AZTEC — When Nikki Smith arrived home from Santa Fe last November, the 10 p.m. newscast gave her a jolt.

Smith immediately realized she avoided driving through the exact spot where a drunken driver killed five members of a Las Vegas, N.M., family by just 40 minutes.

The senseless deaths on Interstate 25 in northern New Mexico both appalled and scared her. Memories of her own experiences soon returned.

Smith's daughter was involved years earlier in an automobile accident where alcohol was not involved. However, she said her daughter almost lost her life in the crash, adding the event dramatically affected the family.

"Our lives have never ever gotten back to normal," said Smith, an Aztec painter whose past work was commissioned by President Ford and President Reagan.

After the Las Vegas family accident, Smith decided she wanted to draw attention to the tragedies connected to drinking and driving. She considered options and chose to paint portraits of each person killed every year in alcohol-related crashes in New Mexico. Her idea, designed to gradually expand to other states, grew overwhelmingly overnight.

"It's just been phenomenal," Smith said. "I can't keep up with it and it's only been a month."

The Aztec Chamber of Commerce has joined the project, offering Smith space to hang the portraits and the umbrella of a nonprofit until Artists Against Drunk Driving (AADD) becomes its own independent entity. Surviving family members will receive the paintings after they are exhibited.


Families around New Mexico have already submitted more than 35 portrait applications.

"The whole purpose of this is to bring a face to the statistics," said Becki Christensen, executive director of the Aztec Chamber of Commerce. "It's anybody. This can happen to anybody."

Smith first painted a portrait of Ty Waybourn, a 16-year-old Aztec boy who was killed by a drunken driver in November 2003. His painting was unveiled at the Legislature in Santa Fe on DWI Day on Jan. 18, when the AADD project became official.

Waybourn's grandmother, Barbara O'Conner, described her grandson's death as "devastating" because he had a bright future ahead of him. She recalls Ty as a young man who loved camping and fishing, and whose last passion was riding bareback broncs. Seeing his portrait for the first time was a special, yet bittersweet, experience for O'Conner.

"We just love him so much," she said. "We're extremely proud that he's the first one."

O'Conner joined Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) after Waybourn died, and spoke about the tragedy whenever possible — her mission clear.

"I told Ty as we buried him that I would never let an opportunity go to try and get drunk drivers off the road, and I will always do that as long as I have breath," O'Conner said.

She became a victim's advocate, speaking to convicted drunken drivers and attending victim's impact panels. She speaks in court settings and presents programs at local high schools, where students often approach her and say they identify with her grandson and would have enjoyed meeting him.

Though O'Conner cannot measure the extent of her efforts, she knows it has had an affect. She added Smith's project will serve a profound purpose.

"We can go forever with names, but to put faces on them — to let them know these were real lives, wonderful people that we love, and that it's a tragic thing and won't be the same again. It's all because of alcohol-related crashes," she said.

Terry Huertaz, executive director of New Mexico MADD, said the paintings bring public exposure to the state's epidemic of drinking and driving. She said it can also be a healing experience for the victims' families.

The project combines one of New Mexico's highlights — its talented artists — with one of its greatest tragedies — drunken drivers.

"There are probably not really enough words to describe what you feel when such a portrait is done, to see the uniqueness and the life and to know it's been taken away from us," Huertaz said. "When you have it captured in art, it personalizes it."

MADD has become involved to connect victims families who want to participate in the project with the artists who will paint the portraits. Smith started the campaign, but already has three other artists on board. She wants to find more artists who can volunteer to paint the portraits so every interested family can receive one.

Many ideas about how AADD continue to be shaped. Smith said her hope is to open chapters in every state across the country — and she has sought MADD's help to accomplish the task. Each year, the portrait exhibit will likely go on tour around the state. For instance, the portraits could be shown at the DWI Memorial of Perpetual Tears, which is under construction off Interstate 40 in Moriarty.

Smith wants one day to have a gallery to exhibit the paintings, which can be produced in any medium. She added anyone who has had a family member or friend killed in an alcohol-related accident can visit, fill out an application, send in a photograph and an artist will paint the portrait.

Lisa Meerts: