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Gun violence is once again at the forefront of many minds, two weeks after twin massacres in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. For people fortunate enough to not have been directly affected, life returns to normal after hearing the news. But for those who have been touched by gun violence – in whatever form it may take – the aftermath never really ends.
An art exhibition in D.C. explores how we respond (or how we don’t respond) to gun violence in schools. “Play, Protection or Peril” has featured three sub-exhibits, each centered around a word in the title. “Play” examined guns from a schoolchild’s perspective; “Protection” delved into violence prevention; and now “Peril,” the final chapter, explores the loss, grief and fear gun violence leaves in its wake.
We’ll meet the curator of “Play, Protection or Peril” and some of the artists who have helped develop the show.
Produced by Maura Currie
- Elizabeth Ashe Administrative Director, Zenith Community Arts Foundation; Curator of "Play, Protection or Peril"
- Michele Colburn Artist, "Play, Protection or Peril"
- David Mordini Artist, "Play, Protection or Peril"
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Two weeks after mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, gun violence is once again at the forefront of our national conversation. Here in D.C., visual artists are working through their frustrations, their fear and their grief by making -- what else -- art. And a lot of that art incorporates the visuals of gun culture or guns themselves in an unexpected way. You can see that art at "Play, Protection or Peril," an exhibition at H Space here in D.C. through August 25th.
KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio to talk about the exhibition and their roles in it is Elizabeth Ashe. Elizabeth Ashe is the administrative director of the Zenith Community Arts Foundation and the curator of "Play, Protection or Peril." Thank you for joining us in studio.
ELIZABETH ASHEAnd thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIMichele Colburn is one of the artists featured in "Play, Protection or Peril." Thank you for joining us.
MICHELE COLBURNThank you, Kojo, for having us.
NNAMDIAnd David Mordini is also one of the artists featured in "Play, Protection or Peril." David, thank you for joining us.
DAVID MORDINIThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIElizabeth, how did you feel on learning about these most recent mass shootings?
ASHEIt was horrifying. The first one happened just before our first reception on June 1st. That was the Virginia Beach shooting. And then the last two happened during our reception for this month. And the air in the gallery just went, oh, my gosh, two in one day. How can this continue happening?
NNAMDIWhy is the exhibition called "Play, Protection or Peril"? What's the significance of those three words, and what's the idea behind this show?
ASHESo, guns are everywhere in our culture, but it's not just one thing or another. It starts from when we're kids. I feel like we are normalized to think about guns, from water guns to toy guns -- like pop guns that kids still use -- to how it's portrayed in film and videos. So, it just continues when we are young, and we can't get away from guns as an imagery in our culture, or as a problem.
NNAMDIWhen we are young and playing.
ASHEYeah, and playing, and everything's okay.
NNAMDIExplain the difference between the segments of the exhibit: play, protection and peril.
ASHEOkay. So, it just seemed like the perfect evolution for the show. Play started with looking at childhood games and how kids think of toy soldiers and learn about the history of wars. And then it went on to include things like the nursery rhyme that's being used right now is a lock down drill that's paired up with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” And that was a piece by Lea Craigie-Marshall, and she did that one.
ASHEAnd protection went on about -- okay, so how do we consider guns as something that we use to protect ourselves? And we highlighted that with things like a bulletproof vest that Margery Goldberg did to civil wars. It's not just our civil war that we had. We also had a stop motion animation about the Mozambique civil war, which lasted for 16 years.
NNAMDISo, the exhibit is currently wrapping up with peril.
NNAMDIWhat makes this one different than play and protection?
ASHESo, this one focuses on bodies in the space. There's a lot of sculpture in this exhibit, and I did that on purpose, as curating it. And they're all different heights. They take up different amounts of space. So, those sculptures also look at how motions and gun violence are like a stopped thing. So, there is a sculpture by Chris Malone, and the figure's dropping a gun. And it's just there. It's frozen. And we have David's piece in this month.
NNAMDIOh, we'll talk with David about his piece very shortly. But what's the message that you're hoping the audience takes from this phase, peril, and is it the same for this phase of the exhibition as it was for the first two parts, the message?
ASHEI think my goal was that the message evolved. So, it's not a simple topic, by any stretch, and mass shootings are continuing. Shootings in D.C. are continuing, and in urban environments across the country. And as an artist myself, it's, like, okay, so we want to be relevant, but it's also a really hard topic. So, every piece that's in the entire show overall in the three months has taken a different voice.
