Some subjects are so polarizing that almost any discussion of them is fraught with tension or awkwardness. And so it is with the topic of gun violence. No matter what your stance is, whenever we are faced with a tragic mass-shooting incident, many of us feel powerless; we respond with anger or by shutting the world out. Artist Natalie Baxter began working through her complex feelings by sewing – making pillows in the shapes of guns, for a project she calls Warm Gun. An exhibition of her work, called “OK-47” – is currently on display at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky.
Natalie, a Lexington native, currently resides in Brooklyn and is also an accomplished filmmaker and photographer. With Warm Gun, she takes two things she learned from her Kentucky childhood – sewing skills and a knowledge of guns – and combines them to create a discussion around violence, gun culture, and gender norms. She is taking hand sewing, something traditionally considered feminine, and combining it with objects considered by many to be masculine, hoping to challenge cultural perspectives on both violence and femininity/masculinity.
While she knows that her work might be viewed as controversial, her intent is not to project an anti-gun stance. Because the debate surrounding gun violence is personal to so many, she wants viewers to feel free to bring their emotions into their interpretations of her work. Natalie has created guns that are technically harmless; they can either be taken as a starting point for a conversation about gender and violence – or they can be seen as a stuffed, humorous replica of someone’s favorite gun. Our friends at Institute 193 took some time to talk to Natalie about her ideas behind her work and the process. For more about Natalie Baxter or to view her work, visit her website at nataliebaxter.com.
My Super Sweet M16
What’s the process of sewing a gun pillow like? You sew these by hand, correct?
I model all of the warm guns from photos of real guns I find on the Internet and they usually take about a day or two to complete. When I hear about shootings in the news, I do a Google search to find out what kind of gun was used and then hand draw a pattern onto fabric that I’ve sourced from the garment district or my roommate’s Goodwill pile. I sewed the first 100 guns completely by hand and have since become more familiar with my sewing machine and now do a mix of hand and machine sewing. I love how portable hand sewing is — I have a long commute to work, so I am able to use that time sewing guns on the subway. I don’t pay much attention to scale or worry about exact proportions, so the guns tend to look cartoonish.
Was the choice to use some secondhand fabrics deliberate or simply one born out of frugality? Are you particular about fabric quality, color, texture, etc.?
When I first started this project, I was using a lot of fabrics I already had – clothes my roommates were getting rid of, fabric someone didn’t want anymore, or cheap material I found at fabric stores. As the project continued, I became more selective with my fabric choices. I discovered the high-end fabric stores throughout the city, the garment district, and a few online stores and started making more deliberate color and pattern choices. I also learned a lot more about fabric types and textures from regularly visiting places like Mood Fabrics and New York Elegant Fabrics and talking to designers sourcing materials for clothing lines — there is so much to know about fabric! I also frequent the City Quilter and this great discount fabric store in Chelsea called Trumart Discount Fabric. Right now, I’m attracted to bright floral prints, texture and metallic material.
Don’t You Derringer
When we began talking about exhibiting them at Institute 193, I thought how odd it is for these objects just to exist. They are so cleverly conceived; yet conceived out of violent tragedy. And treating them as plush toys seems a bit vulgar, but I know that wasn’t the intention. Are they meant simply to be tools for discussion? Where do you see these sculptures fitting in outside of the context of a gallery?
(This all makes me think of the recent debate over memorials to confederate generals or to times of slavery. What do we do with these objects? Do we destroy or hide them, lest we glorify the things they depict? Or do we keep them around to tell cautionary tales of our own history?)
I have been careful to keep this work existing as art objects and in an art context. I do hope that I am stirring up thoughts about gun control, gun violence and gender issues, but I realize that to some people, I am making a cute stuffed replica of their favorite weapon. I appreciate work that does not have just one take away or gives me that feeling of, “Oh, I get it.” The gun debate has proven to be emotional for a lot of Americans; everyone has their own opinion as to what should or should not be done. Everyone comes to view art with different thoughts and opinions and is able to interpret it differently.
But these objects are also very fun to interact with. I went down to New Orleans to visit a friend and brought some of the first guns with me. I whipped them out in a room full of grown men who immediately started shooting at each other, making machine gun noises — turning into little boys with colorful, droopy, soft toys. These were guns I made using the historically feminine craft of sewing. That’s when I realized I was playing with gender in this work, so, I started experimenting with the concept and ended up photographing the guns with men in their underwear.
