Local artists confront gun violence

AS ONE: The latest Pink Dog Creative exhibit, 'Trigger Warning,' features 21 artists, including, from left, Holly de Saillan, Viola Spells, Anita Shwarts and Stephen St. Claire. Photo by Thomas Calder

Hedy Fischer understands that a local traveling art exhibit on gun violence and police brutality won’t likely impact the state, region or country as a whole. “I’m not naïve enough to think that,” says the Pink Dog Creative co-owner. But Fischer does believe that art can help communities enter into a more constructive dialogue on otherwise divisive issues.

On Friday, June 15, Trigger Warning will debut at the YMI Cultural Center. The show will feature the works of 21 artists from Pink Dog Creative. Featured mediums include acrylic and oil paintings, collage, glass mosaic, handcrafted jewelry, pen-and-ink drawings, photography and pysanky (a Ukrainian craft that involves a wax-resistant method of designing and decorating eggs).

Trigger Warning will travel to a series of venues throughout the summer and fall. After its inaugural event at the YMI, the exhibit will head to Habitat Brewing Co. in August, followed by the First Presbyterian Church in September, before the series returns home for a showing at Pink Dog Creative.

For participating artist Joseph Pearson, showcasing the work in a diverse set of spaces is crucial for reaching a broad local audience. He also views it as a symbolic gesture. “By having the artwork in a neutral location, like a brewery, hopefully it will create a comfortable environment,” he says. “And hopefully the work will stimulate a civil conversation.”

Silent no more

The impetus for Trigger Warning was a pair of events in February: the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 students and faculty dead, followed by the leaked body camera footage showing former Asheville police senior officer Chris Hickman, a white man, beating Asheville resident Johnnie Jermaine Rush, who is African-American.

Since that time, violent acts have continued across the country, including a deadly shooting on April 19 in West Asheville, resulting in the death of a mother and two children, as well as the most recent school shooting on May 18 at Santa Fe High School in Texas, which left eight students and two teachers dead.

Such events have been on the minds of Pink Dog artists in preparation for their show. But in the process of creating the works, other issues such as privilege, naiveté, education and activism have also come up. “I think as a fairly typical white male, I was just blind to a lot of things,” says painter Stephen St. Claire. “And I don’t want to be anymore.”

Holly de Saillan, Tally GunDeaths in USA 2018
HOW MANY MORE: In Holly de Saillan’s piece “Tally GunDeaths in USA 2018,” the artist includes an ongoing count of those killed by guns this year. At press time, the number was 6,023. Photo courtesy of Pink Dog Creative

Graphite artist Anita Shwarts shares a similar experience. Before participating in Trigger Warning, she was relatively silent on social and political issues. “I feel guilty about having to be given that opportunity [to act],” she says. “I’m grateful to have it, to say something, but I wish I’d have had the courage to have done something a long time ago.”

‘This is normal?’

Shwarts and St. Claire say their participation in the show won’t be the extent of their contribution to the issues of gun violence and police brutality. They note their community involvement and outreach, as well as political engagement, must continue long after the exhibit wraps up.

Others at Pink Dog agree. “You have to keep bringing the conversation to the forefront,” says jewelry maker Viola Spells. “As artists, that’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to reflect society and to think of ways to bring the subject to the community.”

Collagist Holly de Saillan echoes Spells’ assertion. She hopes the upcoming show will lead people to contemplate the state of the country. “Gun violence, having active-shooter drills at schools, police beating people up and killing black people — this is normal?” she asks.

In her collage, de Saillan keeps an ever-increasing tally denoting the number of gun-related deaths in the U.S. this year (excluding suicides). At press time (based on numbers provided by the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive), de Saillan’s piece includes 6,023 total marks.

“Think about it,” she says. “You’re going to look at those marks, and a lot of people will be able to say, ‘One of those represents a person I know.'”

Common ground

In an effort to remain engaged, several of the show’s participating artists will lead summer workshops for children at the Arthur R. Edington Education & Career Center. The sessions will specifically explore the issue of gun violence.

“It’s interactive,” Spells explains. “Rather than just bringing art for them to look at, they will have the tools to think through issues that happen in the community that they can then put on paper.”

Pearson believes an interest in the physical and psychological well-being of children is what should unite all sides of the gun debate. “Our children’s safety is our point of commonality,” he explains. “The conversation can start there.”

De Saillan offers a similar message, and it’s one that she hopes Trigger Warning can help convey. “We’re not at war with each other,” she says. “We should be helping each other. Our government should be caring about all its people. Police should be guardians. … Gun violence isn’t who we are. That’s our common ground.”

WHAT: Trigger Warning opening reception
WHERE: YMI Cultural Center, 39 S. Market St. avl.mx/4zr
WHEN: Friday, June 15, 5-8 p.m. Free


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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