Schools have experienced many of the deadliest mass shootings in the history of the United States of America. This should make all of us outraged and motivated to institute changes in public health and safety policies; most specifically regulation of the manufacture, sales, possession and use of firearms. The safety and security of schools is a catalyst for how effectively students learn to cope with the world at large, interact with their peers and exhibit feelings of self and collective value. The physical and psychological implications around actions and threats of violence within and around our schools have an extremely disruptive and disturbing effect on students’ development (Prothrow-Stith and Quaday, 1995). When policy makers fail to keep students safe, they are fostering a legacy of distrust and fear among generations of citizens. According to Prothrow-Stith and Quaday, “the basic charge to schools is to provide all children with an academically sound education in a safe environment: to develop school-community partnerships, promote parent participation in school decision making and offer an array of programs such as job training, adult education courses, family counseling services or recreational programs” (ibid).
50 years ago, the failure to keep students safe was poignantly displayed at Ohio’s Kent State University. On May 4, 1970, an Ohio Army National Guard unit fired 67 rounds of bullets at students during an anti-Vietnam War protest on campus. In the span of 13 seconds, four students were killed and nine others critically wounded. The mass shooting at Kent State University caused nation-wide disruption within the education system and beyond. Three days after the shooting, 4 million students walked out of their classes in a unified general strike (Guerrieri, 2020). Schools throughout the country were closed in fear that similar protests and violent responses would take place. A year later, Kent State University responded to the tragedy by establishing the Center for Applied Conflict Management (initially called Center for Peaceful Change), which serves as a living memorial to the students who were killed. The school also developed a seminal curriculum for students to major in Peace and Conflict Studies. Today, the school requires incoming freshmen to read two books about the shooting: This We Know: A Chronology of the Shootings at Kent State and Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State (ibid, 2020).
The Kent State University shootings shocked the collective culture, and were the impetus for a range of strong aesthetic responses from musicians and visual artists (see: Neil Young’s Ohio at the top of this post). The most iconic image associated with the shootings is a documentary photograph by John Filo, capturing 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio in agony while kneeling over the body of 20-year-old Jeffrey Miller, right after he had been gunned down by National Guardsmen. At the time of the shooting, the 20-year-old Filo, was studying photography at Kent State. His image was quickly reproduced in publications seen throughout the world, earning the young photographer a prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Filo’s photograph and eyewitness account of the shooting provide a chilling reminder of the government’s callous attitude for human life and lack of accountability and knowledge among authority figures with regards to resolving conflicts. His impetus for taking photographs in the midst of the shootings, was to ensure that people would believe what had happened. His concerns were validated by some individual’s attempts to distort facts and label the victims as lowlife troublemakers, communists and hippies (see: Tongneri, 2016; and Roberts, 2010). Sadly, decades later, students are using their camera phones to record shootings in their schools in real-time, and the impact of these documentary images are far more powerful than any media coverage could be (Warzel, 2015).
While Filo’s imagery reflects the shootings in real-time and depicts actual students and guardsmen at Kent State; the artist, George Segal, was moved to create a work about the tragedy using an allegory from ancient history. Segal is renowned for his life-sized plaster cast sculptures of figures in quotidian social environments, which often make stark commentaries on race, class, gender and identity. His sculpture Abraham and Isaac In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State University (1978), utilizes the Old Testament story of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice, as a symbol for the Kent State University shootings. The sculpture portrays an archetypal scene of Abraham holding a knife while standing over Isaac, who is bound by the wrists and offered as proof of Abraham’s obedience and faith in G-d. The connection to the shootings is expressed through the tension of intergenerational conflict, and the mortal power that older generations have over younger ones. Abraham represents the ‘Greatest Generation’ who experienced WWII, and Isaac symbolizes the youth that had to be sacrificed in the Vietnam War, in order to keep their forefathers’ belief in the American Dream alive. In Segal’s words, “the piece calls on older people who have the power of life and death over their children to exercise love, compassion, and restraint” (Press Release, Jewish Museum, 2019). A bronze cast version of the sculpture was originally intended to be displayed on the campus of Kent State University, but it was ultimately rejected due to artistic differences between the artist and the University. Abraham and Isaac was subsequently donated to Princeton University in 1979, where it remains on view.
