Gun parts fill a jar next to a back wall.
A burned handgun lies under a glass case beside a bullet with a gold-painted base and an 18-carat diamond tip.
Across the room are 28 photograms of decommissioned handguns superimposed over the faces of shooting victims. A list of the names on an adjoining tablet provides a stark roll call of the dead.
The exhibit is called “Guns in the Hands of Artists.”
Featuring pieces from 33 artists, it’s an attempt to co-opt the tools of violence in a city where it seems to touch nearly everyone, or at least every neighborhood.
During Art for Arts’ Sake on Saturday night, hundreds filed through the gallery, passing maps depicting the city’s shootings and walking under rifles hanging from the ceiling.
“It’s a bit overwhelming, but I do like it,” said Mary Brewington, a 27-year-old veterinarian who lives in Metairie. Her favorite piece, she said, depicted a child holding a gun; it contained “a very important message that not everyone seems to understand,” she said.
Gallery owner Jonathan Ferrara said he wants to “take the conversations about guns in our society out of the polarized and politicized world and into the world of art, as a means of fostering dialogue.”
He paused and smiled. Standing in his gallery a few days before the opening, he added: “Or at least potentially fostering dialogue. Whether or not you can do that, that’s the aim. We need a frank discussion of guns in our society. Art can change how society perceives an issue.”
Of course, violence, perhaps inevitably, has been animating artistic expression in New Orleans for some time. There is Willie Birch, whose paintings have often dwelled on the mundane aftermath of the city’s gun violence, the neighbors who come out afterward to scrub away carnage. More recently, a New Orleans police detective gained attention for the amateur painting he does to cope with his job, depicting an assault rifle draped with Mardi Gras beads and crafting a portrait of the gang leader Telly Hankton out of spent bullet casings.
Ferrara’s latest exhibit is itself a kind of reiteration of a show that he and artist Brian Borrello collaborated on in 1996, when the murder rate in New Orleans was at its peak. (A New York Times story reported that a bartender was robbed at gunpoint on the way home from the Magazine Street opening.)
Ferrara’s latest show is at his gallery on Julia Street in the Warehouse District. Some 20 art galleries line the street nearby.
The fear of having to face down the barrel of a gun is a haunting specter for anyone who has spent at least a couple of weeks in New Orleans, and Ferrara’s show taps into that.
Much of the art came from 186 decommissioned handguns, rifles and shotguns that the New Orleans Police Department took off the streets through its gun buyback program and turned over to Ferrara.
“Decommissioned” — under rules of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — meant that “they had to blowtorch them in half,” Ferrara said. He let the artists pick among the piles of gun parts for anything usable.
Redefining an image
Adam Mysock, a 31-year-old professor of painting and drawing at Tulane, typically takes a historical image and “redefines it to speak to something more contemporary,” he said.
For this project, he sorted through the decommissioned guns until he found a shotgun that had been sawed in half. One end included an intricate engraving above the trigger that featured a stag.
The two parts of the weapon sat in his studio for months. “I had no clue what to do,” Mysock said. “One day, I decided to try to clean it.” He spent hours filing and grinding to smooth the melted ends of the barrel and the trigger mechanism. Then he got an idea.
At the end of the gun barrel, close to the trigger, Mysock reimagined a 15th-century painting. One miniature image shows the gates of heaven. The other shows evil being cast into hell.
He painted a third miniature image: Bambi’s mother.
“When people look down the barrel, I hope they’ll see something that is both frightening and playful,” Mysock said. “I hope the piece embodies the more beautiful aspects of guns — the artistry that goes into making them — and the serious implications of guns as well.”
One of the two pieces by Ron Bechet on a back wall emphasizes the serious implications. Superimposed over a map of the city, it features the names of 107 people — painted in red — who were murdered in metro New Orleans in 2014.
The word “Why!” shouts out a message.
“It’s my cry,” said Bechet, a 58-year-old art professor at Xavier University. “And it should be our question as well as the community’s. Why is it easier to get a gun than an education?”
Two photographs on a wall facing the gallery entrance are deliberately inflammatory. One shows a 6-year-old boy pointing a gun to his left. The other shows a 23-year-old young man pointing a gun to his right.
Both the boy and the young man are naked. Both, in fact, are the son of Neil Alexander, a commercial photographer and filmmaker. The earlier photo appeared in the original “Guns in the Hands of Artists” exhibit.
Alexander lived near the St. Thomas housing complex for years until Hurricane Katrina chased him and his family to Massachusetts. Speaking by telephone from New Bedford, Alexander, 60, said he and his son had long discussions recently about whether he would appear again in the latest show. Alexander said he feared he might be accused of exploiting his son.
Art — and outrage — won out in the end.
“If somebody thinks that’s obscene — good,” Alexander said. “As a father and son, we’re saying: Enough! I created the image to further the dialogue that things have to change. We have too many guns in society.”
Not surprisingly, guns have touched some of the artists’ lives directly. Mysock witnessed a murder in Central City in 2004. Alexander has attended three funerals of people killed by guns.
Through a cultural arts organization named Porch, Bechet got to know a Delgado student who was murdered earlier this year in the 7th Ward. Wesley Pipkins was his name. “He made it personal for me,” Bechet said, pointing to Wesley’s name on the painting.
Still a provocateur
Ferrara moved to New Orleans in 1992, leaving behind a banking career in Boston. For years, he indulged in all the excesses that New Orleans has to offer. But 10 years ago, he met Sidonie Villere — an artist who has her own piece in the show — and they had a son; he has settled down.
But Ferrara — now 47, with his three earrings, six rings, two bracelets, shaved head and lengthy goatee — remains a provocateur. He decided he had to do a piece for the show as well. In the end, he decided against using a weapon from the NOPD’s buyback program. Instead, he found a Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun online and paid the owner $300 for it.
Ferrara had a clear vision for his piece but needed help. He purchased a small boulder at a stoneworks in Mississippi and took it with the shotgun to Mediterranean Marble and Tile in New Orleans.
“At first, we were a little leery,” co-owner Vanessa Lovisa said. “We didn’t know what to expect. But once he explained everything, it was good.”
Ferrara wanted Lovisa to jam the shotgun into the rock so it would stick out like King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur.
Ferrara stood over the finished piece. “King Arthur pulls his sword out to go conquer the world,” he said, grabbing the shotgun with both hands and giving it a yank. “You can’t pull it out. It’s as if to say: ‘Aren’t we done yet?’ ”
Ferrara called it “my personal artistic commentary.”
While each artist said he hoped the exhibit would somehow stem gun violence, a statistic from the Police Department provides a blunt reminder of the problem.
“We take 20 to 25 guns off the street every week, through actual gun arrests,” said Earl Johnson, an 11-year NOPD veteran who processes the weapons.
Asked if he found that number frightening, Johnson replied: “As a cop, it’s reality to me.”
Although gun violence may be a reality to life in New Orleans, not everyone who saw the show was comfortable with the message it seemed to depict.
“I think it’s interesting, but I hope it’s not part of some anti-gun movement or an assault on the Second Amendment,” said 70-year-old Metairie resident and electronic engineer Ed Christy. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”
Jefferson Parish resident Lisa Belsom, 42, agreed.
“My father’s a retired NOPD officer, and I grew up with guns in my home. This doesn’t come across as art to me,” Belsom said, adding that she moved out of New Orleans because there was just too much crime. “Denigrating guns is a bad idea. We all need them. The NOPD needs them.”
Della Hasselle contributed to this story.