FORWARD: Issue #3: Community Safety

Gun Violence

Video of the shovel creation process from the Palas por Pistolas initiative. Courtesy Pedro Reyes.

Public artists can help individuals and communities move through the complex emotional aftermath of gun violence

The United States has the most heavily armed civilian population in the world. As Jill Lepore writes in The New Yorker, “one in three Americans owns a gun, typically more than one.” This country has the highest rate of gun violence among wealthy nations, and one of the highest rates overall. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 39,773 people died from gun-related injuries in the US in 2017—almost 3,000 more than perished in car crashes. And because of political pressure to restrict research on gun violence, it’s likely that the statistics we have don’t tell the whole story.

Active shooter incidents of all types have become increasingly common in the US in recent years, and news reports of mass shootings are becoming all too frequent: we’ve all seen coverage of the multiple-victim tragedies at the King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado; the spas in Atlanta, Georgia; and the VTA light rail yard in San Jose, California, among a growing list. The toll this type of large-scale violence takes is greater than the body count; it harms entire families and communities. Advocates of gun control point to easy access to guns as a factor that contributes to mass shootings; others point out large-scale social and mental-health stressors.

It’s in helping individuals and communities move through the complex emotional aftermath of these incidents that public artists have most often risen to the occasion and made their greatest contributions. One artist, for example, collects returned guns, then melts and recasts the metal into new tools. In another project a design group, working with a public artist, created a memorial that honors the lives of those lost to gun violence.

Palas por Pistolas

Turning deadly weapons into tools for storytelling and social change

Location: Culiacán, Mexico, with subsequent projects in Paris, Denver, San Francisco, Marfa, and elsewhere Artist Role: Project conception and design Partner Organizations: Art in Embassies, Urbano Project, and others in multiple cities

In 2007, artist Pedro Reyes proposed a campaign inviting the voluntary turnover of weapons in exchange for coupons redeemable for home appliances and electronics. The project, titled Palas por Pistolas (“Shovels for Guns”), was developed as a response to the high rate of deaths by gunshot in Culiacán, a city in western Mexico.

The project resulted in the collection of 1,527 weapons, nearly half of which were automatic weapons. All were steamrolled and melted. This raw material was transformed into 1,527 shovels, with each handle bearing the story of the shovel’s origin.

Installation view: Palas por Pistolas exhibition at Urbano Project, 2011. Photo by Joel Veak, courtesy Urbano Project.

“A cultural rejection of weapons as an industry must come about if we want to see real change in the prevalence of guns.”
— Pedro Reyes

Reyes describes this process as a kind of alchemy: “Simultaneous with the physical conversion of a substance, a psychological transformation is supposed to occur,” he says. The transformation continued when these shovels were used to plant 1,527 trees at art institutions and schools around the world, in San Francisco, Paris, Denver, and other cities. “As children use former weapons to plant trees...they engage in a concrete activity that is positive, but also in a ritual that builds trust,” says the artist.

Of course, removing a specific number of guns from one city won’t stop the violence. But Reyes is seeking a cultural shift in the way we understand guns, and he believes this project is a step in that direction. “A cultural rejection of weapons as an industry must come about,” he says, “if we want to see real change in the prevalence of guns.”

Audience members contributing stones, in memory of local young people killed by gun violence, to the Palas por Pistolas tree planted by Urbano alumni in Jamaica Plain, MA’s Stony Brook Park. Photo by Joel Veak, courtesy Urbano Project.

Gun Violence Memorial Project

A space of remembrance and healing for individuals impacted by gun violence

Location: Chicago, IL, and Washington, DC Artist Role: Partnered on concept and design Partner Organizations: MASS Design Group, artist Hank Willis Thomas, Songha & Company, Purpose Over Pain, Everytown for Gun Safety, Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, Change the Ref, Newtown Action Alliance, Haroula Rose, Caryn Capotosto, StoryCorps, Sam Stubblefield, and Ravenswood Studio

The public conversation about gun reform often begins with statistics: the number of people killed by guns per year, day, or minute. The Gun Violence Memorial Project seeks to re-personalize these numbers, foregrounding the real lives lost or permanently changed by incidents of gun violence.

The Gun Violence Memorial Project initially launched as an installation at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial. In 2021, it opened as a permanent exhibition at the National Building Museum. Photo by Alan Ricks © MASS Design Group.

“How could design help us memorialize the individual, as well as represent the enormity of the collective problem?”
— Regina Chen, Senior Director at MASS Design Group

Developed through a partnership between MASS Design Group, Purpose Over Pain, and conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, the Gun Violence Memorial Project initially launched as an installation at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial. In 2021, it opened as a permanent exhibition at the National Building Museum. Regina Chen, Senior Director at MASS Design Group, which aims to bring design to some of the deepest injustices of our time, says the project was conceived in response to the question, “How could design help us memorialize the individual, as well as represent the enormity of the collective problem?”

The result is a striking structure with deep emotional resonance: four glass “houses,” each made up of 700 transparent bricks representing a week of gun deaths. Each brick will eventually contain a remembrance object, contributed by a survivor of gun violence or another member of the community.

AiIDS Memorial Quilt. Photo by National Institutes of Health / Wikimedia / Public Domain.

The project’s vision was inspired by another ongoing tribute: the AIDS Memorial Quilt. “Typically memorials are memorializing something that’s done,” says Chen. “But this issue is constantly evolving. This is intended to be a space to honor, remember, and to gather for action.

“It was important to us to engage community organizations so we could really understand what family members and survivors needed to address their trauma, memorialize their loved ones, and find a space to heal.”

The impact has been palpable. “What we found,” says Chen, “was that the act of telling a story, donating an object, and seeing a loved one remembered was a really powerful and restorative process. We heard people say, ‘Now I feel like I can rest.’”

Donated items represent loved ones lost to gun violence. Each brick will eventually contain a remembrance object, contributed by a survivor of gun violence or another member of the community. Photo by Alan Ricks © MASS Design Group.

Four glass “houses” are each made up of 700 transparent bricks, with each brick representing a week of gun deaths. Gun Violence Memorial Project. Photo by Alan Ricks © MASS Design Group.

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FORWARD: Issue #3

Community Safety

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