The Minyanaires of The Tree of Life, Pittsburgh

Painting and collage by Naava Katz, 2019

Portraits of the victims of the shooting at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on 10/27/18.
11”x14” on Birch wood panel. Watercolor and collage. By
Naava Katz.

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On the night of the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I was getting my children ready for their bath and I felt what I can only describe as a whisper. I was lost in thought about the victims, feeling heartbroken, when the idea came to me that I needed to draw their portraits.

I began right there on the floor of the bedroom. A few photos of the people who had been killed began appearing online. I sketched their faces quickly, roughly. But that didn’t feel like enough. Later than night I sat down again and properly began to draw their faces. The victim photos began to spread across the internet, and compiled together they looked like a grim layout of a yearbook page. Little candid snapshots, out of context with mismatched lighting was all we had. I felt like we needed more.

I had no personal connection to any of the people who died. But I knew that every Saturday morning they gathered at The Tree of Life for a minyan to pray together. They called themselves, “The Minyanaires”. The media called them, the regulars.

I know who “the regulars” are at synagogue. My grandfather was a regular at his synagogue. My husband is a regular at ours. There were regulars at my childhood synagogue, and at the synagogue we take our children to now. If you’ve been a part of a Jewish community of any kind, you know who the regulars are too. They’re the ones you can count on to make the minyan early on a Saturday morning. They’re the ones who stand at the door and greet you with a hearty “Shabbat Shalom!”, even when you are embarrassingly late. They’re the ones who stay back to help clean up the kiddush without being asked. That’s why this tragedy felt so personal. I may not have known their names before, but I knew exactly who they were.

I continued painting the portraits. Eventually I knew those faces so well, they began to feel like friends. When I would begin a new portrait, it felt like they were happily posing for me, inspiring me from above to capture their expression just right.

I cut out tiny leaves to glue around each portrait. I wanted them to be surrounded entirely by fresh foliage. But after a few weeks, I needed a break. I wanted to release this art soon after the shooting, but it was beginning to feel overwhelming. I had so many leaves left to cut out, but I just couldn’t do it anymore.

This Rosh Hashana I told my rabbi about the project because I needed advice on what to do with it. I hadn’t touched the portraits for months but I knew it had to be completed and released into the world. She asked if I would start by sharing it with our congregation on Yom Kippur. That gave me the push to face it once again. Looking at the portraits, I realized why I was not able to finish all the leaves I thought I needed. The leaves represented life. They could not complete the circle around the portraits, because life was taken away on that day. Instead, I completed the circles with gold, which represents what we can fulfill for them, through honor and remembrance.

With this piece of art, I hope I was able to preserve a small part of the rich dignity and joyfulness of this community. The Minyanaires are all together again here, side by side as I imagine they would be, welcoming us in. Yes, we know exactly who they are.

Process Photos

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How You Can Help

I encourage you to help share these portraits far and wide as we come closer to the anniversary on October 27. As the artist and copyright holder, I give permission for you to share the images and text online, with the following criteria:

  1. Please do not crop, edit or filter the images in any way. You may re-share only these professionally prepared the images.

  2. Please do not remove my name from the images and always include my contact information (with working links) so that anyone who sees this can reach out to me with questions.

  3. You may not sell the images online or on products in any form.

  4. The link to this entire post is:

  5. If you would like to share in print, please contact me about appropriate files.

  6. My contact information with the images and text should say:

    By Artist Naava Katz | | Instagram @NaavaOnline

If you do share, I would love to know about it. Please be in touch!
Thank you so much.

Love, Naava

By Artist Naava Katz |   | Instagram   @NaavaOnline

By Artist Naava Katz | | Instagram @NaavaOnline

Out Of The Mouths Of Babes

As I’ve started painting more portraits for families, the reaction I didn’t expect has come from the children themselves.

Originally I was just thinking of the moms. Moms like myself, who would love to have their children’s portrait painted and on display in their home. But what has moved me the most is seeing how it affects the children.

Here is my favorite quote ever from a 5-year old when she saw her portrait:

“I love it so much my heart is bursting out like a star!”

And from a 4-year old, when she saw my portrait of herself in her pink tutu and Spiderman leg warmers:

“My favorite part is how strong and pretty I am!”

At my live-painting event last month, two five-year olds watched me paint, their faces in genuine awe. I’m so grateful for the mom who took this photo, so I could see how they were watching.


How I turn a sketch into a finished watercolor

When I'm working on a new illustration, the first thing I do is draw a rough sketch of the figures and the layout. For this drawing I used a photograph of mine as a reference. It helps me get the right perspective. My favorite pencil is a 6B because it flows so smoothly on the paper. My favorite paper is Strathmore Hot Press watercolor paper. I like that it has a smooth finish, which makes it easier to scan into Photoshop without added texture.

The next step is adding details. I figure out character expressions, clothing patterns, and environmental details. I use my super skinny Tombow eraser to remove some sketchy lines and start establishing a cleaner look.

Then I add watercolor. For professional use I like Schmincke and Winsor & Newton. I obsessed for months about what brand I liked, and then finally realized it didn't matter. It's all about how you use color to tell your story. If you pay attention on Instagram, you'll see a lot of top artists use very inexpensive watercolor sets. But that doesn't diminish the quality of their work.

Expensive and not-so expensive watercolor palettes.

Expensive and not-so expensive watercolor palettes.

Finally I scan my drawings into Photoshop and clean up unnecessary smudges with Levels. I scan my favorite drawings at 300dpi in case I want to create prints of them down the line.

Let me know if you have any other questions about my process and favorite materials.