Nashville, improbably, is yet to have a permanent memorial to the city’s pivotal role in the 1961 Freedom Rides and the young men and women who risked their lives to advance the cause of Civil Rights in America. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Rides, and there were plenty of events and opportunities to pay tribute. Belcourt Theatre screened Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Riders documentary, which is based on Ray Arsenault’s book of the same name. A commemorative bus ride stopped in Nashville as it retraced the original Rides. Even Oprah welcomed the Riders for an entire show, acknowledging Nashville’s role and the leadership of the young Diane Nash, who shepherded new rides from the city after the first leg was met with extreme violence in Alabama. Meanwhile, an extraordinary art exhibit has quietly been keeping vigil for the Riders and their 1956 bus boycott compatriots at the downtown Nashville Public Library. Charlotta Janssen‘s portraits of the Boycotters and Freedom Riders, “Threads of a Story: History Inspiring Art,” are based on mug shots and other historic photographs of the period. It’s worth getting down to the Library in the next couple of weeks to see the exhibit before it makes its way to the Smithsonian. The dozen portraits composed of oil, acrylic, iron oxide and collage on canvas walk a line between pop and folk art, and are indeed “heroic portraits of courage” as the advertising material suggests. Included are Ernest “Rip” Patton, Hilmar Paber, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, Cordell Reagon, Joy Reagon, John Lewis, John Seigenthaler, Diane Nash, Reverend James Lawson, Addie J. Hamerter and Charles Cox. It’s hard to separate these portraits from the stories they tell, and easy to get caught up appreciating an exhibit simply because one should. But put this out of your mind. Janssen’s portraits are excellent, and work both as an artful experience and a fitting tribute to the Freedom Riders and Bus Boycotters. Her choice of varying the sizes of the canvases has you stepping in and stepping back, getting a closer look and then taking it all in, not unlike how the Freedom Riders story should be digested. There is the larger, overarching and inspiring take, oft-times shameful when you hear what those kids (and yes, they were kids) went through. And then when you dig deeper, into the individual stories of the Riders and mechanisms of the Rides, there is even more inspiration and shame. Ultimately, though, there is triumph. Janssen uses collage here to great effect, including recreated clippings from “The Tennessean,” “Nashville Banner” and foreign papers. One such headline proclaims, “In the land of Ernest Hemingway, some people still fight for basic human rights.” Janssen, a Maine native who studied painting at the University of the Arts in Berlin, first got the idea for “Threads of a Story” after President Obama was sworn into office in early 2009. She wrote in her artist statement that she wanted to go back and thank those men and women who came before Obama, for their work and dedication in the Civil Rights movement that made this moment possible. “These are extraordinary humans who didn’t stand by idle,” she wrote. “Freedom Riders are a miracle to me that we all need to know about and build on what they started: the beloved community.” It’s a powerful statement. We’ve come to accept, and maybe even take for granted, the role of a filmmaker or writer in documentary history. But there are roles for visual artists, as well, and Janssen, like Arsenault and Nelson, has given us a great gift in these portraits. Unfortunately, they are only on loan to Nashville, which could use them permanently. “Charlotta Janssen: Threads of a Story: History Inspiring Art” is on view until December 31 in the Courtyard Gallery at the downtown Nashville Public Library.