Editor’s note: This piece is the first in what we hope will be a series. As gun violence continues to grip America, we’re interested in artists who compel us to see firearms in a new way.
There is a moment before or just at the first awareness of an occurrence of violence where the brutal outcome can be known or imagined. It’s an instant of stillness, suspension, where nothing has yet happened but dread sets in. Some of the film loops, photographs, and sculptures I have made imply this quiet moment or else they imply possible violence but they never cross the line into action and so remain innocent. The lacy filigreed gun sculptures I have been making out of sugar or porcelain function in a similar way, as they lay prettily inert in their cases.
It’s an instant of stillness, suspension, where nothing has yet happened but dread sets in
These sculptures also embody a basic ambivalence toward guns that is particularly American, though not specific to America. (A friend who had grown up in Lebanon during the 70’s looked at one of the small caliber sugar handguns I’d sculpted out of sugar and expressed a similar casual view of them as he said that Oh yes, his mom had one just like that that when he was young that he saw her put in her purse whenever she went out at night. I asked him if he knew about the gun, if he knew what kind it was, revolver or pistol, etc. but he’d been a child when he saw her putting it into her handbag and so he simply accepted its presence. It wasn’t something she talked about but with his child’s openness he accepted it as something she needed to take with her without worrying about the implications of why she would need a gun.) The mixed message sent by a dangerous object like a gun being made in a fragile material like sugar or porcelain is a reflection of my own mixed feelings of desire and nostalgia and apprehension toward guns.
The mixed message sent by a dangerous object like a gun being made in a fragile material like sugar or porcelain is a reflection of my own mixed feelings of desire and nostalgia and apprehension toward guns
“My Dad’s Gun Collection” (a work in progress) is a piece I started working on after a few years of making other gun sculptures from sugar and porcelain. After all, it’s the memory of seeing one of my dad’s guns when I was very young that prompted me to start making guns in the first place. I’d already been working with delicate materials to make sculpture and the whiteness of the sugar and porcelain is inherent to those materials—lending whatever I made from them an ethereal feel. I was thinking about guns in general at the time (shootings were in the news a lot right about then) and then I started thinking about how I was fascinated with my dad’s guns when I was a child. The gun sculptures I make are lacy, white, and light – exactly opposite in appearance to the pistol my brother found hidden in Mom and Dad’s bedroom one afternoon.
The guns were around, I’d heard a little about them, knew they were dangerous, but I rarely saw one. I knew there were hunting rifles my father kept but the more compelling ones were the handguns that we had been told were very dangerous and that were kept hidden from us children. Despite Dad’s good intentions of keeping the handgun they had for protection tucked away in my parent’s bedroom, my younger brother, who confessed as a grown-up to being a snoop who periodically searched my parents drawers, found it. I was sitting that afternoon on the couch that was at the bottom of the stairway, probably watching cartoons on the television, though what I was actually doing escapes me. My brother came walking slowly down the stairs balancing in his outstretched hands a pistol—it looked huge in his hands, heavy, and the metal was so black that it seemed to absorb the light. He was very young, perhaps 4 or 5 and I was 2 years older. I watched in silent fascination as he descended the stairs taking each step carefully and he glanced up at me and said “Look what I found.” I remember sitting stunned on the couch and calling my mother, and I think the tone of my voice let her know she should come quickly. She came from the kitchen and promptly took it away. My brother probably joined me on the couch then to watch cartoons. For years after that the pistol was a topic of conversation and together my brother and I would go to my parent’s bedroom and look everywhere for it, though the guns were better hidden after that and we never found it again.
My brother came walking slowly down the stairs balancing in his outstretched hands a pistol
Strangely, my brother’s knack for finding the guns hidden in my parent’s house still lingers. A few years ago we were all home for a summer holiday with our own children and families. My brother happened to open a drawer next to the easy chair in the living room and there was one of Dad’s pistols he’d forgotten to put away before the grandchildren arrived, lying quietly. Without much fanfare he took it out and asked Dad to put it away and that was the end of it. We still have the acceptance of the gun’s presence we developed as children.
After I started sculpting the guns I eventually had to broach the topic with my parents because of course my father especially was quite aware that the gun imagery probably has something to do with his own guns and he alluded to this—eventually opening the door to more stories about them being told (as well as there being more arguments between us about the politics of gun control in the U.S. We can agree on some things but others seem to set us at opposite ends of the spectrum). I ended up telling them how the time I saw the forbidden handgun in my brother’s hands had stayed with me and prompted some of my work. My Mom then told a story of how when we were very young, whenever my Dad went away on business trips, she slept with a gun under her pillow for protection. One night she woke up from a nightmare about “robbers” as she called them and thought she saw someone standing at the end of her bed. As she was reaching for the gun, the image faded as she fully awakened and she realized the intruder was just the remnants of her dream. She said she never slept with a gun under the pillow again because we children wandered into her bedroom at night sometimes and she didn’t want to wake up confusedly from a deep sleep and reach for the gun when her children were in the room.
As she was reaching for the gun, the image faded as she fully awakened and she realized the intruder was just the remnants of her dream
I called my father a while ago and asked him to give me a list of the guns he owns-I wasn’t sure how many or what types he had. He sent me a list and I saw that there are 14 in all and it’s a collection that reflects the various meanings and uses a gun has in American culture. The rifles and shotguns are mostly for hunting while the handguns reflect a fear of an intruder or danger on the street—these were purchased for protection. One or two guns are probably simply interesting models or collector’s items.
I’ve made 12 of the pieces from his collection so far and have displayed them laying in a case-the whiteness and silence of the sculptures take them away from their potentially violent origins. As I work on this piece I indulge my fascination with the guns and the mystery they hold for me as objects that I was never allowed to touch when I was young. The moment of stillness that occurs before an act of violence is reflected in the sculptures themselves as it exists in the memory of the gun in my brother’s hands—it is drawn out endlessly, allowing for a prolonged contemplation, and in both cases the potential violent result never comes.
Susan Graham attended Ohio State University and the School of Visual Arts in New York. Her work has been shown at galleries and museums including Photology Gallery in Milan,, Neuberger Museum of Art, Musee International des Arts Modestes, Sete, France, the Tucson Museum of Art and a one-person show and residency at the Lux Art Institute in southern California. In 2012, she completed a commissioned public work for an elevator lobby in the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s new medical facility in Baltimore, Maryland. Graham has been the recipient of several fellowships and grants from organizations such as the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, The Sustainable Arts Foundation, SIP at the Blackburn Printshop in the Elizabeth Foundation, Smack Mellon Artist Residency in Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Ruth Chenven Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
You can see more of her work at her website.
The above statement first appeared in “Ruminations on Violence“
by Derek Pardue.” The full info on that book is here.