Guns used in art to express horror of modern- day violence
Artists’ response to senseless killings triggers conversations
DECOMMISSIONED GUNS USED TO EXPRESS HORROR AT MODERN- DAY VIOLENCE
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.
“WHAT THESE EXHIBITIONS PROVIDE IS A VISUAL MANIFESTATION OF THE CONVERSATIONS PEOPLE HAVE ON AN EVERYDAY BASIS ABOUT GUNS AND GUN VIOLENCE.”
Marcus Kenney poses his daughter for “Girl with Gun,” part of Fairfield University’s new exhibition.