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Guns in the hands of artists

This afternoon, from 1:30 - 2 PM, the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery (310 Julia Street) is holding a dedication ceremony for the gallery's newest exhibition, Guns in the Hands of Artists (which will be on display though January 24), featuring works from over 30 international and local artists using 186 guns obtained from the New Orleans Police Department’s gun buyback program to make original works of art. The ceremony will gather New Orleans civic leaders and participating artists including gallery owner Jonathan Ferrara; City of New Orleans council member Latoya Cantrell; and artists (Including John Barnes, Skylar Fein, Dan Tague, and Deborah Luster who lost her mother to gun violence). The event is free and open to the public. 

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Deborah Luster
is an award-winning photographer whose stunning works are permanently exhibited in prestigious museums. And it all started with a gun.

On the night of April 1, 1988, James Harrod slipped through a window of a home where Luster’s mother, a wealthy widow, lived alone. He walked into the bedroom where the woman was sleeping. He put a pillow over her head and shot her five times at close range with a .22 caliber pistol. He was convicted of murder by an Arizona jury.

Harrod was not immediately arrested; it took years for the police to put the case together. But Luster always suspected that it was him.  She had met the man when he had come to her mother’s home, posing as a journalist. Luster feared for her own life.  She was “sleepless for a year.”  She suffered extreme anxiety, “diving under houses in the middle of the day.”

“I had nowhere to turn, so I turned to art,” Luster recalls. “The camera became a shield that I could hide behind.”

Now, Luster is one of 31 local and national artists who will participate in “Guns in the Hands of Artists,” an exhibition announced on Wednesday at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery. The artists will choose from among 186 decommissioned guns obtained from the New Orleans Police Department’s gun buyback program, and  turn them into original works of art. The exhibition will open at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery on October 3, 2014.

Ferrara and artist Brian Borrello mounted the first “Guns in the Hands of Artists” exhibition in 1996, in response to an exploding murder rate in New Orleans.  Painters, glass artists, sculptors, photographers and  poets used decommissioned guns to create provocative works of art. Ferrara said on Wednesday that he is reprising the exhibit because gun violence has continued, “from Sandy Hook to Central City.”

The exhibit will be a backdrop for  lectures, panel discussions, and educational tours. He hopes to spur conversation, using art as “the language for dialogue” about the issue of guns in our culture. A percentage of the sales of the artists’ work will go toward buying back more guns off of the streets of New Orleans.

“Guns in the Hands of Artists” is a community wide collaboration. Ferrara enlisted the aid of the City Council, the Mayor’s Office, and the NOPD to obtain the guns.  It  took months to convince the police department and the ATF, according to Council Member Susan Guidry, who chairs the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee.

On Wednesday, the guns that will serve as the artists’ raw materials were laid in a circle on the gallery floor. As the speeches wound down, the seven artists on hand descended upon the circle and began to pick their weapons of choice. While most of the artists searched  carefully, almost gingerly, though the collection, Luster went straight for two of the biggest, most menacing pieces.

“I decided,” she said, "to go for heft. "

Lynne Wasserman is a recovering attorney who writes about New Orleans for NolaVie. Email her at [email protected].