By Ryah Cooley
Within the schoolhouse walls was once a place where it seemed nothing truly bad could happen. Then the Columbine High School shooting massacre happened in 1999, claiming 15 lives, and everything changed.
That loss hit home recently for Paso Robles artist Deprise Brescia while leaving a school in the San Luis Obispo County area after teaching an art class. While there was no shooter on campus, a disturbed man had wandered onto the school grounds. The situation was handled, but what really shook Brescia up was teachers’ reactions. “We know what to do in a lockdown,” they told her.
“It freaked me out a lot,” Brescia said. “I didn’t remember this when I was in school. It’s very common now and that’s disturbing.”
Guns in schools. Guns in the hands of the mentally ill. Guns in the hands of everyday Americans. Any way you spin it, the Second Amendment right to bear arms remains one of the most controversial issues in the country. So much so that Studios on the Park in Paso Robles’ latest exhibit, Guns in America, zeroes in on the complexities of guns.
After researching, Brescia was stunned to learn that there have been 185 school shootings in the country in the 21st century alone (which we’re only 16 years into). Politics aside, what Brescia saw was a lack of peace. She crafted a series of colorful lunch-box sized mobiles with big bullet-shaped holes to represent death and smaller holes to represent injuries; the mobiles now hang in the Guns in America exhibit. There’s a lunchbox cut out to represent each of the shootings, with information on what happened there and the words “Pray for Peace” and mourners’ flowers affixed to each one. She also noticed that the number of school shootings doubled after the ’80s, around the same time when art was cut from many school programs.
“We need to figure out why we don’t have peace,” Brescia said. “Art isn’t just beautiful, it soothes people. We need to have ways to express our anger that’s constructive.”
Freedom of expression is that other amendment that gets tossed around and re-examined quite a bit. While we’re free to express ourselves, we can’t always control how the message will be received. When Los Angeles artist Scott Froschauer started making art pieces with gunpowder on canvas using a printing press, he thought he was making a clear statement on gun violence. But then a member of his local rifle range inquired about buying his piece Old Glory of the American flag, which is also a part of the Guns in America exhibit.
“Some viewers can also look at it as glorification of gun ownership in the U.S.,” Froschauer said. “It really goes to show what a complicated issue it is.”
The meaning of some of Froschauer’s other pieces is harder to misconstrue. Visitors Welcome is a replica of a sign that hangs at Sandy Hook Elementary, where 20 kids and six adults were shot in 2012. Froschauer’s piece says simply: “Sandy Hook School. 1956. Visitors Welcome,” in gunpowder from bullets similar to those needed for an AR-15, the kind of gun that shooter Adam Lanza used on those school grounds.
Still, while Froschauer and gun rights advocates see different things when looking at Old Glory, the point is that it creates a connection.
“Now we can respect each other’s humanity,” Froschauer said. “My desire is regulation of firearms, and that’s the same desire that many gun owners have.”
Don’t shoot the writer. Contact Ryah Cooley at firstname.lastname@example.org.