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Taking Aim at Gun Violence
CHESTERTOWN, MD—There’s a gun show coming to Kohl Gallery, but visitors should bring an open mind, not cash or checks.
In his new exhibition “Gun Show,” opening Thursday, February 5, artist David Hess, a sculptor and craftsman widely known for his large public installations, will premiere 60 of the 100 assault rifles he has assembled from scrapped household and industrial parts. In his Baltimore County studio, pieces of metal, wood, leather and plastic taken from cast-off appliances, machinery and other detritus became weapons. The artist hopes they will spark reflection and conversations about the role of guns and gun violence in American culture. “The most outspoken voice in the conversation, the NRA, is disproportionately a voice of white males,” he explains. “As a white man, living in rural Maryland, not belonging to or espousing the tenets of the NRA, my voice has been notably, and shamefully, absent.”
Last year, some 32,000 Americans died from gun violence, more than the number who died from traffic accidents, notes Hess, who closely follows the work of the Center for Gun Violence at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. “I built this arsenal to provoke conversation, give voice to outrage and perhaps alter the course of the tragedy of gun violence,” he says of “Gun Show.” “I want to provoke a new kind of dialogue and reflection that might motivate others, especially privileged white men, to raise their voices against gun violence in America. Most Americans abhor violence, particularly when it is directed at innocents, but we have come to accept gun violence as the cost of living in a country with almost as many guns as people.”
Hess stresses that he is not anti-gun. “I own a shotgun and I used to hunt ducks and geese. People still hunt deer on the property around my house,” he says. “But I saw the shooting of the school children in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012 as another 9/11 moment for this country in terms of our culture and our relationship to guns, especially assault weapons. I felt I needed to respond to that and to the legislative failure to act in the aftermath.”
Hess began crafting his weapons in the spring of 2013, creating the shapes from his imagination and allowing each faux weapon to take shape on its own. “I don’t draw them first,” Hess explains. “I just start and see how the pieces work together. “ He machines parts as needed and fastens them together with bolts, mechanical fasteners and welding joints.
For “Gun Show,” the pieces will be laid out on tarps on the floor. Visitors will be asked to remove their shoes before entering, then wend their way though set paths created between the tarps. “I want to put people in a different space, and create an experience,” says Hess. “I don’t want to celebrate these pieces. Nothing will be showcased on the wall like some prized family rifle over a mantel.”
Alex Castro, interim-director of Kohl Gallery, points out that “this exhibition does what a College teaching gallery does best: it highlights significant art while encouraging dialogue on issues that are important to our lives.”
A graduate of Dartmouth College, David Hess majored in Visual Studies and studied with realist wood sculptor Fumio Yoshimura, whose humor and precision made a strong impression on him. His large-scale work often explores elements poised precariously on the verge of movement and challenging gravity and physics. Among his best-known works is “Bird’s Nest,” an award-winning piece of twisted stainless steel that clings to the brick façade of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and functions as a balcony. His work is also housed in numerous private and public collections, including Thurgood Marshall Airport and Johns Hopkins Hospital.
In the not-too-distant future (subject to a public meeting and official approval of the Town Council) one of Hess’s public art pieces will be installed in Chestertown’s Wilmer Park, as well. As announced by town officials on January 20, a jury has chosen his proposal for a playscape titled “Broad Reach” to be installed in the park, which fronts the Chester River. His design—two large-scale stainless steel pieces inspired by a full sail and a barrel wave and set against two grassy berms—was among 10 ideas submitted by artists from across the country. The playscape, defined as “public art activated by play,” is one component of a broad public-art master plan for Chestertown’s riverfront, an initiative funded by the National Endowment for the Arts through its “Our Town” grants.
Hess will be on hand at the opening of “Gun Show” on Thursday, February 5, and later will take part in a panel discussion (date and time to be determined) on the topic of gun violence and gun rights. For the panel, he will be joined by Firmin DeBrabander, a professor of philosophy and ethics at Maryland Institute College of Art and author of Do Guns Make Us Free, to be published this May by Yale University Press.
The Kohl Gallery show is the first stop on a “Gun Show” tour that also will visit UMBC (University of Maryland Baltimore County), American University, and other higher-ed venues. The Gallery, which is located on the first floor of the Gibson Center for the Arts on the Washington College campus, is open Wednesday through Sunday, 1 to 6 p.m. “Gun Show” will be on exhibit through March 6, 2015.
For more information on artist David Hess visit www.davidhess.net. Below, a rendering of Hess’s proposed design for the Chestertown playscape “Broad Reach.”