ASU grad student aims to depoliticize discussion on guns through art

An ASU grad student uses art as a platform to discuss guns

The idea for Kari Wehrs' masters thesis exhibition "Shot" was born from confrontation, as many discussions on guns are. While experimenting with tintypes, a type of photography dating back to the Civil War, Wehrs asked her committee chair Mark Klett to alter a tintype she had taken of him. He brought it back to her with a bullet hole in it.

What Klett did not know was that for the past few weeks Wehrs had been grappling with her personal feelings on guns. An advisor told her that she should try to find something that scared her for her thesis, but it wasn't until she was holding the tin plate in her hands that she knew what topic to explore.

"I remember when he brought it back. I was sitting in his office, and I was holding this small plate in my hands," Wehrs said. "It's an image of him, and I'm looking at it, and I'm struck and taken by the powers of this bullet hole as it's gone through the plate but interacted with the image of his body."

It took a few days until Wehrs realized how she could the U.S. by drawing historical comparisons.

"I mean I think the topic is so complex — it really is layered in a lot of ways. I feel like part of my goal is to ask people to grapple over the same things," Wehrs said. "I am relating this work to the American Civil War and these times that we are living in now, which have such clear divides."

Art, as opposed to politics, exposed Wehrs to a range of more nuanced opinions on guns.

Klett himself is an example of this.

"I do like target shooting — have since I was a kid — but I'm not the type of person who sees myself as a gun person," Klett said. 

Talking guns through culture could allow greater capacity for empathy. Wehrs experienced this possibility throughout her project, in which she invites people at gun ranges to shoot images she takes of them. Along the way, discussions about guns were frequent.

"My interactions with these participants have been mostly very open and thoughtful, and I think that both parties walk away with a good feeling even though we've just told each other we are not on the same side, but we want to work together," Wehrs said. 

"It's not mean, it's a good way to disagree. We don't leave the situation having our own feelings change, but there's some empathy," she said.

Klett said Wehrs is "forming a bridge to have a conversation about guns and their value. She has her own feelings about guns and culture, but she is very willing to sit down with anybody and talk about their ideas. She was surprised to find that the people were eager and very willing to engage and have conversation."

Elizabeth Allen, director of Northlight Gallery, where the exhibit was on display, said it was important that the people photographed are identified by first name.

"You want to know that this guy with his (gun) is Dan – it's important to realize she met him, talked to him, made his photograph, and that there was a personal interaction," Allen said.

Allen said a potential side effect of Wehrs' work will be familiarizing viewers with gun owners and gun culture.

"I think that gun enthusiasts who might come to the exhibition could interpret these images as honoring or very respectfully portraying their community. It's important when you're trying to open up dialogue rather than do what politics is, which is create two sides and close down dialogue," Allen said. 

In light of this, Wehrs hopes that in the end she can help bring back some humanity on both sides. 

"We need to keep the conversation going as humans. If you can just empathize, just the tiniest bit, then I think that something changes," she said.

 Clarification: a typo in the last quote was corrected for clarity 


Reach the reporter at jevanden@asu.edu or follow @jana_vandenberg on Twitter.

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