Julia Martin Gallery and Nashville Arts Magazine Present
An Artistic Look At American Gun Culture
Julia Martin Gallery October 1–31
by Peter Chawaga
“Ultimately, this show is about the different artists’ perspectives. What viewers take away from it is up to them.”
When Julia Martin returned to her WEHO gallery following the Fourth of July, she was surprised to find loose pieces of plaster on the floor. This was odd, she thought, because she remembered leaving the space spotless. Looking around for answers, Martin found three small holes in the walls, each at about the height of an average person’s forehead. That’s when she called the police to report that a stray bullet had pierced her gallery.
Metro Officer Justin Fox was dispatched to investigate. There wasn’t much he could do but file a report about what appeared to be the result of celebratory gunfire. He did so, Martin says, but stayed long after to speak with her about how the incident fit into an increasingly familiar pattern. Maybe it was the five officers who had been killed the night before by a gunman in Dallas or the 9-year-old girl who was hit by a stray bullet in Nashville over the weekend, but Fox seemed introspective. Just before leaving, he suggested that the bullet holes could make for an interesting art project.
“I immediately sat down and emailed artists that I admire and respect, explained the situation, and asked if anyone had time to contribute a piece,” Martin recalls. “The response has been overwhelming and makes me insanely proud of our art community.”
The culmination of that call for submissions will be External Ballistics, an October exhibition at the Julia Martin Gallery. The featured pieces will accompany a string marking the trajectory of the stray bullet as it traveled through the gallery walls
“You ask me what my gallery means to me,” says Martin. “It means a great deal, but nothing compared to a human life. Highlighting this particular bullet hole is simply a metaphor for the countless injuries and lives being lost every day. The statistics on the number of incidences like these are disgustingly high.”
Entering the Fray
Nineteen artists have answered Martin’s call with works on the subject, including Devin Goebel, who created a series of prints inspired by targets in the shape of human bodies.
“My first reaction [to Julia’s email] was to be excited, but also kind of intimidated,” says Goebel, who grew up in a family of hunters but never felt comfortable around guns. “After all of the recent events, I wanted to see how I could respond as an artist. The invitation came at the perfect time. There was no excuse to say I didn’t want to participate.”
Without any personal experiences with gun tragedy, Goebel found that he had a difficult time understanding a victim’s perspective. This exhibition became a chance to work through that challenge and grapple with the issue in his own way.
“Something that’s present in my work because of my own emotions is a recognition of my lack of empathy for these events and trying to force myself out of that,” he says. “It’s about trying to empathize with the families of the victims and also to force myself not to be so passive or apathetic about gun violence in general.”
While news of gun violence seems to be ever present, those that haven’t experienced it firsthand may have similar difficulties approaching the subject. External Ballistics will include a number of discussions about gun violence, its effects on the community, and how participating artists wanted to explore it through their work.
Taking Aim, Without Agenda
Among the 19 artists participating in the show are Olivia Hill, Rob Matthews, Sam Dunson, Trevor Mikula, and Michael McBride. Each artist has approached the epochal issues of gun violence from a different perspective. Martin’s goal was to organize something that reflects the milieu of the time, one that has been undeniably littered with bullets and understood in countless ways.
“There’s no agenda,” says Martin, who has spent time shooting recreationally but also has friends affected by gun violence. “My personal hope for this exhibit is to hold a mirror up to the way things are, the way they’ve been, and hopefully where they may go. Ultimately, this show is about the different artists’ perspectives. What viewers take away from it is up to them.”
Despite any personal attachment to firearms or the right to use them, every potential visitor to External Ballistics will agree that senseless gun-related injuries and deaths happen far too often.
“I don’t think I have an answer for anything, but I do think it’s important to communicate in every language about the problems of our time,” says J. Elizabeth Williams, a contributing artist from a gun-owning family in Eastern Tennessee. “We’ve purposefully said it’s a show about guns, not a show about gun control or how guns are ruining America.”
Williams was inspired by the topic to create a multimedia piece on wood panel and a sculpture made from ballistics jelly. She was moved by the toll that gun violence takes on its victims and their families, not by any desire to convert viewers.
“I’m focusing on the emotional aspect of the loss that happens because of guns,” she says. “Everybody can understand the value of human life to a degree.”
Officer Fox may not have known just how fertile his suggestion for an art project would prove to be, but it seems that he had a sense of the power that art has to help us work through some of the most polarizing issues we face.
“Art is a universal language that can be spoken and understood by anyone taking the time to try,” Martin says. “Every work of art invites its viewer to commune and therefore presents an opportunity to expand one’s consciousness.”
It’s difficult to imagine art speaking more clearly than it does through nearly fatal bullet holes traced with thread, bolstered by attempts to understand our overwhelming desire to fire deadly weapons. In the face of persistent tragedy and increasingly deafening debate, that may be the only language to break through.
External Ballistics, sponsored by Nashville Arts Magazine, will open at the Julia Martin Gallery, 444 Humphreys Street, with a reception on October 1 from 6 to 9 p.m. and remain on view until October 31. For more information, visit www.juliamartingallery.com.