NNAMDIIt's relevant, but it's also, in many ways, timeless, given the nature of the gun culture that has evolved in the country. David Mordini, tell us about the work you're showing at "Play, Protection or Peril," and how you came to create it.
MORDINIOh, gosh. Yeah. So, my piece is called the "Sacrificial Mourner." It is a funeral veil that, it's kind of a Jackie O. pillbox hat. But the veil has 3-D printed guns that adorn the whole veil. And, as you mentioned, the subject seems timeless. And it's titled "Sacrificial Mourner," because how many shootings are there where we say, this person's not going to die in vain? Something's going to be done about it, and there never is.
MORDINIAnd the piece first came about -- I have to say there's a curator, Molly Ruper, who has been very active in all sorts of politics, who was moved by the kids from the Parkland shooting. Within a month, she had organized a show. And she's the one that first really got a lot of people focused in the art world, saying, hey, we've got to do something. And so it was from her show that I was inspired to create this piece.
NNAMDIHow long did you spend creating it?
MORDINIOh, gosh. It took quite a while. The printing process -- because it's 3-D printed on fabric. And I think 3-D printing guns, just itself, as a material, also ties into threats that we have in the future with being able to 3-D print real guns. So, the printing process took quite a while. The cast aluminum took a while. I would say, total, for all the components, maybe a month.
NNAMDIIt is a fantastic piece of work. Michele Colburn, same question to you. What do you have in this exhibition, and why did you create what you did?
COLBURNWell, I had -- several of my teddy bears were in the first exhibition, "Play." And I designed fabric with guns, and had it printed. And I chose the teddy bear, because it's something that we all can relate to, first of all. We are attracted to -- we look at it as something safe, from childhood. But at the time I was making these, I was considering aspects of indoctrination and what we teach our children, or how we indoctrinate them or even teach them about guns at a very early age.
COLBURNSo, continuing on about the teddy bears, the teddy bear was actually born of a violent act. It was part...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Tell that story, please.
COLBURN(laugh) Thank you. Teddy Roosevelt, at the time, was a hunter and President of the United States. And there was a PR stunt that was orchestrated for him and his going out into nature. And the PR aspect of it was that there would be an old bear for him to shoot. And this would become a news item, here's Teddy, our hunter and President. And he is enjoying the landscape, etcetera. And he refused.
COLBURNBut what happened was the old bear was shot, anyway, put out of its misery. However, the newspapers at the time picked it up, ran with it, and the teddy bear was born, and a toy manufacturer picked that up, and off it went. So...
NNAMDISo, it's history was born out of violence.
NNAMDIWhen you play on expectations, a stuffed toy gun with the barrel turned back on itself, what are you trying to evoke in the viewer?
COLBURNThat is more of -- that work, unlike the bears or the gun powder drawings, is more of a visceral response to an action that has occurred, something in the news. It may be a bit of a knee-jerk response, and I have to work in my art to sort of pull back from that a little bit, but it's emotional. It's highly emotional, those works.
NNAMDIWhat are some of the challenges of working with particularly medium-soft toys?
COLBURNWell, often, I work very large. Some of these were, at one point, museum scale, and they still exist, but it's a very physical process sewing these very large pieces and stuffing them. So, it's physically demanding. I'm on the floor, I'm standing, I'm twisting, and all that kind of thing.
NNAMDIHave you seen or heard about the art exhibit called "Play, Protection or Peril"? Have you gone to other activist art exhibitions? What did you think of them? 800-433-8850. How do you feel about using things like guns, bullets and gun powder as materials for art? You can also send us a Tweet @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. The number again, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about an art exhibit in Washington called "Play, Protection or Peril" with Elizabeth Ashe. She is the administrative director of the Zenith Community Arts Foundation and curator of "Play, Protection or Peril." David Mordini is one of the artists featured in the exhibit, as is Michele Colburn. I want to pick up a little more, Michele, because in addition to making a stuffed animal that's recognizable as a weapon that can be very, I guess, a disorienting experience for a viewer, the other medium, I understand, you have used is gun powder as water colors. Tell us about that.
