'Guns: Loaded Conversations' at SJMQT

A new quilts exhibition explores guns, violence and American gun culture
'137 Bullets' by artist Diane K. Bird considers the use of lethal force by American police.

The latest exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles begins at the box office. Upon purchase of a ticket, guests are not only offered a copy of their receipt, but prior to entering, they are also asked to pick out an empty bullet casing from a glass dish brimming with spent shells.

The weight of a bullet casing seemed insignificant at first, but by the end of viewing "Guns: Loaded Conversations," I found myself turning the shell over and over in my hand as if it were carrying the weight of the nearly 35,000 gun deaths that happen annually in the United States. And that's exactly the point.

While the gun debate takes center stage in the national arena, "Guns: Loaded Conversations" brings the discussion to the local level by asking viewers to consider what role guns should play in a society that's continually challenged by their presence and the right to bear them.

Presented as a collaboration between the Museum of Quilts and Textiles and the Studio Art Quilt Associates—a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the art quilt through education—the exhibition has been nearly two years in the making: Amy DiPlacido, curator of exhibitions at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, was first inspired to bring a show about guns to the museum in 2016 shortly after what was then the deadliest mass shooting in America.

"Right around the time when I became curator, the Pulse nightclub shooting happened, and almost instantaneously I knew I wanted to use my new platform to create a show that talked about guns in America," she says.

Comprising 33 textile works, the exhibit is inspired by and speaks to many facets of American gun culture—from its profoundly divisive influence in politics to its use as a tool for hunting and self-protection. Perhaps what's most interesting is the common theme that each work carries, regardless of whether the artist is pro- or anti-gun: horror, if not shock, surrounding the sheer number of deaths that guns contribute to, as well as America's unwillingness to stop or slow down that violence.

Bang, You're Dead by artist Jacquie Gering is a reflection on young victims of gun violence in the Chicago public school system; The New American Crucifix by Nancy Lemke portrays two children being crucified on a cross while members of the NRA look on. Lemke, who considered herself anti-gun until she had firsthand experience with hunting, expresses confusion and anger that laws have not changed even after the Sandy Hook shooting. Perhaps the most moving piece of all is a hand-stitched replica of a 12 gauge shotgun by Anne Lemanski, which is the exact model of gun her father used to commit suicide.

Representing a range of ideologies and views was DiPlacido's intent when curating the show—as was leaving many questions unanswered, so that viewers could draw their own conclusions.

"There are quilts that glorify and pay homage to the heritage of gun culture and hunting, but you can also find more neutral quilts where artists have just embroidered statistics," she explains. "The artists are not always inserting their opinions into their pieces, but are simply speaking to the facts and letting the viewers decide."

One major highlight of the show is a secondary exhibit called "Generation of Change: A Movement, Not a Moment," which features nine works by textile artists of color under 18 that address police brutality, racially motivated violence and school shootings. Created by students of the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA), the works give agency to a group of young people who are not only disproportionately impacted by gun violence, but are almost always excluded from the debate. SJSA aims to provide a platform for students to explore political activism and make their voices heard in spaces otherwise inaccessible to them.

"Rest in Power, Trayvon," is an especially haunting portrait quilted by SJSA's founder, Sara Trail. It depicts Trayvon Martin with his sweatshirt hood up, and even includes two hoodie laces that hang down from the traditional rectangular borders of the quilt. Martin's face—created with a mix of recycled cotton, wool and batiks on bleached linen—conveys an incredible amount of emotion in its expression, staring at and even scrutinizing the onlooker.

For DiPlacido, bringing this exhibition to San Jose is a chance to reflect on where museums are going in the future and how they can serve as a tool to further propel discussions that can ultimately lead to change.

"Museums can be a very safe space where we can have these conversations and talk about subjects that make people uncomfortable—art has a power to describe feelings that you can't exactly put into words," she says.

At the end of the exhibition, "Loaded Conversations" asks viewers to participate in the dialogue by casting a vote by bullet casing. Is gun legislation strict enough as it is? Should civilians be free to own and operate any firearms they choose? Or should weapons be limited to the military and law enforcement? DiPlacido's hope is that this symbolic vote is only the jumping off point for larger conversations about guns after visitors leave.

"There are quilts in here that can make you laugh and cry at the same time, or if someone you know was a victim of gun violence, this is a place where you can mourn," she explains. "I think it's an opportunity for neighbors to meet each other, bond over a piece and potentially start a conversation with a stranger."

Guns: Loaded Conversations
Thru Jul 15

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