Community stands 'Shoulder to Shoulder' with Belgian couple

Local artist paints piece to support couple who lost friends in Brussels attack

By Crystal Chen - Assignment editor/reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A Belgium native and local store owner has received a huge outpouring of support from the community after losing four friends in the Brussels terror attacks this week.

One local artist hoped to use his art to comfort some of the heartache for Chantal Decoster and her husband, Dirk Decoster, who own Belgium Barista in San Marco.

“I just was watching the news, and it's horrible. We need to do something,” artist James Bartkus said. “So I created a painting from recycled wood from a house.”

The piece is called “Shoulder to Shoulder” and Bartkus spent eight hours creating it to support Chantal and Dirk Decoster and everyone in Belgium.

The piece features an American flag and a Belgian flag connected together down the middle.

Bartkus presented the painting at the couple's chocolate shop, offering the store owners his condolences and sharing a moment of mourning with them.

“No one should have to go through that, no one at all,” Bartkus said. “As I was painting, the tears were rolling off my cheeks onto the painting, and it was tough.”

Chantal and Dirk Decoster lost friends in Brussels attack.

Each stroke of his paintbrush brought him back to the painful images from the Brussels attack.

“When that girl was screaming at a subway -- couldn't save her, that really touched me,” Bartkus said.

The Decosters live in Jacksonville, but Brussels is home in their hearts. Their house in Brussels is only five minutes away from the airport that was attacked.

“We think every day about what's happened. The same thing that happened on 9/11 in the U.S.,” Chantal Decoster said. “I heard yesterday that four of my colleagues at the airport passed away. ... It's very sad. I can't explain how I feel at this moment or at that moment. I don't know at this moment. But let's see what happens next in Belgium and when we can see our friends again.”

Artist James Bartkus

She said she knows she can't bring her friends back, but she hopes she can support their families the same way Bartkus and the community have shown support to her and her husband.

The couple plans to auction the painting and use the money raised to help the victims and their families. A photo of the painting will remain on a wall inside the chocolate shop in San Marco.

“This nice painting, it's not only for me but for all of our country,” Chantal Decoster said. “All these things that I'm hearing from people, the comments on Facebook, it helps us a lot.”

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