COLBURNYes. I was curious about gun powder, because one of my focuses is to take materials of violence and transform them into something else and render them impotent. So, there was -- there is, rather -- a famous artist named Edward Shay who used gun powder in his work in the 1960s. And I was curious about the gray values and the grounds that he created with this. And I am using it as a ground, also. And I soak the gun powder to render it useless, so it's no more flammable than a regular piece of paper.
COLBURNAnd so I use that as a background, and then from there, you know, abstractions may evolve into something else. There's a big element of this kind of a freeform sort of abstraction that develops in the process of making it. And some of the things that I pull out later out of the shapes and forms could be a map of the United States, could be a landscape. So, these become the ground for what I perceive to be a domestic landscape of today.
NNAMDIFascinating. We got an email from Jeffrey, who says: I'm amazed at the number of TV shows, even on PBS in the UK, that feature guns and violence, apparently entertaining to most folks. I talked about the timelessness of this exhibit, Elizabeth, and you talked earlier about the mass shootings and the high level of gun violence here. Was there any one specific thing that inspired you to curate this exhibit?
ASHEOne of the artists in the exhibit this month, Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, she talked to me one day. She's, like, there should be a show on stopping gun violence, but she didn't want to curate it. And I missed curating. It had been a while for me. Like, you know what, this is a topic that I can find some really powerful work for and some really powerful partners with. And it just grew over the last couple of years from the fantastic thing of getting a PEF grant from the D.C. Commission in the Arts and Humanities to a venue with H Space that encouraged public programming.
ASHESo, from the perspective of working for an arts nonprofit -- I know a bunch of the arts nonprofits in D.C., but no one else. So, I was able to reach out to a bunch of groups. Some of them I got from reading this book by Brian Clemmons, called "Bullets into Bells." And that found me -- well, that led me to find the Trade Run Center (sounds like) and develop the conversation of back and forth with activists and other groups. Like, I've done a lot of stuff with Moms Demand Action, with the D.C. chapter, and they are fantastic. And they're very welcoming and very active and looking at it from a community perspective, because that's how we have to do this, if we want to make a change, I feel.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Glad you mentioned the community perspective, because the art of "Play, Protection or Peril" is just one piece of what you're working on more broadly with gun violence. Tell us about the community activism elements.
ASHESo, thanks for asking. A goal of mine for pretty much every week is to have some sort of a public community event. One of those has been a few cops have come in -- thank you very much to the metro police departments -- to have a conversation about cops and communities and community policing, and try to remind everybody that they are human, too, and that they are doing a fantastic job. And we got a great conversation going with that. We've had some art workshops.
ASHEI, let's see, did some stuff for Moms Demand Action, and still will be doing. So, got to go sit on a budget hearing and testify for the benefit of the program out of the A.G. Racine's office called Cure the Streets here in D.C. That is doing a fantastic job. And, I mean, even reach-outs that didn't really get anywhere, like getting a nod of appreciation from Sandy Hook Promise really helped.
ASHEIt made me feel like that this is something that I can approach through art that expands people's ability to see the conversation and what they can do, and come and listen to the panel discussions. We have a few coming up still, through this month. This week, we have a poetry all day, which is in partnership with the Ward 7 Arts Collaborative. And that partnership is thanks to the Commission for Fathers, Men and Sons, I think. I might have gotten that wrong. I'm sorry, Mayor's office.
ASHEAnd then, on the 24th, we have a panel discussion called “Aftermath,” and that's paired up with...
NNAMDISo, there's significant community engagement in this. Before I go back to the phones, where Lea awaits us, David Mordini, what made you want to get involved in this project? You hadn't been involved previously in so-called political art. What made you decide to do so now?
MORDINIWell, it's hard to -- everything just seems so crazy in the world right now, that it's hard not to get involved. I feel, as an artist, we can't just be subtle anymore, that we need to be more blunt and outspoken. And that's really one of the driving forces. As an artist, we have the power to do that. And we have the power to keep the conversation going when the media gets off the news cycle.
MORDINIYou know, we have these shootings for a week. We're saturated nonstop, to where people just stop listening. It goes on the backburner. And, as artists, we have a chance to keep that out there. And to keep that out there, hopefully we inspire other people to get involved, to get involved with politics, to get involved locally. And that's really the driving force.
