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As the public braces for the deeply disturbing details expected to come out at the trial of Robert Pickton -- accused of first-degree murder -- three British Columbia artists are planning exhibitions that they say will give the homicide victims dignity.

For The Profession of Hurt, the first of three art projects inspired by the killings, Zoe Pawlak of White Rock, B.C., created oil portraits of the 26 women Pickton is accused of murdering. The first trial on six of the charges begins Jan. 22.

Pawlak's haunting solo show opened yesterday at the Interurban Gallery in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the same drug- and crime-ravaged neighbourhood from which the women went missing. The exhibition will also include a dozen abstract landscapes of the Port Coquitlam, B.C., hog farm where police found the women's remains.

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Media coverage has grouped the women together, says Pawlak, 24.

She set out to distinguish each victim and humanize her memory by painting individual portraits, based on newspaper photos.

Betty Kovacic, who will be mounting her own related portrait show at the Two Rivers Gallery in Prince George in September, recalls the overwhelming despair she felt when the women's remains were being discovered. She says she isn't surprised to hear that other artists were similarly inspired.

"What would it feel like if 50 people in a room just suddenly disappeared?" says Kovacic, whose multimedia exhibit will attempt to fill that physical void.

Kovacic has painted portraits of the 50 women who had been killed or gone missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and the so-called Highway of Tears in northern British Columbia when she began the project in 2002.

The additional victims discovered since then will be represented in the show by human-sized figures draped in silk shrouds. Each acrylic portrait will be accompanied by an individual composition written by Broek Bosma, artistic director of the Prince George Conservatory of Music, and a personalized piece of prose or poetry contributed by various artists.

Pamela Masik is working on a project of similar proportions. The Vancouver artist says she plans to paint portraits of all 69 women that police have identified as having vanished from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside since 1978, including the 26 women Pickton is accused of killing.

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Masik has already completed 22 of the towering paintings, some of which measure 8 by 10 feet.

A date for her exhibition has not been set.

"We have to remember that each woman was a whole human being who had feelings and families and dreams," says Kovacic, who has given each of her portraits a unique background.

"It's been a very painful process," Kovacic continues, sobbing softly over the phone. "I've cried over each one."

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