In the 1990s, when the streets of New Orleans were plagued with murders, the artist and gallery owner Jonathan Ferrara opened an exhibition using reclaimed guns in order to bring the conversation around gun violence into the world of art. Two decades later, with gun violence still a national problem, Ferrara revisited the project. The product became a new exhibition called Guns In the Hands of Artists, which is now accompanied by a book of the same name, published by Ink Shares, with contributions from public figures and writers including writer Richard Ford, rapper Lupe Fiasco, Senator Tim Kaine, and former congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Ferrara spoke with PW about the exhibition and book, gun violence in America, and owning a weapon to turn into art.
How did you first come up with the idea for this book?
The book is really an extension of an exhibition I curated that had its roots in the mid-1990s in New Orleans, when our murder rate was approaching 400 a year. I first mounted this exhibition, in collaboration with artist Brian Borrello, to take the conversation about the issue of guns and gun violence in America out of the highly politicized realm of the dialogue surrounding it and move it into the realm of art. The exhibition took guns off the streets via a gun buyback, and then I distributed the decommissioned weapons to artists across the city to use as raw materials in making artworks that address the issue of guns and gun violence in America. I was 28 at the time, and the exhibition kind of came and went. But for the next 15 years, as gun violence and mass shootings like Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Orlando took place, I asked myself what I could do and how, as an artist, gallery owner, and curator, I could address this issue. So I decided to revisit this project at a much higher level, with museum-quality artists from around the country. Artists who truly capture the diversity of American life—men and women, black and white—because gun violence affects everyone and is so pervasive that now no person is immune. In 2012, I worked with the City of New Orleans—the mayor's office, the city council, and the New Orleans Police Department—to secure 186 firearms from their gun buy back program: 160 handguns and 26 long barreled and sawed-off shotguns. Those weapons were decommissioned by NOPD and the ATF, which I then distributed to painters, sculptors, photographers, and video artists to use in making artworks to address the issue of guns and gun violence. When you’re standing in a gallery surrounded by artwork that’s made for guns, it’s very disarming. The book is a different sort of intimate experience, where it’s just you and the pages of the book. It’s designed to make people think and consider, through the lens of art, what’s happening in an America that belongs to guns.
How did you attract the artists, authors, and public figures included in this book, such as Tim Kaine and Richard Ford? How involved were you in the process of working with them?
I wanted to document this exhibition, and in working with Ink Shares, we decided to expand it beyond just the documenting of the exhibition by including writing. I’ve done a lot of work at the Aspen Institute for the last five years, a lot of it around this issue of gun violence, so when Walter Isaacson was in New Orleans, he saw the exhibition and offered to write the introduction. From there, all the other people started to come in line over a year's time. It took me two years to produce the book because I wanted to have multiple perspectives—from Walter Isaacson to Sen. Tim Kaine to Richard Ford to Lupe Fiasco to Harry Shearer—on their perspectives on gun violence in America, because it is a multifaceted crisis that we’re facing. A lot of it came from my own personal network and reaching out. I met Rep. Gabby Giffords, for example, through an art collector who saw the show. Several of these contributors are gun owners: Richard Ford, John Barry. But what’s important is that I did not have to rope anyone into writing for the book, as everyone involved is deeply passionate about this issue and wants to make America a safer place. All I had to do was get these insanely busy and high-level folks to commit to the writing and then follow up continuously to make sure they delivered in a timely fashion—that's one reason the book took almost two years to complete.
As a curator of the exhibition and the artworks and as an artist myself, I don’t ever want someone to tell me what to do artistically, so I didn’t tell any of the artists what to do with their guns. They were all challenged to use guns as the raw material in their artwork as they saw fit. The exact same premise is what I operated under with regard to the contributors to the book. I did not tell them or ask them anything but: “Here are images, here’s information.” Then they wrote what they were going to write. I wanted their perspectives unfettered by what I had to say or by my opinions. It was a very curatorial project. My goal with the contributors was the same as with the artists: Let them do whatever their creative minds want.
Why did you choose to publish the book with Ink Shares? What were they like to work with?
I came to Ink Shares through my book agent, Matthew Guma of the Guma Agency. He recommended I look at Ink Shares. One reason was the model under which they operate, which is crowdfunding—it’s like Random House meets Kickstarter. This book might not have seen the light of day if it had gone to a traditional publisher—they may have changed or rearranged the content. One of the most appealing aspects of InkShares was the creative control I had over the book, from the interior layout and to the book’s overall design. I worked hand in hand for three months with Girl Friday Productions in Seattle to layout the structure of the book, the flow of the images, and the essays to emphasize a clear thought line and flow. Having that level of input helped make sure that I met the vision I had for the book. As an artist and creative person, that was obviously very important to me. And I believe it shows in the finished product, a truly beautiful and powerful object.
Are you a gun owner?
I am not a gun owner but I was a gun owner. On the back cover of the book is a work of art that shows a Mossberg 500-gauge shotgun inserted into a Colorado River rock, like King Arthur’s sword in the stone. That piece is my piece, which I created for this exhibition. In order to create it, I needed to acquire that firearm. So I went on www.armslist.com, saw this gun, emailed the person, and he said, "OK, I’ll meet you at your gallery." He walks in two days later and his son is holding a duffle bag over his shoulder. I give him $300, and his son pulls out the shotgun and gives it to me. I say, "Is that it?" He goes, "Yeah." In Louisiana, all personal sales are private. No receipt, no documentation, no nothing. We had a conversation about the Second Amendment for the next 15 minutes, then the son reaches into the bag and pulls out a sack of shells. I’m in my studio, fully loaded, and nobody knows anything.
It would have been artistic heresy for me to insert this shotgun into the rock without me shooting it, so I went to the range, got a five-minute lesson, and proceeded to shoot the shells. I can tell you, it was an adrenaline rush. I understood the power of the machine. But it was also very scary to me because of that power.