Censorship didn’t strike the new exhibit at the Epsten Gallery in Overland Park.
No, it was the lingering power of gun violence that forced a decision to remove two beautifully thought-provoking porcelain installations.
The changes were made out of concern for the traumatizing effect the artworks could stir for residents at the senior community that houses the gallery. A handful are Holocaust survivors.
It was the right choice, a caring and responsible decision. Epsten is a small public gallery tucked just inside the main entry to Village Shalom.
Last April, the community of elderly people was targeted by a white supremacist who drove to the Kansas City area looking for Jews to murder. He is accused of shooting and killing two people, a man and his grandson, at the nearby Jewish Community Center, then of making the short drive to Village Shalom, seeking more victims. A woman who had just arrived to visit her mother, a longtime resident, was killed in the parking lot.
“4-13.” Village Shalom staff tend to refer in shorthand to the date the three — William Corporon, Reat Underwood and Terri LaManno — died. They do not speak the alleged killer’s name. He has yet to stand trial.
But everything changed that day. Ten months later, art that was created as a statement against violence must be measured for its ability to provoke. The artworks receiving scrutiny invoke images of guns.
This is the power of hate.
“We were victimized on many levels,” said Matthew E. Lewis, president and CEO of Village Shalom. “This is the home of our residents. It would be different if the gallery was a standalone operation down the street.”
The Epsten is open to the public. Village Shalom provides the space for the gallery, but a foundation raises the funds and operates the space.
The prestigious Women to Watch 2015 exhibit is part of a national project through the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Five regional artists were selected to exhibit their works, with one of the women chosen to have her art shown this summer at the national museum just three blocks from the White House. The work of photographer Lara Shipley will appear in the Washington exhibit.
But Epsten decided to alter how it displayed the pieces of another artist, Linda Lighton.
After an opening reception last Thursday, a black cloth was placed over the clear case enclosing two of Lighton’s five works. The pieces are glazed white forms that include guns unfolding, evoking a flower. The covering was added by Heather Lustfeldt, Epsten’s curator.
Lustfeldt knew the gallery would soon be used for the art therapy classes regularly held for residents. By then, supporters of the gallery and others had raised the fragility of some residents and their vulnerability to jarring metaphors about gun violence that Lighton’s pieces convey.
There are about 230 residents of Shalom. About 70 percent are Jewish. Some live independently in villas that form a half circle around the property. Others need more acute care. Some have dementia.
After the April attack, months of therapy was offered to residents and staff. So many took part that extra counselors were called in from other health care centers. Everyone seems aware that Overland Park police were stationed at both street entrances to the community for months after the shooting. There is recognition of, if not wide knowledge about, other heightened security measures.
Still, when a violent gun death is amplified in the local news, ripples of anxiety are apparent. “A little jittery” is how CEO Lewis described it.
Such is the nature of hate crimes. The violence is calculated to target not just the people that bore the actual wound, but anyone like them or who was simply nearby. None of the shooting victims was Jewish.
“It was the only decision that we could make given the context, the space and what happened,” Lustfeldt said.
It was also a decision that was quickly reached by consensus, by conference call. The risk was deemed too great.
By Friday, the pieces were removed. And a third Lighton work was shifted from the busy hallway where residents, their visitors and staff regularly pass to inside the gallery. That piece is a colorful floral clay that depicts tubes of lipstick in shell cases.
For Lighton, the reactions to her work in the context of the shootings underscore just how much violence can control people.
“It’s not really fear, it’s intimidation,” said Lighton. “It frightens me that in America, we can’t even use a metaphor.”
On Sunday, during an artist’s talk at the gallery, Lighton’s removed works were shown in photographs tacked to the wall. She has replaced her missing work with other pieces.
But as Lighton and others talked inside the gallery, it became clear that rather than stifling a conversation about gun violence, the episode will spark dialogue. It will stir talk about what can be done to prevent such acts and a better understanding of how even one shooting has the ability to ricochet, spreading fear long past the initial event. Lustfeldt is mulling the idea of a forum, possibly more artist talks, for that purpose.
Sonié Joi Ruffin is one of the featured artists in the exhibit. Her mixed media triptych also carries themes against violence, particularly the kind experienced historically and presently by African-Americans.
“Allow art to be the catalyst to bring the conversation to the table,” Ruffin implored to those gathered Sunday.
“It’s not about censorship,” she said. “It’s about let’s pay attention.”
This is how love and compassion will win.