A new art exhibit made from guns sparks a conversation
110,000 Americans are shot annually, and about 33,800 die
Jonathan Ferrara is a modern art gallery owner driven by an old-fashioned idea: He wants the pieces he has gathered at his gallery in New Orleans to hold a mirror up to society and reflect an issue that has become a touchy one for Americans.
He wants Americans to see our relationship with guns for what it is.
His traveling art installation of modern sculptures, photographs, paintings, video and mixed media uses more than 180 decommissioned guns, mostly bought through the New Orleans Police Department’s buyback program, as raw material. The art is also captured in a new book, “Guns in the Hands of Artists.”
Like the mission Picasso had in creating “Guernica” – to raise critical awareness about the suffering and horror of the Spanish civil war after the Nazis wiped out an entire city – Ferrara wants this art to start a difficult conversation.
“We want more than the screaming match. We wanted to take the conversation out of the polarized rhetoric into the realm of art as a possible means for a productive dialogue,” Ferrara said. “If you talk numbers or stats or you just listen to the vitriol, you lose the emotional content that should be a part of this conversation. Art captures the emotional best, and hopefully, it makes you think.”
The numbers show a stark reality. About 111,000 Americans are shot annually, including people shot by someone else and people who shoot themselves by accident or in suicide. About 33,800 die as a result of those injuries.
For perspective, the number of deaths from gunshot wounds is nearly the same as the number who die from car accidents each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gun violence is clearly a “serious threat to public health,” according to the American Medical Association.
When Ferrara first commissioned the exhibit of works from a diverse group of artists in 1996 with the help of fellow artist Brian Borrello, New Orleans’ gun violence was so bad, the city had earned the nickname “Murder City.” It hasn’t been able to shake it.
“The thing about this exhibition, we know from whence we speak,” Ferrara said.
He has brought the show to other cities plagued by gun violence, including Miami, St. Louis and Minneapolis. It has also been installed in places for policy-makers to see, like the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington.
Sen. Tim Kaine sponsored the exhibit there and wrote an essay to accompany a photograph of Ferrara’s sculpture.
Kaine is one of several people to write essays that Ferrara calls “literary art” to accompany photos of the art in his book. Others include Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head in 2011. Forty percent of the participants are gun owners, and 40% are victims of gun violence.
One piece featured in the book, called “Echo, Repeat, and Repetition,” is a conversation that accompanies a still from a video installation that shows a large pile of guns. The talk is between Lolis Eric Elie, a writer for the HBO series “Treme,” and New Orleans resident Claudia Jones.
Jones has lived much of her life in the New Orleans projects. The 60-year-old lost her three sons and a grandson in separate instances of gun violence. Each was killed while engaged in everyday activities. Her oldest was killed while coming home from a school dance in 1991. She lost her second son after he left his girlfriend’s place. Her last son was shot and killed on the way home from a basketball game.
Despite the tragedies, she still finds hope. “God’s been good to me. I lost my children, but he’s still good to me. He’s left me here for a reason,” she tells Elie. None of the killings has been solved.
Kaine’s essay focuses on his frustrations as a lawmaker. A gun owner and a Second Amendment advocate, he wants “more sensible” restrictions.
Kaine was Virginia governor during the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Afterward, he pushed through laws that improved background checks and created more help for mental health that he considers “concrete steps to reduce gun violence.” But he wants more and felt hamstrung by gun advocates – and still does now, on the national stage. He believes there is an urgent need to “put an end to the crisis.”
His essay accompanies Ferrara’s sculpture “Excalibur No More.” It’s a shotgun sticking out of a rock, a play on the Arthurian legend of the sword in the stone.
When creating it, Ferrara experienced the ease with which someone can buy a gun. He got it in a private sale. The seller and his 15-year-old son came into his gallery carrying the shotgun and a bandolier “like from the Wild West” in a duffel bag.
“They asked if I had any questions,” Ferrara said. And that was about it. There was no paperwork, no receipt. No one knew that ownership had been transferred, and it was all legal. “It perplexed me,” he said.
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In addition to the new book, Ferrara hopes to bring the exhibit to other cities.
Talking about the book with a gun violence expert from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Ferrara said he was reminded that “for every issue, there comes a tipping point where things are poised to change.”
“I hope this will add to the conversation,” Ferrara said. “Because in the end, no matter what you believe about guns, everyone should want America to be safer.”