LEXINGTON, Ken. — Nearly 50 plush guns line the white walls of the small gallery Institute 193. They range in size, pattern, and make: there are fluffy 10 mm. pistols; handguns with hot pink cylinders and gold lamé tips; and rifles with silk-covered barrels that droop, nearly grazing the floor. These pieces are part of Brooklyn-based artist Natalie Baxter’s exhibition OK-47, which features selections from her Warm Gun series deftly exploring issues of masculinity, mass violence, gun culture, and gun control in the US.
Baxter was inspired to begin the project when she returned home to Kentucky for the holidays in December 2014.
“[I was] at a friend’s house who has a collection of handguns hanging on his wall,” Baxter says. “This was in the wake of Ferguson, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter marches were happening all across the country, and police brutality and gun violence were hot media topics fresh on everyone’s minds.
“So looking at this entire wall covered in guns, it felt uncomfortable and strange, and like something I would never see anywhere in my new home in New York City,” she says.
While being raised in Kentucky, Baxter was introduced to gun culture, but also to the craft of quilting and sewing by her “Appalachian, gun-owning granny.” This seemed the ideal project to blend these two aspects of her upbringing, which Baxter says comes in the wake of having grown up exposed to mass shootings, like watching TV coverage of Columbine when she was in high school, the Virginia Tech shooting while in college, Aurora, Newtown, and, most recently, San Bernardino.
The result is OK-47, which features just a selection of Baxter’s sewn and stuffed sculptures — she has made over a hundred in total — many of which are modeled after actual weapons used in recent US mass shootings. With fabric from New York City’s Garment District or her roommate’s Goodwill pile, Baxter turns the forms of these violent weapons into colorful, plush caricatures. She quilts different patterned scraps together into the gun shape, then embellishes them with rhinestones, lace, and embroidery. At Institute 193 the works are hung from floor to ceiling, resulting in an experience that is immersive yet un-intimidating — comparable to photographer Lincoln Clarkes’s series Portraits of Women In Texas With Their Guns, which explores the nuances of the gun control debate. Projects like Baxter’s stand in contrast to more direct art about gun violence, such as Viktor Mitic’s “Incident,” a bullet-riddled school bus inspired by a surge of gang activity in Mitic’s hometown of Toronto.
Baxter says that soft sculptures in the shape of familiar objects are an incredibly approachable art form and hopes that this accessibility will help the work instigate conversation.
“It’s not as simple as being either pro-gun or anti-gun,” she says. “Everyone comes to view art with differing backgrounds, thoughts, and opinions, and they create meaning through their own interpretations. I hope that because of this work’s approachability, it provides an opportunity to get people thinking and talking about gun control, gun violence, and gender constructs.”
Baxter acknowledges that firearms are typically viewed as objects of power and masculinity, but she is unsettling this image by using a historically feminine craft technique to create non-threatening, non-functioning, and flaccid guns — hence the dangling barrels. She points to a December 2015 Quartz article by Elizabeth Winkler that informed her work.
“One of the premises [Winkler] explores is that in an era of rising feminism and female leadership, many men feel threatened in their traditional role as dominant provider,” Baxter says. “Gun ownership is a way to counteract those feelings.”
In the article, Winkler quotes sociologist Jennifer Carlson: “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.”
Baxter explains: “I’m using this traditionally feminine craft of sewing to emasculate objects of power. In doing so, I hope that I am stirring up thoughts of gender issues in addition to gun control.”
According to Cat Wentworth, the director of Institute 193, displaying Baxter’s work in Lexington makes sense as the city is the “northern tip of the South” and has a mix of more liberal ideals and conservative regional culture, especially when it comes to guns.
“Institute 193’s mission is to display work tied to the modern South,” Wentworth explains. “Not only is Baxter from Kentucky, but her work is incredibly pertinent here and now.”
So far, the reactions to Baxter’s pieces have been mixed and differed depending on viewers’ home regions.
“It has been interesting to see how people from different parts of the country receive this work,” Baxter says. “I hear a variety of comments from, ‘These are so cute, I want to get one for my husband because he loves guns!’ to ‘Are you making penis guns?’”
A potential reason for the dissonant response is that Baxter’s work deals in purposeful contrast. While her guns look like stuffed toys for children, treating them as such would only serve to endear the image of a weapon. Even the inspiration for Warm Gun and OK-47 is conflicted, built from happy memories of Baxter’s grandmother alongside flashes of gun violence in mass media. Yet this juxtaposition is the key to the exhibition’s poignancy. As Baxter notes, gun ownership is a complicated issue, and perhaps her work can serve as a catalyst for further discussion. After all, the hardest problems often require soft solutions.