The use of sculpture as a dialogue around gun violence continues to be effective. Because sculpture inhabits a three dimensional space, similar to that of everyday life, it is the artistic medium most closely reflective of our human nature. Sculpture’s ability to exhume the same space as we do makes it an important material to use when depicting people and objects that are familiar in everyday life. This is what makes the sculptures from The Last Lockdown series and Cara Levine’s ongoing This is Not a Gun project so hauntingly convincing as a stark message for sensible and empathetic gun legislation and public safety policies.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Valentine’s Day of 2018, was the motivation behind The Last Lockdown, a series of 3D printed sculptures of students crouching under their desks in sheer terror. This image should be largely familiar to people of all generations. Before active shooter drills became a disturbing norm, students practiced other duck-and-cover drills in the midst of the nuclear arms race and during wartime (see: Pruitt, 2019). The Last Lockdown sculptures have been incorporated into a Nationwide campaign to propel the discourse on gun control. One of the artists who developed the concept behind the sculptures is Manual Oliver, an artist and father of Joaquin Oliver, who was one of the 17 victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Oliver worked collaboratively with Texas-based creatives Dan Crumrine and Sean Leonard, digital artist Caleb Sawyer and painter Adam Fontenault to create and display the 10 sculptures at student-organized events throughout the United States.
Cara Levine’s This is Not a Gun Project looks at gun violence from the perspective of the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers on unarmed individuals. In addition to school shootings, lethal shootings of civilians (many of whom are black men and youth) by the police, makes up a staggering number of cases of gun violence in the United States. This is Not a Gun consists of three parts: wood carvings that Levine has been making in her studio since 2016; a public workshop with many nationwide collaborators (see: thisisnotagun.com) including schools and art museums; and a collection of essays and illustrations by more than 30 artists, writers and healers. The sculptures that Levine carves from wood, depict objects mistaken as guns by police officers during fatal shootings of unarmed civilians, many of whom were people of color.
In her workshops, Levine has participants choose a replica of real objects that were mistaken as guns (see: 8 harmless objects that the police have mistaken for guns), along with a newspaper clipping describing the tragic shooting event. The items are then recreated out of clay (see my sandwich sculpture above!). Additionally, Levine collaborates and co-hosts events with other artists, educators, activists and healers. At the workshop I attended (at Forward Union Fair), she was joined by artist Jade Thacker and Jessica Angima, a somatic healer, who guided us through a series of mindfulness and attunement practices.
When gun violence occurs, it grips every facet of the community and stirs a wide range of emotional and physical responses. If we as a collective culture cannot ensure that everyone feels safe in our cities, towns and public spaces, then we are going to continue to feel the ramifications of fear, anger and distrust for one another. It will lead to generations upon generations who grow up with severe anxiety and developmental issues. Educational and communal spaces must uphold our rights to peacefully coexist in a collaborative learning and social environment, and provide means and resources to cope with conflicts in a nonviolent, equitable and justice driven manner.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Guerrieri, Vince. “How 13 Seconds Changed Kent State University Forever.” Smithsonian Magazine, 1 May 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/fifty-years-ago-kent-state-massacre-changed-university-forever-180974787/
Prothrow-Stith, Deborah and Quaday, Sher. “Hidden Casualties: The Relationship between Violence and Learning.” Streamlined Seminar; v14 n2 Dec 1995. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED390124.pdf
Pruitt, Sarah. “How ‘Duck-and-Cover’ Drills Channeled America’s Cold War Anxiety.” History, 26 March 2019. https://www.history.com/news/duck-cover-drills-cold-war-arms-race
Stewart, Jessica. “Emotionally Powerful Sculpture Reflects the Heartbreaking Impact of School Shootings.” My Modern Met, 28 September 2018. https://mymodernmet.com/last-lockdown-school-shooting-sculpture/
Roberts, Rebecca. “Kent State Shooting Divided Campus And Country.” NPR’s Talk of the Nation, 3 May 2010. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126480349
Tongneri, Chris. “Prints of Pulitzer-winning photo conjure memories of massacre.” Trib Live, 22 Oct. 2016. https://archive.triblive.com/news/prints-of-pulitzer-winning-photo-conjure-memories-of-massacre/
Warzel, Charlie. “Opinion: Save the Recordings of School Shootings.” New York Times, 10 May, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/10/opinion/school-shootings-recordings.html