NNAMDIOn to Lea, in Frederick, Maryland. Lea, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LEAI called to speak on, well, like David was saying, the subtlety. You can't really have subtleties, at this point. My piece that's in this section of the show is "Accidents Do Happen." And it reflects what happens after a child finds her mother's unsecured gun. This was inspired by -- I was out in Frederick County, and we're not the wild west or anything, but it is a little bit more rural, and people do blatantly break the law.
LEAI was sitting at my grocery store, in the parking lot, about to go in. I watched a mother get out of her car and like, what is that? What is she doing? She pulled a gun out of her purse, with her toddler standing there and her baby on her hip. Pulled a gun out of her purse, and I can't even believe what I'm seeing, and she straps it to her thigh. And while she's doing that, her toddler is playing with it, absentmindedly. And the mother doesn't even shoo the child away.
LEASo, that inspired me to create this piece, because how easy it would be for a child to get a hold of the gun, you know, and accidentally shoot the mother. And we've heard these stories time and time and time again. And it's just absolutely maddening to me. And I'm a mother and I'm a teacher, and it's just shocking to me that a mother would put their child in peril because they think they need to brandish a gun, bring a gun into a grocery store for their morning shopping.
NNAMDILea, what part of the exhibit were you in, play, protection or peril?
LEAI'm in play. I had the cyanotype that was mentioned earlier, which is a big print made with the sun that reflects the poem read to children set to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to remind them to be quiet during the shooter drills in schools. And this happens every day. My mother is still working in schools, and has to work with special education children and try to keep them quiet during the shooter drills, and it's terrifying for them. And then I'm also at the end of the month right now in peril, with my shopping cart sculpture, with the child in the cart who has gotten a hold of the gun.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us, and for participating in the exhibit. We got an email from Michael, who says: the use of gunpowder as a medium was especially interesting, because for me, that it had been rendered inert was something unknown to me at the time. So, there was still something very threatening about standing in front of the work, says Michael. Which brings me to this, Liz: how do people generally react when they walk into your space? Does it depend on which sub-exhibition they're actually viewing?
ASHEI think it depends what catches their eye first. Gosh, I mean, there's definitely a first few minutes of, wow, and then they're drawn in, and they just rotate. And there's a lot more pausing than I'm used to seeing in an exhibit, and that makes me happy.
NNAMDIHow do you respond to Michael's comment, Michele, about the feeling that there's something very threatening about standing in front of the work. Was that the intention?
COLBURNWell, I think, partially, as a reminder, yes. As a reminder what this landscape we are creating here in the United States is about. So, I'm very interested in creating work that attracts. And yet, as you get closer and more intimate with the work, you are challenged.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Evelyn, who said: I just heard about this exhibit around town. Is there any chance of the exhibit being extended? When does PPP close?
ASHEWe're supposed to give the Hamiltonian back their space for their fellowship at the end of this month, but I'm definitely looking to tour it. I'm probably going to start by looking for a local venue, maybe within an hour or so, and then go up with it further.
NNAMDIHave you gotten any responses from people who are pro-gun? How does one's personal politics affect the experience of the exhibit?
ASHEI haven't gotten anyone who's very pro-gun. I'm actually a little surprised by that. We did have a moment in the show last month where there was a guest during the reception, and she was trying to goad one of the artists into saying on camera that he was very antigun. And that was Michael, and, of course, he did not appreciate it. We made her delete that.
NNAMDIWell, what's your next project? (laugh) See, I'm not through with this one yet.
ASHE(laugh) Well, I'm not through with this one yet. I mean...
NNAMDIThank you. Thank you. Just thought I'd ask.
ASHEYeah, I want to keep having this one evolve, somewhat. I do have a show for my own work that I have to mail out in a week, so I'm going to have a little bit of studio time. But I'm going to keep at this. The connections I've been able to make with Moms Demand Action is keeping me involved in this topic.
NNAMDIElizabeth Ashe. She's the curator for "Play, Protection or Peril." Michele Colburn is one of the artists featured in it, as is David Mordini. Thank you all for joining us. This conversation about the "Play, Protection or Peril" exhibit was produced by Maura Currie, and our update on the Taylor Dumpson lawsuit was produced by Ingalisa Schrobsdorff.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, are you a good patron when you dine in a restaurant? We'll hear from restaurant and bar professionals on the best and worst customer behavior they've seen, plus navigating tipping, politics and harassment in the restaurant world. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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