Fine-art photographer Renee Rodriguez was eating breakfast on the morning of June 12, 2016, when a news bulletin flashed across the TV screen in her small Galveston apartment. The horrifying report was the first account of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida.
As the details unfolded, Rodriguez learned that Pulse was an LGBTQ dance club popular with the young Latinx community. It was packed with more than 300 people when a gunman entered the establishment. He murdered 49 people and wounded 53 more.
Rodriguez was speechless. The can of Coke in her hand slipped from her fingers and hit the floor with a thud. Then she went into shock.
“The horrendous act of striking down innocent lives, at the same time they were celebrating life, devastated me,” Rodriguez, a lesbian Latinx woman, remembers. “It could’ve been me rejoicing and dancing. The people killed that night would never dance again. I knew I had to do something for those blessed lost souls.”
Rodriguez then began working on Viva Pulse, an art piece that honored the 49 lives that were lost. She assembled 49 of her photographs—one photo for each murder victim—that expressed different aspects of the human spirit. The collection was first displayed at the Tremont Gallery in Galveston.
“Viva Pulse moved people,” Rodriguez says. “Some would even stand there and cry. After that, I had no choice. I knew I was destined to create more tributes to those lost lives,” she explains.
In 2017, Rodriguez created Pulsation, her second exhibition that was created for the tragedy’s first anniversary. In 2018, she produced a tribute photo album entitled Redemptive LOVE that is dedicated to the memory of the victims. It was presented at the Houston FotoFest Biennial Portfolio Review. The collection was so well received that Rodriguez was invited to show it at an Art Museum of the Americas event in Washington, DC.
In honor of the fifth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre, Rodriguez will showcase a collection of her Pulse tribute photos at the Texas State Capitol in Austin this month. Rodriguez’s Pulse/49: A Remembrance from the Texas Exhibition will feature five Latina artists and hang in the second level-Rotunda, where all are invited to view it.
Lorena Fernandez is a Houston-based Latina artist who holds a PhD in Expressive Arts Therapy and Coaching. She was a natural choice for the Pulse/49 exhibit. “My heart is broken over the senseless gun violence, discrimination against our LGBT community, and the discrimination against Black and brown people that is rampant in America today. When Renee invited me to participate in this tribute, I saw it as a spiritual opportunity to offer my art to our suffering human hearts,” Fernandez says.
Shawna Stroup Billet is a remarkable mixed-media artist who finds inspiration in nature and culture, which she then expresses through organic form, bold color, and dramatic line. She had very personal reasons to articulate the community’s feelings of grief and renewal. “For me, this opportunity offered healing during the year of COVID. I was dealing with the loss of close friends and family. I understood well the process of grief that the families, partners, spouses, and friends have endured in the five years since Pulse, and I wanted to help provide their loved ones with a sense of peace and healing through my art,” she explains.
Nanette Sandoval is a passionate illustrator and artist, and a self-identified Mexican American Houstonian. “I am a Latina lesbian with a partner and son, so the tragedy really hit home for me. I was inspired to create an art piece for the Pulse/49 show. Each soul lost is represented by a ray of color in the rainbow, reminding us that each one continues to shine brightly and is not forgotten,” she states.
Mitch D’arte is a Latina art teacher and award-winning artist whose powerful work is a striking addition to the show. Her participation was a perfect fit, as she also saw herself in the victims. “I related to the loss through my ancestry—I am also a Latina lesbian. In our culture, a hummingbird is a messenger between two worlds, so I chose the hummingbird as my messenger [sent by] those who passed to speak to those they left behind. I created Ve y diles que estoy bien (Go and tell them that I am fine) for the show. It’s painted on a sheer canvas, representing a veil that the viewer can see through to the other side of two worlds,“ D’arte states.
Rodriguez says she is very pleased with the way Pulse/49 is shaping up. “I’m just happy to be able to be creative, and to share my passion for those who are no longer here. I feel it’s a part of my duty, not only as an artist, but as a human. Art is essential to all life, and photography is essential to mine,” she concludes with a twinkle in her eyes.
What: Pulse/49: A Remembrance from the Texas Exhibition
When: June 11–17
Where: Second-level Rotunda at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, 1100 Congress Ave.
This article appears in the May 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.