“There’s no more controversial or polarizing issue than guns,” said Sasha Irving, executive director of the nonprofit art center.
“There are so many viewpoints on this issue. … It’s not just simply black and white,” Irving said. “The goal was to be as inclusive as possible. … We made it clear that this was an opportunity for artists from all political perspectives to come together” and start a dialogue.
The 34 works featured in “Guns in America,” which opened Jan. 5 and runs through Jan. 29, reveal a range of attitudes toward firearms and their place in society. Some of the 20 featured artists, such as Cayucos photographer Sam Peck and Paso Robles woodworker Ken J. Velarde, are gun owners; others have a deep-seated aversion to firearms.
“I’ve been around firearms my whole life,” said Velarde, who works in the woodshop at Paso Robles gun accessories manufacturer Hogue Inc. He keeps guns at home for self-defense and target shooting.
For “Guns in America,” Velarde offered two examples of handcrafted wooden gun grips.
“We The People,” carved from cocobolo, features National Rifle Association-approved eagle and feather quill designs. “Bocote Walk,” which sports an image of an elephant, is made from bocote with osage orange inlays.
Acknowledging that many people fear and even revile guns, Velarde encourages critics to learn more about them.
“To hate it, you have to understand it,” he said. “It is a dangerous item, but if you know that from the get-go, you’re going to be OK.”
Another Hogue employee, Trent Mitsuoka, used AR-15 rifle ammunition casings to create a peace symbol in a piece titled “An Armed Society is a Polite Society.” As a competitive shooter, he views guns as sports equipment, “simply a tool to play a game.”
“There are peaceful ways to shoot guns,” Mitsuoka wrote in an email. “And peace is held together by bullets (literally). Without a means to protect ourselves, we cannot have peace.”
Tackling the subject of gun violence was tricky for Paso Robles resident Eve Provost Chartrand, who grew up in Montreal. Her family hails from a farming community where residents use hunting rifles, not for sport, but to supply their families with fresh meat.
“Guns are not (really) a part of my culture. … War for me is a new concept as well,” Provost Chartrand said. “Being Canadian in (the United States), I have to be careful of what I’m saying. I don’t want to come here with my big boots and say ‘War is not good.’ ”
Still, the mixed media artist felt moved to share her feelings about armed conflict.
The taxidermied canary at the center of “Never again … mending wounds of the past by cultivating compassion & channeling kindness” signifies a warning call about war.
“We need to find new ways of seeking peace,” Provost Chartrand said. “If we don’t change our ways, we’re not going to survive as the human race.”
Her chair-based sculpture, “Comfortably numb,” explores how outdated traditions and false assumptions can distract viewers from the reality of violence. (That piece won Best in Show.) And the lengthy title of her third piece, depicting a zebra hide-covered chair, says it all: “Design Style 101: How to recreate a Hollywood Regency Style in your home: Hunt and kill exotic animals solely to achieve an over-the-top glamorous look and create a precious display of wealth that diligently muzzles the screams of slaughtered animals.”
Paso Robles painter W.B. Eckert delves into the role of guns in the American psyche in his painting “White Hat Syndrome.”
It depicts a heroic gunslinger — modeled after movie cowboy Tom Mix — facing off against an array of weaponry as an American flag flaps behind him. A startled school marm clings to his arm, while a little boy eyes his white hat, as if fantasizing about wearing it himself one day.
“I’m not pro- or anti-gun but I have a lot of feelings about the attitudes and thinking in the country about guns,” Eckert said, adding that firearms have served as “a basis for our culture the first time we started. We won our independence by shooting at the British, and we spread across the country by shooting at the Indians.”
Americans have historically justified their actions, he added, by promoting the belief that “We’re the good guys. … And everyone’s against us because we’re standing up for what’s right.”
“It’s glossed over by a Hollywood patina and a moral righteousness,” Eckert said, “(but) we’re just like everybody else.”
Peck explores the seemingly ubiquitous nature of guns in American society in his photo “Born in the USA,” which shows an infant playing with a (fake) pistol. “We’re the only civilized modern society that’s completely inundated with modern weaponry. I think it’s crazy,” he said.
The portrait is part of his series “Dark Corners,” which seeks to shine a light on human suffering. The photographer was inspired by the Buddhist concept of samsara, a continual, painful cycle of life and death driven by desire and ignorance.
“It’s a very challenging project, personally and logistically,” Peck said, because it deals with such difficult subject matter.
His photo “Armed and Dangerous: Shoot to Kill,” depicting a prone African-American boy with a toy gun, was inspired by recent police shootings of unarmed black men. And the blood-splattered school book in “American Killing Fields” references the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
Irving acknowledged that some of the pieces featured in “Guns in America” will be challenging for viewers. But she said the studio isn’t shying away from controversy.
In January 2016, Studios on the Park invited 15 artists to explore the theme of human migration in the show “Migrations.”
Tackling important issues through art is “becoming a new tradition” at the studio, Irving said, adding that “Guns in America” “really shows the relevance of art to (promoting) broader dialogue around really critical issues facing our country and our world.”