Hope for the Future: A Reflection on 'Bullet: Who Pulls the Trigger?'

11.04.2013 | Fine Arts

By Lauren Glass '13

ArtStreet’s exhibit, “Bullet: Who Pulls the Trigger?” has just ended, but not before evoking an incredible response from the community, and the nation.

This exhibit combined the work of three professional artists and over one hundred kindergarten to high school aged students from Newtown, Dayton, and Chicago to form a collective response to gun violence of different types. The goal of the exhibit was not to take a stance, but to bring forth a new perspective on an old issue, and inspire much needed conversation in the community.

After attending the opening receptions for each piece of the exhibit and hearing the artists and community members speak about the pieces and the processes that went into them, what struck me most was the intent behind the students’ contributions. The student works revealed an inspiring level of engagement on the issue of gun violence, an issue which is impacting the youth and requires youth involvement if we want change; but an issue that is sparking debate all too often dominated by adults and absent of youth voices.

This exhibit brought those youth voices to light.

The first part of the exhibit came from Newtown and showcased artist S.B. Woods’ striking “Meditation on Mourning” statues of grieving persons covered in shrouds, while a projected list of names of all those killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook shooting scrolled across the statue bodies. Hanging above the statues were paintings made by Sandy Hook shooting survivors.

Although the “Meditation on Mourning” piece is immediately very powerful, it’s the paintings by the student survivors that I found most compelling. In contrast to my naïve expectations of dark scenes fabricated by traumatized children, the paintings are vibrant and inspirational. You see purple and yellow hand prints. You see a painting of the earth surrounded by people joined in unison. You see optimism. You see hope.

This kind of response to such an intimate experience with gun violence is too astonishing to ignore. These children have decided to respond to their experience not with doom, but with a drive to achieve peace and happiness. That’s not something you’ll likely find in most adults who have experienced the same.

The second installation of the exhibit came from Dayton artist James Pate and a group of DECA students. This piece was conceived in part by James Pate, and in part by the students. After a conversation about gun violence, the students came to the consensus that “we as a society pull the trigger.”

Their point is that in order for gun violence to exist in a society, the society must be generating an environment that has some level of hostility. As members of this society, we all contribute to this environment, and it’s time that we take a step back to reflect on our individual positive and negative influences on it.

Inspired by an idea belonging to one of the DECA students working on this mural, the first half shows a blue print for a bullet and a gun that would be engineered to react only to the biochemistry of the gun’s owner. The result is that every gun and bullet would be custom made for a particular person, eliminating the ability for guns to be traded or bought second-hand and without any sort of background check. As a consequence, each act of gun violence could be traced back to one clearly responsible individual.

The blue print is also meant to remind us that the gun and therefore gun violence is a human invention—a problem created by humans, but a problem that can be solved by humans, too.

The second half of the mural, conceived by James Pate, based on the theme decided upon by the students, and hand drawn collectively by the students themselves, is a portrait of a hoodie-donning baby holding a gun while still in the womb. The provocative nature of this portrait gained local and national attention when it was first presented, being covered by 30 different media outlets across the country.

The portrait testifies to the notion that we as a society are creating the hostile environment into which our children are being born, explained James Pate at the opening of the piece. The image of the baby holding a gun before it enters the world compels us to realize that we set the wheels in motion even before the perpetrators of violence are conditioned to be so.

The final installation, directed by artist Sarah Ward and created by her students from the South Chicago Art Center, is a collection of 87 scratchboard etchings of bullets, one for every person affected by gun violence on a daily basis. This is a particularly powerful piece because the students who created it live in the heart of one of the most gun violent areas in the country.

Gun violence is a fact of everyday life for most of these students, Sarah explained. When the issue is brought up, she said, the students usually shut down; but addressing the issue through art frees the students to engage their thoughts and emotions in a meaningful way. This is why art works. This is why it has the ability to inspire conversation on a topic that resides in the crux of someone’s life.

Each etching provided a window into one of those lives.

And as unique as each one was, a common theme could be found woven throughout the collection: a bullet has no name. Gun violence kills indiscriminately. In an area where gun violence touches almost everyone’s lives directly, this is an unfortunately obvious realization.

This brings up one of the most intriguing elements of the exhibit: the contrast between the backgrounds and experiences with gun violence that each contributing group of students has, and how that brings a different perspective to each piece. While the Sandy Hook students were responding to the experience of surviving a major act of gun violence first hand and most likely for the first time, the South Chicago Art Center students were responding to growing up in an environment where first-hand experience of gun violence was the norm, and the DECA students were responding to both personal experiences with gun violence and to the broader societal issue of gun violence.

The culmination of such different perspectives on gun violence brings together a whole voice that can more accurately represent the effects of gun violence in this country than any singular piece could have had. And coming from the youth of the nation makes it that much more inspiring.

When I was talking to ArtStreet Director Brian LaDuca, he expressed that it’s because this exhibit is coming from the youth that it is unlike anything else out there right now. Gun violence is a hot topic, and artists all over the country are responding through their work. But, as Brian remarked, what the students bring to the conversation is an emotional response free from political stance. They are the ones growing up surrounded by this issue in a way that didn’t exist twenty years ago. Their perspectives are going to be so unique from the professional artists who can remember a time when school shootings and gun violence being reported in the news wasn’t the norm.

What this exhibit represents to me is the strength and ingenuity of today’s youth, the significance of the youth voice in discussing societal issues, and the power of art to bring all of this to the forefront as we look forward to the future.

As a member of a generation that has been so immersed in news about gun violence and war that I can remember growing up with “Columbine” but can’t even remember the day of the event itself, these reflections and visions of a better future which these students have fabricated feel almost impossible to me. At least, they seem impossible, until I’m reminded that these youngsters who can respond to tragedy with so much positivity are the ones who will be taking over after my generation—and that makes the future look a little brighter.

Lauren Glass is a senior at the University of Dayton, where she is studying journalism. Currently working as a social media assistant for ArtStreet, she enjoys music, writing, and photography.

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