East Bay artists turn guns into sculpture for S.F. exhibit
By Lou Fancher
Guns kill, art heals — it’s that simple.
Or not, given complex, often vitriolic discussions about gun control and violence caused by illegal weapons that Vallejo-based Pati Navalte Poblete aims to turn into compassionate, hearts-and-heads-together art and dialogue. The Robby Poblete Foundation, founded after Poblete’s 23-year-old son was fatally shot during an attempted robbery in 2014, takes unwanted guns out of circulation through annual gun buyback programs.
Repurposed as works of art, the firearms become the centerpiece of community-based “Art of Peace” exhibits honoring reconciliation and healing. A vocational training program provides apprentice scholarships to youth studying to gain high-demand welding and metal fabrication skills. Partnering with San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) and violence prevention and youth development organization United Playaz, the foundation is presenting its “Art of Peace” exhibit July 23 through Aug. 25 at YBCA.
“We did a buyback in July 2018,” says Poblete. “With San Francisco Police Department support, we collected over 200 firearms. Every single weapon (used by artists in the exhibit) is from the weapons taken off the streets in San Francisco.”
Ten local artists and teams transformed hundreds of rifles, shotguns, handgun parts, bullets and shell casings into artwork that Poblete says reflects the community. “In Alameda, where there’s a lot of metal work, we got highly polished, mostly metal works. For San Francisco, we had sculptures, mobiles, mixed-media, all with stories. It’s a community of activism and always has something to say.”
Although the foundation never dictates what artists create, a theme — for the YBCA show it was “transformation” — is always provided. “The first submissions were a tree, a monarch, a mobile with peace doves circling,” she recalls. “This organic idea of nature came up in all the work, without our saying anything.”
Significance comes from presenting at YBCA; previous exhibits in Solano County, the city of Richmond and Augusta, Georgia, have not been held in museums. “Even though I knew the power of art, this validates it. It brings us up another level in terms of exposure and credibility,” says Poblete.
Add to that increased global recognition: The foundation was recently invited to become members of the International Action Network on Small Arms, a network uniting organizations worldwide to reduce gun misuse and proliferation.
“What I find positive is that we continue to scale,” Poblete says. “We started from the city of Vallejo that no one (outside the Bay Area) has ever heard of, and now people hashtag the foundation from Argentina, Europe, all over the world. That shows how the power of one can impact the many.”
On the flip side, she finds it discouraging that gun issues are politically hyper-charged in America.
“It confuses me when we’re talking about saving lives. Why would an NRA gun owner criticize me because I want to get illegal guns off the streets?”
Oakland artist Kevin Byall, whose ironic “Doves of Piece” mobile uses handgun parts to form birds carrying olive branches that symbolize peace, knows the dangers of guns firsthand.
“Living in Oakland, it is hard not to have guns impact your life. I’ve had one pulled on me; I’ve had friends robbed and assaulted,” he says.
Byall says fearing for one’s life is profound. Moved as an artist to raise awareness of gun violence that is “rampant in our communities today,” Byall believes gun ownership comes with a responsibility to recognize problems associated with loose regulations.
Clody Cates and Gaige Qualmann collectively created “Return to Nature #1.” The freestanding tree sculpture highlights beautiful wood reminiscent of antique weapons and copper bullets fashioned into blossoms and fused to steel gun parts with a welding machine.
“Guns are beautifully made, powerful toys,” says Cates, who had before only handled guns a few times as a teenage army cadet while growing up in Montreal. “But since I moved to Oakland 16 years ago, gun shots are a daily thing. People love to shoot their guns in the neighborhood, sometimes just up in the air, but sometimes at each other.”
Bullets have entered their art space, but the overheard cry of a mother whose child was killed in a drive-by shooting was most invasive and heart-wrenching.
“I think the problem is not the guns, but our society’s core values and people’s lack of self-responsibilities, especially in the USA. Until we as individuals and as a society start to make conscious, drastic changes, educating people about self-love and respect, even if we make all guns disappear, people will always find ways to kill and hurt each other and themselves.”
Qualmann says attention shifted from money and power to healing and “just being nicer” could absorb the negative energy of weapons used for fighting and killing. Like the artwork they created, a pivot to caring for nature and all living beings would be powerful forces “returning those energies to a place of peace and respect.”
Berkeley artist Darrell Hunger’s “Silent Violence” and Vallejo artist Nick Fullerton’s “Solar Peace Fountain” turn inward for reflection. Hunger’s artwork took form after research taught him that more than 60 percent of deaths by guns are not homicides but suicides. A central section of the sculpture features 63 casting ends, representing the number of people who daily take their lives with guns. A jumble of guns at the base swirls “like a tornado,” he says. “The top is capped with a flame for hope or remembrances.”
Similarly, Fullerton turns the occasional “barrage of gunfire” heard in his backyard and personal memories — seeing a gun violence victim lying in a pool of blood, suffering face-down on a tile floor while a gunman emptied a fast food restaurant cash register, standing at point-blank range of a neighbor incensed he had thrown out rotten oranges and more — into artwork representing harmony and cooperation. The fountain is topped by recycled gun stocks shaped into a phoenix and includes a repurposed wok, cement mixer and pistol barrels. Painted references to Buddhism and Filipino history add insights.
“I would say that political, spiritual, aesthetic and experiential factors definitely blend like colors on a canvas to influence everything I make,” says Fullerton. “History is like a pile of junk whose treasures lie waiting to be uncovered again.”
So it is that regeneration and rejuvenation comes through art made with cast-off materials originally intended to kill.
“There’s something about taking something meant to do harm and reconstructing it with nature that is healing,” says Poblete.
A by-product of “Art of Peace” that she never expected is that many of the foundation’s staunchest early critics have became its greatest supporters. “You cannot change the mind unless you get down to that human level, explain the pain and change the heart,” she says. That is the healing power of art.