Guns used in art to ex­press hor­ror of mod­ern- day vi­o­lence

Artists’ re­sponse to sense­less killings trig­gers con­ver­sa­tions

Connecticut Post (Sunday) - - Front Page - By JOEL LANG


The orig­i­nal Guns in the Hands of Artists ex­hibit was mounted in 1996 in New Or­leans, partly in re­sponse to that city’s high mur­der rate.

The lat­est in­stall­ment is now in res­i­dence at Fairfield Uni­ver­sity’s Quick Cen­ter in the Walsh Gallery. It was ini­ti­ated in 2014, partly in re­sponse to the mass shoot­ing at New­town’s Sandy Hook El­e­men­tary School that claimed the lives of 20 chil­dren and six adults.

In both in­stances, artists were asked to cre­ate works — paint­ings, sculp­tures and writ­ings us­ing decommissioned guns — that in some way com­mented on the schiz­o­phrenic cul­ture that cel­e­brates ( or de­fends) guns while con­demn­ing ( or tol­er­at­ing) gun vi­o­lence.

The Fairfield ex­hibit has a hy­brid ti­tle — # Un­load: Guns in the Hands of Artists — be­cause it was in­sti­gated as the big open­ing act of # Un­load, a new ad­vo­cacy group co- founded by Mary Himes, its ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor who is mar­ried to Rep. Jim Himes, and He­len Dur­ing, of We­ston, a pho­tog­ra­pher and the artis­tic di­rec­tor for # Un­load. Though they had ex­plored other ex­hibits, the women leaped into ac­tion af­ter the Oc­to­ber mas­sacre of 58 peo­ple at a Las Ve­gas coun­try mu­sic con­cert.

“Mary and I thought, enough. We can get this show up in Con­necti­cut,” Dur­ing says. Seek­ing a venue, they ap­proached Peter van Heer­den, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Quick Cen­ter.

Himes says her idea for # Upload was “to use the arts to trig­ger con­ver­sa­tions” that might lead to a con­sen­sus about gun safety. “We have to keep work­ing on this be­cause the po­lit­i­cal arena is so par­a­lyzed and now so toxic,” she says. “Every­body is in their cor­ner.”

Among the some three dozen new pieces at the Quick Cen­ter, one has ex­tra sig­nif­i­cance for Con­necti­cut and also bridges the decades be­tween first ex­hibit and the re­vival. It is a man­hole cover cast from shell cas­ings col­lected by the New Or­leans po­lice for the artist Bradley McCal­lum. The pat­tern is the same one McCal­lum cre­ated in 1996 for his now- land­mark Man­hole Cover Project done for the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hart­ford.

Both cities shared high mur­der rates. But for Hart­ford, McCal­lum cast 228 cov­ers from thou­sands of con­fis­cated Con­necti­cut guns. Some cov­ers were placed at the scenes of shoot­ings. Oth­ers were in the court­yard at the atheneum, which at the time was hav­ing a ma­jor ex­hibit on Sa­muel Colt, the city’s, and prob­a­bly the na­tion’s, most- fa­mous gun man­u­fac­turer. Each cover bore Colt’s per­sonal motto and the note it was made from con­fis­cated guns.

McCal­lum, who is based in Brook­lyn, N. Y., first be­came in­ter­ested in gun vi­o­lence while in grad­u­ate school at Yale and read­ing news­pa­per cov­er­age of New Haven’s high mur­der rate. For his th­e­sis, he took por­traits of the vic­tims’ moth­ers and recorded their tes­ti­mony, sug­gest­ing all the deaths could be linked to larger forces. He re­peated the tes­ti­mo­nial idea in Hart­ford.

“What is hum­bling is that when I first made the Man­hole Cover Project, there was this in­cred­i­ble sense of the abil­ity for change to hap­pen and what’s re­ally frus­trat­ing is that, with the pas­sage of time, the is­sue has only got­ten more po­lar­ized, only got­ten more di­vi­sive,” he says.

“When I be­gan the project it was look­ing at gang- re­lated vi­o­lence and the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of guns. Those is­sues still per­sist. But it’s pro­foundly sad that mass shoot- ings, in­clud­ing in schools, have also ac­cel­er­ated and been taken to a level where it be­comes al­most ( the shooter’s) call for at­ten­tion. It’s so pro­foundly sad.”

Still, McCal­lum says he must hope that ex­hibits like Guns in the Hands of Artists can lead to agree­ment on gun safety. That is the same hope driv­ing Himes and Dur­ing and also Jonathan Fer­rara, the New Or­leans gallery owner who hosted the orig­i­nal ex­hibit and or­ga­nized the 2014 re­vival.

“What these ex­hi­bi­tions pro­vide is a vis­ual man­i­fes­ta­tion of the con­ver­sa­tions peo­ple have on an ev­ery­day ba­sis about guns and gun vi­o­lence,” says Fer­rara, who has a piece in the cur­rent ex­hibit, “Ex­cal­ibur No More.” It is a 12gauge shot­gun stuck sword­like into a boul­der taken from the Colorado River.

The show has made sev­eral stops al­ready, but Fer­rara says he’s ex­cited about the one in Fairfield be­cause it is the first in the North­east. It brings the ex­hibit into the New York or­bit and also to the home state of Sandy Hook and sto­ried gun man­u­fac­tur­ers. If Hart­ford had Colt, which made the six- gun and AR- 15 as­sault ri­fles, Bridge­port had Rem­ing­ton Arms. Huge in size, it em­ployed thou­sands dur­ing World War I, shap­ing the city.

The piece cho­sen for the ex­hibit’s pro­mo­tional ma­te­rial is a pho­to­graph by Marcus Ken­ney of his young daugh­ter, head thrown back, aim­ing a pis­tol at the sky. It hap­pened to be a decommissioned gun, but the pho­to­graph was not posed.

“It’s shock­ing and beau­ti­ful at the same time,” Himes says. The artist had “left it on his bed­side ta­ble where his daugh­ter found it. It could have been a loaded gun.”

Himes and Dur­ing have large am­bi­tions and many part­ners for the Fairfield ex­hibit, runs un­til Oct. 13.

One of # Upload’s first acts, back in De­cem­ber, was a fundraiser to sup­port Hart­ford’s long­stand­ing gun buy- back pro­gram. The guns, sev­eral hundred pounds’ worth cut into pieces, were to be dis­played at the Walsh Gallery open­ing on June 1 and then given to a new set of artists for an an­cil­lary ex­hibit at Artspace in New Haven.

“We’re play­ing it for­ward,” says Dur­ing, mean­ing the idea of turn­ing guns into art.

She says one of the first artists to com­mit to the New Haven ex­hibit was Roz Chast, the New Yorker car­toon­ist. Dur­ing showed Chast the guns when they met for lunch. She had been driv­ing around with them in the trunk of her car since pick­ing them up in Hart­ford. “They are ex­tremely heavy to take out,” she says.


Marcus Ken­ney / Con­trib­uted photo

Marcus Ken­ney poses his daugh­ter for “Girl with Gun,” part of Fairfield Uni­ver­sity’s new ex­hi­bi­tion.

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