Putting Guns in the Hands of Artists

A New Orleans art project aims to comment on deadly weapons from America’s streets–and to transform how they’re seen by young men at risk of violence.

Mississippi Valley, Early 21st Century by Brian Borrello

As the murder rate in New Orleans spiked during the 1990s, artist Brian Borrello had an idea: Inspired by a little boy who was killed by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting, he sought guns confiscated by police in hopes of taking objects that had been used destructively and transforming them into constructive objects for the community.

Over time, scores of artists were invited to attempt works in that vein.

“​We take something very base and crude, work our magic, and put them back out in the world in a kind of alchemy,” Borrello explained Sunday at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Tape Ruler Gun by Luis Cruz Azaceta (Photo: Michael Smith / Jonathan Ferrara Gallery)

The first Guns in the Hands of Artists exhibit occurred in 1996, in collaboration with gallery owner Jonathan Ferrara, who has recently labored to reboot the exhibit in hopes of bringing it to cities all over the United States. “It’s my goal to use art and the creative process to facilitate new, frank dialogue about gun violence … without the often polarized politics that surround the issue,” he said in a statement.

Artists and audience members have shaped its evolution. Ferrara recalls an encounter with a skeptical police officer who pointed out that an exhibit in what he called a “white” gallery wasn’t going to reach kids in the most violent New Orleans neighborhoods, like the ones depicted in the work below (discussed by the artist here).

Why! by Ron Bechet

In response, a new component was added to Guns in the Hands of Artists: Panel conversations were held with young men who had direct experiences of gun violence.

“Having these panels––surrounded by works of art made from guns and dealing with the issue of gun violence––fostered a very frank dialogue,” Ferrara said. “I must admit that a few of the panels left me feeling sad, sick, and somewhat overwhelmed by this specter of gunviolence that afflicts my community and America as a whole. And then, as we were finishing the last panel with the youth who were discussing their experiences … I had the ‘aha moment’ of why all of the time, effort, and work that I put into this multi-faceted project made sense and felt right.”

The moment was captured on video––skip to the 8:12 mark to see it, or read a transcript below:

Jonathan Ferrara Gallery - Guns in the Hands of Artists - Overview from Jason Berry on Vimeo.

Said the young man:

It’s shocking me because I was in the streets and I was dealing with guns. I come here … I see them doing something good with guns. That gun has butterflies on it. Who puts butterflies on guns? There were certain things that I saw––that bullet’s got a diamond on it, but it’s cool. And now if I put my hands back on a gun, it’ll probably be doing something like this. It wouldn’t be shooting guns … I’d say, let me take you to this gallery on Julia Street, I can show you what you can do with guns.

Said Ferrara, “If we, through the lens of art, could reach this young man then maybe, just maybe, there is hope that we can reach more like him and have some kind of impact.”

Girl With Gun by Marcus Kenney

To see more artwork associated with the project go here.