The day after Christmas, a small-time YouTuber named Brittani Boren Leach went to wake her 3-month-old son Crew from a nap and realized he wasn’t breathing.
Over the next week, the heartbroken young mom from Texas chronicled her son’s illness, and his eventual death, on her public Instagram page. In just a few weeks, her follower count swelled to more than 900,000 people who prayed for her, cried with her, and posted tributes to her baby.
Thousands of miles away in Seattle, Ashley Harmon, a 41-year-old mom and illustrator, saw Leach’s posts. Her response to the tragedy was unique. She used Leach’s photos from Instagram to draw a portrait of Leach’s family. In the photo, she drew her interpretation of Jesus, holding baby Crew and Leach’s hand.
Harmon posted the photo on her Instagram, writing: “I can’t get @brittaniborenleach off my mind. Every post is more heartbreaking than the one before. Let’s keep sending her so much love and so many prayers as they continue to walk the path no parent should have to.” When Leach reposted her painting, the post got nearly 500,000 likes.
Certain pockets of Instagram often feel like one big community. Instead of chatting with neighbors and friends at the cul-de-sac BBQ, many modern women, especially young moms, gather and connect on the platform with likeminded women. So when horrible things happen to someone they follow, it can feel as if it’s happening close to home.
Over the past few months, tragedy has hit several women in the lifestyle, DIY, and “mommy blogger” community on Instagram, and these stories have gone viral. Before Crew’s death, thousands followed the public mourning surrounding the sudden death of Olive Heiligenthal and prayed with DIY influencer Lindsay Sherbondy after her 7-year-old daughter got into a severe accident. This past month, thousands on Instagram have mourned alongside influencer Kassady Bingham, whose toddler son died of cancer.
If you’ve followed any of these events and the public expression of grief on Instagram, then Harmon’s designs are probably familiar. She has drawn portraits of all the aforementioned lost or injured children and posted them on her page after reading about them on Instagram.
While she has gotten criticized as being opportunistic or out for sales in her Etsy shop, Harmon says she truly just wants to help in her own way: through her art.
“I end up getting really invested in these people,” Harmon said. “[On] Instagram you can start really feeling like you know these people, and connect and talk...So it’s kind of being able to provide something for them that they want, even though it’s not been asked for, and you can connect. It all goes back to my way of trying to help. I feel like it’s what I can do.”
In response to the negative comments, Harmon insisted that she and others who react so publicly to these viral tragedies are just trying to help and pay tribute to those who have lost loved ones.
“I think it’s just that people want community so badly, they want to connect with people...I don’t know that social media is necessarily the best way to do it, but I think that’s where we’re at in the world,” she said. “I just think that’s why people use it the way we do.”
It’s true that Harmon’s business has taken off since she began painting and posting what she calls her “memorial portraits,” the ones that typically feature Jesus, the deceased loved one, and the family on Instagram. She’s from Arizona and studied art and graphic design in college. She worked for a few years as a graphic designer, but decided to stay home after having her daughter, who is now 16.
About four years ago, Harmon said a friend finally convinced her to open an Etsy shop to sell her art. She began working with watercolors, and one of her first paintings was a tribute to a friend’s mom, who had died unexpectedly.
“I was like, what can I do? I’m not very good at talking, I can’t find the words, but I can draw her something,” she said.
At first, she said her shop didn’t grow very fast — it took her until last summer to even hit 1,000 sales. However, her business began to gain momentum after she made and posted her first “memorial portrait” to her Instagram account for her Etsy shop in October 2018. She had actually drawn her first for her sister-in-law, but decided to post one she had drawn for her own family in honor of a miscarriage she had suffered in 2012.
In the post, she asked if she should start selling the drawings in her shop and got a good response, so she went for it.
Harmon said she doesn’t even remember how she came up with the idea to add a version of Jesus into the memorial portraits, or the signature hand-holding. However, she is religious and said the photos are her way of putting her beliefs into art.
“Jesus is holding them in heaven, it’s just a visual picture of that,” she said. “I’m just kind of providing that comfort and hope.” She said the hand-holding is meant to represent a link between heaven and earth.
Harmon added that she doesn’t know if most of her followers are religious, and she has done all types of family portraits with and without Christian aspects. Some customers, she said, just request a family photo drawing with their deceased member added in. Others ask for other representations of their loss, like a family member with angel wings or a miscarried baby being represented as a star or a rainbow.
As for her version of Jesus, Harmon said she draws him based on typical depictions of him in popular art and culture. She has drawn him a few different ways, before settling on the one she draws now, which she calls “Happy Jesus.” She also said she changes his skin tone to try to match him to the race of the family, which sometimes brings “divisive” comments.
Since she began posting and sharing the photos, Harmon’s sales have slowly started to grow. She now has 52,000 followers on Instagram, and her posts have been liked thousands times. Her portraits, mostly featuring the smiling Jesus, seem to be all over Instagram’s Explore page. Since last summer, Harmon said she doubled her total sales to almost 2,500. She actually had to temporarily stop accepting new orders because she couldn’t keep up with demand.
Now, she said, she gets requests from followers to make “memorial portraits” for different families who have suffered tragedies. When Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna died in a helicopter crash earlier this year, Harmon said she got dozens of messages asking her to draw a memorial portrait for the family.
However, with more attention comes more hate, though Harmon said she gets many more nice messages than negative ones. After Harmon posted her “memorial portrait” of Kobe and Gianna, she got comments accusing her of being “gross,” “posting it too soon,” or “being in it for the publicity.”
Harmon said she saw a bunch of other fan art on Instagram before she posted hers, so she felt like she wasn’t doing anything wrong. She also said she is careful to not come across as “ambulance chasing.”
“I always try to remember people like to complain,” she said, adding, “You just can’t please everyone.”
Still, she is just as intrigued as anyone as to why people have the impulse to ask her to draw a portrait when they see a tragedy on social media.
“I don’t know!” she said when asked to explain the phenomenon. “It’s just back to...they’re wanting to provide comfort too, but they’re doing it through me because I’m the one who draws?”
Harmon added she only feels like her portrait for Kobe was a “public” post for a celebrity.
“Brittani, I know she’s got a lot of followers, but she’s just a mom,” she said.
Harmon said she has also spoken to Leach and Bingham, and they were thrilled with the portraits.
"It's all been really, very positive," she said.
But at the end of the day, Harmon said she is focused on creating a priceless piece of art for her customers — famous or not.
“My goal and my desire is to provide these people with comfort in their time of grief,” she said.