Students Contemplate Gun Violence Through Art Exhibit

Second UICA Showing Set for July 5-31

Ebony Johnson proclaimed her reaction boldly and colorfully

After spending a morning touring an art exhibit on the devastating effects of gun violence, Shamari Echols succinctly summed up his takeaway: “To know what to do and not to do in life.”

The Innovation Central High School freshman was one of close to 100 students who viewed “Unloaded,” an exhibit at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts that closed May 15. Three separate groups were guided through the provocative artworks of more than 20 artists, watched a hard-hitting documentary on gun deaths and fashioned artistic calls to action with yard signs promoting peace.

It will have a second showing July 5-31.

The students’ outing aimed to familiarize them with local cultural institutions, and help them reflect on an urgent social issue in a way that supports academic objectives, said Rodney Brown, Innovation Central assistant principal.

“It’s a reality we deal with,” Brown said of the exhibit’s strong content. “Our students see violence through the media, whether they’re directly connected or not.” The exhibit provided “an opportunity to have our students get a broader understanding of the historical and current use of guns in society,” enabling them to apply critical thinking and problem-solving through art and current events.

UICA docents and staff toured students through art works including a Maltese cross made from AK-47s, and an image of slain teenager Trayvon Martin peering through crosshairs. Katherine Williams, UICA community programs coordinator, led a discussion of the exhibits and of an HBO documentary, “Requiem for the Dead,” which painfully chronicles some of the approximately 8,000 U.S. gun deaths in the spring of 2014.

Williams gave students permission to leave the theater if they found the film too difficult. On the day this reporter accompanied them, all stayed to see stories of marital murder-suicides, accidental child shootings and other tragedies.

Katherine Williams discusses a sculpture showing ears with bullets for earplugs with, from left, Keon McDaniel, Shamari Echols and Brian Burton

Students Reflect, Share

“To see what America’s like now, it’s painful, to know people are out here shooting people that they were close to,” freshman Keon McDaniel said afterward. “The exhibit just showed me how other people are being affected, how they deal with it, the emotions that went into the art.”

The UICA’s Williams invited students to reflect on their reactions to the exhibit and share them with each other. She emphasized gun violence affects all sectors of society, and that guns are also used to protect people and provide food. “Individual choices are what (cause) the positive or negative impact on people,” she told the group.

She had students make yard signs to spread positive messages around the issue. Freshman Ebony Johnson’s proclaimed “Less guns! More peace.”

“People just feel more powerful when they have a gun,” Ebony said. “That’s why I don’t like guns.”

History teacher Kyle Jelens said the exhibit related to his class discussions on World War II, and hoped it could contribute to a “culture change.”

“A lot of students think guns are cool,” Jelens said, noting the popularity of violent video games. “I hope they are able to see them for how destructive they are, and not some glorious, fun thing. I want to see constructive change, and positive views on love. Why we need more love, and less guns.”

“Unloaded” was organized by Susanne Slavick, professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, and is open to educational opportunities for school and community groups.

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UICA exhibit “Unloaded”

UICA staff member Katherine Williams explores the meaning of this Devan Shimoyama piece with Jason Wells and Keon McDaniel, right, who said it looks like the figures are “trapped in the pain”
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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