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A group of Minneapolis artists hopes a project to convert guns into art will raise awareness about gun violence

Richard Reeve
Updated: October 23, 2020 10:15 PM
Created: October 23, 2020 08:44 PM

The photos show stacks and stacks of firearms, piled high during a gun buy-back event.  

They are among hundreds of illegal weapons taken off the street, collected by Nikki McComb. 

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"It's a crisis in public health," McComb declares. "Violence is...  you're not born with it. It's a learned behavior. Babies don't come out of the womb with guns in their hands."

In a red bucket stored at her house, are gun parts; remnants of the 265 firearms McComb has collected since 2016. 

Her most recent partnership has been with Shiloh Temple International Ministries, which initially collected 41 guns during a recent buy-back event. 

"To show that weapons are able to be used in a less destructive way," McComb notes. 

For McComb, a Minneapolis-based photographer and artist, and her colleagues, that way is art.  

"When I looked in this bucket, and I saw those gun parts lying in the bucket... when I saw those gun parts, I saw bodies," recalls Sean Garrison, an abstract artist. 

Garrison has been a youth employment counselor in Minneapolis for three decades. 

He's been driven by the desire to create topical art. 

Garrison showed us one artwork he calls 'Vigil.' 

The piece, made of gun parts, wire, and candles, reflects his concern for the safety of young people. 

"In that time, I've known ten kids who got murdered," Garrison says quietly. "I've gone out, seen people shot, had my life threatened."

All of these works are part of an effort McComb calls 'Art Is My Weapon.' 

The gun parts, rendered harmless, are transformed into provocative pieces. 

Many honor the victims of gun violence. 

And... "to ask good questions about violence in society, about the role of guns in our community," says St. Thomas University professor Michael Klein.

To add to the collection, Klein has created an insect-influenced piece.

It's meaning? That while insects can be carriers of disease, illegal guns can be carriers of violence. 

"Guns have that role in our society," Klein says. "Of helping to magnify violence. Of being the vector between perpetrator and victim."

While some of these works paint a grim picture, Deseria Galloway sees something else. 

"So you take your hurt and pain and you put it into something positive," Galloway, the founder of the Wellspring Second Chance Center explains. "I know that people are hurting. But you can turn that thing around and put it into something constructive."  

It was Galloway who coordinated Shiloh Temple's gun buy-back: up to $200 per surrendered weapon, no questions asked. 

For her, this was personal. 

"My son was shot at fifteen. Thank God, he survived," she recalls.

Her son, Denario McGraw was shot by a reputed gang member. 

Now, at 32, he's not only survived, but has thrived. 

"He had just dropped out of school, at that time," Galloway says. "He went back to school, and then two years later he went back to college and now he has a Master's in psychology." 

 Galloway is now a big supporter of the 'Art Is My Weapon' program. 

"Artists to come forward young and old and give them an opportunity to express their voice about gun violence," she exclaims. "'Cause that's what they're doing with these guns, but doing it in a positive way."

In a public garden in north Minneapolis, you'll find perhaps the group's most moving work. 

On a fence, there are clusters of padlocks, labeled with names and messages to the victims of gun violence. 

Nearby, a bench made with gun parts honors Birdell Beeks, who was struck and killed by a stray bullet in May of 2016. 

Painted in blue, Beeks's favorite color, are her last words: 'Baby, they got me.'

"I actually encountered Bunny Beeks, who's Birdell's daughter, and we've grown to be very good friends," McComb says. 

After the shooting, McComb posted photos of Birdell Beeks on social media. 

She says those pictures helped bring in tips about the case, and hopes the 'Art Is My Weapon' project can make the push for change today. 

"Some of the photos that I take, I take them in order to push for legislative change," McComb explains. "In order to get some lawmakers to hear about the gun laws, and make them a little bit tougher."

McComb and her fellow artists hope that maybe, these works will encourage parents and kids to 'talk the talk'--- and start conversations about illegal guns. 

They are planning to exhibit some of their works at the African-American Heritage Museum, inside the Thor Building in north Minneapolis.

That exhibition will be held between Jan. and March of next year. 

The group, which has a roster of 45 artists, is also hoping to coordinate another gun buy-back sometime in 2021. 

"This type of work, that's always the hope," Garrison declares. "I have three daughters, talking with them all the time, the work that I do, work with a lot of young men, who've been through these streets. Hopefully the art that I create, at least saves one life."

You can find out more about 'Art Is My Weapon' at the link here.


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