Susanne Slavick, professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, was shocked and scared when she learned that many college students apparently carried guns on campus.
This knowledge inspired the pro-gun control exhibit now on display in the Harris Gallery.
“Some of the students were quite distressed the show was even there,” Slavick said. “They felt that it was an assault on them. I don’t know what is going to trigger rage and use of those guns. It was an interesting flip.”
“Unloaded: Gun Control in America,” of which Slavick is curator, is a series of works created by 20 artists who considered age, gender, race, mental health, political parties and philosophical stance surrounding attitudes and the purpose of owning firearms.
Roughly 30 people gathered in the Campus Center Ballroom Sept. 14 to hear Slavick speak about the exhibit.
The exhibit has been shown mainly at non-profit organizations and smaller universities, but has also been featured in states with less restrictive gun control laws such as Indiana and Kentucky.
The audience laughed when Slavick said she tried to bring her exhibition to Texas, but no one was open to it.
Since Slavick supports strict gun control, the audience was surprised to find out she attended a National Rifle Association convention in Atlanta.
“I did not want to go by myself and initially was really scared,” Slavick said. “But I questioned myself as a curator; am I preaching to the converted?”
Through the talk, she offered thought-provoking commentary and statistics while the artists’ works appeared on the screen.
“Nearly 70 percent of the homicides in the U.S. are committed by guns. Roughly 86 gun deaths every day,” Slavick said. “According to the Center For Disease Control and Prevention, this adds up to 37,000 deaths and 81,000 injuries involving guns every year.”
Slavick warned the audience of the statistics potentially being overwhelming, but also reinforced the importance of speaking out about the destructive impact guns have in America.
Her exhibit featured mostly women artists who convey the role guns have had in society through their sculptures.
A sculpture by Mel Chin, “Crosses for the Unforgiven,” depicted eight AK-47s as a Maltese cross: a symbol of protection and honor. Chin purchased the guns during a single visit to a store in North Carolina.
Slavick commented on how concerning it was that Chin was able to purchase all eight guns at once with no questions asked.
“I’ve never looked at gun violence this way before,” said Vicky Chow, senior art history major. “All objects in the pictures were from normal life so it brought out a different perspective.”
Another featured artist, Lauren Adams, made a step stool with a decorative seat covered with guns.
Adams named her work “Granny Smith & Wesson” and created it to reinforce how guns have become normalized in our culture by treating them decoratively.
“Adams associates guns with comfort of grannies and our homes,” Slavick said. “She sees a cold comfort in this equation, that guns are literally at our feet and the foundation of our country’s history and its ethos of Manifest Destiny.”
Sam Poulos, museum and movie studio worker, was a former student of Slavick’s at Carnegie Mellon.
He attended the exhibit and said he was fascinated to see the artists working in different ways to elicit their feelings on the use of firearms.
“Professor Slavick has a magic way of saying something so simple, but she makes you see all of the multi-faceted kinds of conversations you can have with one topic,” Poulos said. “She opens up every perspective with everyone.”
“I hope it helps us reconsider our acceptance of such free access to guns and the 33,000 deaths they cause annually,” Slavick said. “I hope it helps us respond to our gun issue not as a political issue, but a public health issue. I hope it helps us consider ways to resolve conflicts, ensure safety and keep peace.”
Other reactions were more nuanced.
“Having more male artists would be more effective in sending out a message of gun violence because guns tend to be associated with men and masculinity,” Rebekah Gonzales, senior art history major said. “A man telling a man, ‘you shouldn’t do it,’ would be more progressive.”
“Unloaded: Gun Control in America” will be on display at the Harris Gallery through Oct. 26.
Layla Abbas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.