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Art takes aim at gun violence in KC

Updated: 2014-01-18T06:27:12Z

By ALICE THORSON

The Kansas City Star

The somber poster shows the stylized face of Martin Luther King Jr., his gaze intense. He seems thoughtful, sad and slightly wary.

His look is accompanied by the words: “It’s 9 p.m. ... Do you know where your children are? Protect your children from gun violence.”

The poster was created by Kansas City’s Lonnie Powell as part of the “Artists for Life” public awareness project, a collaborative of African-American artists producing artwork aimed at reducing handgun violence in the city.

The project is planning to install posters with similar messages in the city’s schools and libraries, community centers, churches, barbershops and beauty salons — “wherever people congregate where we can make a statement and stimulate discussion,” said project director Darryl Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, a member of Kansas City’s Light in the Other Room group of African-American artists, knows about gun violence. He grew up in Kansas City and now lives in Lee’s Summit. As his sons got older, he would tell them: “When the sun sets, I want you near the home. There’s nothing to do in the dark but get in trouble.”

Then, in January 2013, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton of Chicago was shot dead, a week after she performed at events for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

“The girl we all wanted for our daughter was caught in the epidemic,” Chamberlain said.

Her death was the “tipping point” for him and pushed him to apply for Rocket Grants funds for a public awareness campaign. The 3-year-old program, funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation and administered by Kansas City’s Charlotte Street Foundation and the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, supports innovative projects geared to audiences outside traditional galleries and museums.

In May, Chamberlain’s proposal was one of two projects that received a $2,000 Research and Development Award from Rocket Grants. According to Julia Cole, Rocket Grants program coordinator, the awards support projects that require a longer period of planning.

In an email, Cole said “Artists for Life” addresses “the core of the program’s vision in a unique way — inserting artistic thinking and making (it) into a broader social context and exposing new audiences to innovative work in surprising places.

“We hope this project will inspire others that similarly advance the critical role that art plays in an active and self-reflective civic life.”

For the project, Chamberlain said the group did a lot of research, including meeting with the Kansas City No Violence Alliance to immerse itself in statistics about the perpetrators and victims of gun violence.

“NoVa came in and blew our minds about how serious the problem is in Kansas City,” Chamberlain said. “I didn’t realize we were at epidemic level. The national average for 2012 was 4.8 handgun deaths per 100,000. In Kansas City, it was 23.7 per 100,000.”

“Chicago’s murders are national news; ours are quiet murders,” he added.

In a series of monthly meetings, the group developed a set of targets and topics to guide the creation of the posters. The 9 p.m. poster addresses the fact that many gun incidents occur between midnight and 2 a.m. Other posters reach out to youths to be resources.

“They’re at ground zero many times,” Chamberlain said. “If you know information, you want to come forward.”

A poster he designed couples the image of an eye peering through a bullet-shattered window with the plea: “Tell what you know! If you see dangerous activity, report it!”

But “Artists for Life” steers clear of the controversial waters of gun control, and in fact, some of the artists own guns and shoot them.

“I used to shoot skeet and trap and taught in a school in Detroit,” said Erlene Flowers, an artist involved with the project. “A lot of times, people shoot and have no idea where the bullets go. A lot of people using handguns don’t understand what a handgun does. Some don’t shoot straight. They’re not as accurate as people think.”

So the posters urge gun owners to keep firearms safely locked away. There are too many incidents, Chamberlain said, where a gun bought for protection ends up hurting someone in the home.

“Mine is locked. I went to the sheriff and got a lock,” Chamberlain said. “There’s something about toddlers. ... They can find a gun.”

The project’s accompanying website, artistsforlifeproject.com, has a section labeled “victims” with stories about accidental shootings involving children.

Chamberlain stresses that “Artists for Life” is not a Light in the Other Room project, although many of its members are contributing. Given Light in the Other Room’s historical focus on countering negative stereotypes with positive images, he knew it might be a hard sell.

“There were people who said: ‘I’m a happy person. I don’t paint that,’ ” he recalled. “I responded, ‘Speak with your own voice. Some people say powerful things with gentle words.’ 

“I was one of the ones challenging the project,” Flowers said. “Coming out of Detroit. I worked with kids who had handguns in school. I didn’t want to revisit the thing I retired from. I asked Darryl, ‘How’s this going to make an impact? How is this going to make a difference?’ 

In the end, Flowers responded to Chamberlain’s appeal to “come up with provocative artwork that makes people think and start a discussion.” Her poster features an emotional image of the aftermath of a shooting.

There’s no gun in Flowers’ picture, a night scene that shows a police car in front of a house with people spilling out the door. In the foreground, a fallen man lies on the ground in the beam of a helicopter searchlight.

The accompanying text says: “Don’t be a part of another CSI crime scene. Stop gun violence in the hood.”

Dionja’y, a Maryland-based artist whom Chamberlain invited to participate, didn’t hesitate to depict a gun. His striking image features a black strongman with manacled hands holding a weapon marked with the word “death.” A shimmering gold key is emblazoned on his bald head.

The message — “Don’t be a prisoner to gun violence. You hold the key” — is aimed at the perpetrators of gun violence.

Other themes being addressed include legislation aimed at minimizing handgun violence and working with law enforcement. A poster by Margaretre Gillespie, with the text, “Friendships are forever. Make a friend in the neighborhood,” shows a police officer comforting a child.

An exhibition of the posters will open late March at Artis Events, before the launch of the project’s second phase, in which schoolchildren will design posters for a competition with awards in the fall.

Chamberlain, who frequently works with schools, is heading up that effort.

“We don’t have to lose our young men,” he insisted. “We can change things. If we put good things in these kids, we’ll get good things back.”

See the artwork

Meet the artists and view the artwork featured in the “Artists for Life” posters at a March 28 reception and exhibition at Artis Events, 3016 Cherry St. The free event, which will include artist presentations and discussions, begins at 6:30 p.m.

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4763 or send email to athorson@kcstar.com.

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