I do cringe a little bit when I hear “These are so cute, I want to get one for my niece/nephew/son/daughter,” but in the same way that I cringe when I hear someone say they won’t visit New York City because they can’t carry their gun. I don’t know if this work is going to change anyone’s stance on the gun debate, but at the very least, I hope it gets people thinking and talking about the issues.
Being an organization that represents Southern artists, Institute 193 is always very geographically conscious. So I have to ask: how has growing up in Lexington, KY affected this series and your work in general?
I came up with the idea for this project while at home in Kentucky for the holidays and at a friend’s house who has a collection of handguns hanging on his wall. Remember, this was in the wake of Ferguson, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, black lives matter marches were happening all across the country. Police brutality and gun violence were hot media topics and fresh on everyone’s minds, so looking at this entire wall covered in guns felt uncomfortable and strange and like something I would never see anywhere in my new home in New York City.
All of my work explores questions of identity and place. While pursuing my MFA at the University of Kentucky, I created work that explored my family heritage in eastern Kentucky through a series of video portrait vignettes of women from age 8 to 80. Kentucky is where I was introduced to gun culture and Kentucky is also where I learned the craft of sewing and quilting, from one tough, Appalachian, gun-owning Granny.
As far as Lexington specifically, my parents did a really good job of fostering my interest in the arts as a child, and luckily there were places in Lexington such as the Living Arts and Science Center where I could take art classes after school, I’d go shopping at Third Street Stuff to see the colorful work from Pat Gerhard, go to gallery openings of Robert Morgan’s work, and I interned at the Heritage Art Center. All these things helped show me that being an artist is possible and valued in a community.
Kentuckians seem to be very divided on the issue of gun control. Even just this week I’ve overheard widely contrasting opinions in cities across the state. I can see how this is so. For example, I have an uncle who is quite liberal and firmly supports stricter gun control policies. But he lives in a rural area of Kentucky and keeps outdoor farm animals, so he himself owns a couple of firearms to deal with emergency situations that may threaten his property. Brooklyn is quite a different cultural landscape. Do you find the conversation differs in NYC versus KY? If so, how?
The gun debate has proven to be an emotional and complicated one for a lot of people. It’s hard to pin down, but one study that attempts to track the “most armed state” based on the number of NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) background checks divided by population has Kentucky at the top of the list. We are one gun loving state, that’s for sure. And while we usually go red, growing up in Lexington has led me to believe that we are a fairly politically diverse state as well.
It has been interesting to see how people from different parts of the country receive this work. While I do see more pro-gun rights commentary from my Facebook friends in the southeast, I have friends in Kentucky from both sides of the political spectrum who seem to be supporting what I’m doing. I hear a variety of comments from “These are so cute, I want to get one for my husband, he loves guns!” to “Are you making penis guns?” Soft sculpture work, in general, is really approachable, especially when it is a recognizable form and made from colorful fabric. At first, people’s childlike instincts make them want to interact with these objects, but hopefully, that will open the door to them thinking about greater issues.
I know that not all of the sculptures are modeled after weapons used in recent mass shootings, though many are. Will you continue to sew gun pillows for as long as shootings continue to occur in the US?
Unless this country makes some big changes to its gun laws, I sadly think there will always be mass shootings during my lifetime. I started this project partly because I needed to constantly be creating. I don’t know if this need is an obsession, an addiction, a blessing or a curse – I haven’t figured that out yet. Maybe I will still be sewing gun pillows as an old lady, who knows.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to talk a little more about the role gender plays in this work:
Gender is morphing in this very public way in the media right now. In the past year, we met Caitlyn Jenner, legalized gay marriage and we’ve also seen a lot of terrible acts of gun violence—not directly related. At the same time, I think something really interesting is happening with gun ownership and masculinity. Elizabeth Winkler explains it really well in an article she wrote for Quartz, “America’s gun problem has everything to do with America’s masculinity problem”. She quotes sociologist Jennifer Carlson in the article, “As men doubt their ability to provide, their desire to protect becomes all the more important. They see carrying a gun as a masculine duty.” So I’ve been playing with these ideas of gender and masculinity in gun culture through the use of the traditionally feminine craft of sewing to create turn these hard, masculine, phallic symbols into soft, droopy colorful pieces.
*Images courtesy of Institute 193.