 2005, which is a global art project that encourages young people to draw their images of peace on public sidewalks. The program has since spread to more than 100 locations across the United States and around the world.
Aaron’s title for the monument, which is 5‘4” x 3‘8” x 6” in size, is “The Capacity to Forgive.” At the base of the Emanuel AME Church, he has inscribed the names of the victims with a handmade set of letters he acquired from Gary Dorothy’s Stampa Barbara, an area business that was once one of the world’s largest retailers of rubber stamps. Dr. Christopher Land of the Thacher School provided Aaron with access to the school’s ceramics studio over the summer so that he could work on the piece, and Wyn Matthews of Firestick Pottery in Ojai gave him a place to show it before it gets packed up and shipped to Charleston. For his part, John Aaron feels that what he has accomplished was somehow foreordained. “I was in Ferguson, Missouri, working with children on a CHALK4PEACE event when I heard about the massacre in Charleston,” he told me. “I had a feeling right then that somehow, sooner or later, I would end up doing something, some work of art, to memorialize those people.”