(Oil on linen, 40 ins. x 30 ins.)
Artist Notes (2020) August 2020. Almost 8 years since December 14, 2012. A disturbed young man entered an elementary school and gunned down 20 six and seven-year-olds, and 6 adults with his AR-15-style Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle.
The painting shows our president (and by extension, us) being suffocated by the killings. It is a plea to President Obama to never waiver in his resolve to ban assault weapons like the one used to murder 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT.
When my son was in first grade, he wore his cape everywhere. He called it a “caffe.” He drew crayon portraits of his mommy and rested his head on my shoulder whenever he sat next to me. By the end of first grade most kids like my son would have mastered skipping and riding a bike without training wheels. One sunny, cold day in December in Newtown, CT, a day when one’s imagination could get lost in moving clouds. A day when one could delight in the viridian green of the evergreens among the bare deciduous trees. A day when enjoying an ordinary day was the most extraordinary thing to do. A shooter loaded 30 rounds into his semi-automatic weapon and murdered 20 first graders and 6 staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School. What terror must have run through their little bodies when the murderer turned his AR-15-style Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle and blew off their heads and limbs like watermelons on pikes for target practice. My baby boy could have come home in chunks bouncing around in a body bag on his way to the morgue. This happened to the Sandy Hook victims and their families and not me. But what if it happened to me? What if…? Deliberate compassion means asking what if I were the one whose child or grandchild huddled in a classroom corner when bullets sprayed his little body? I can hardly breath just thinking about it. I cannot bear it. My little boy, the head he rested on my shoulder, blown to pieces. I cannot bear it. I cannot bear it. He was afraid and I was not there. Did he shake? Did he become incontinent. I cannot ... It takes courage to practice deliberate compassion – to deliberately push one’s mind to inhabit another’s life situation and sometimes trauma. The process can be uncomfortable, even painful. Why would we even try? Because if we say we live in a civilized society we have to be willing to define what that means. Are we a civilized society? Does it mean that kids can get massacred at school as long as they are not our kids? Or does living in a civilized society mean that we challenge ourselves to understand the plight of others? And in so doing allow our deeper understanding to inform our desire for policies that address the unimaginable like schoolchildren getting gunned down. In this 2012 portrait story I share an exchange I had with a Facebook friend. I responded to her pro-gun post following the Sandy Hook massacre. She listed 17 talking points from the pro-assault weapon group.* I asked her to imagine if her grandchild were one of the victims. That question – what if this were happening to me? - is my litmus test. The question cuts through my mental games. I know what I would really want to have happen in difficult situations because I’m imagining the trauma happening to me. I meet myself when I witness what happens to others. In 2012 I asked this friend how she would feel if her grandchild were among the murdered. She was not a stranger. I know her. She posted a pro-gun meme after the Sandy Hook massacre. I took the bait. I was triggered. Her adult son saw the exchange on Facebook and was all over me, calling me the biggest asshole in the world for saying that those children could be her grandchildren. Back in 2012 I was being called a lot of names for other reasons. I took portrait stories from the Art As Social Inquiry Healthcare in the US painting series to Washington DC to stand in front of the US Supreme Court and Capitol buildings. I was advocating for healthcare reform. Resistance to healthcare reform was fierce at the time. The pushback included personal attacks. I was just getting used to the name-calling but not totally inured to it like I am today. When my friend’s son called me an asshole for asking if my friend could relate on a personal level, I was taken aback. Was it really out-of-bounds to ask a person – a person posting a pro-gun meme in response to murdered children and teachers, a ballsy move for sure -- if she would feel the same if one of the dead first-graders were her grandchild? The irony was lost on my friend and her son. It was outrageous to wonder how she might feel if such a tragedy touched her life. And yet, it wasn’t outrageous enough when ACTUAL schoolchildren – not imagined ones– were mangled, eyes blown out of their heads and limbs torpedoed across rooms. Those deaths were not outrageous enough for us to take the knowing deep into our hearts and demand change now. What changes ever happen unless we are determined to see them happen because we are affected? I’m older now and much more seasoned. I don’t mind being called asshole today. How many times can a person hear asshole, cunt, fucking bitch, etc. before the shock turns to meh? But in 2012 when my friend’s son went ballistic on me, his vitriol disturbed me. I did a lot of mental calisthenics to understand all sides back then. I have since deleted all the dribble and intellectual analysis from the 2012 story below. I stand by my question. What if my child or grandchild were one of the murdered first-graders? How would I want my society and government to respond? Since Sandy Hook there have been 2,654 mass shootings. At least 2,908 people have been killed and 11,088 wounded since this writing.
The following is the story for this painting.
DECEMBER 2012, THE SANDY HOOK MASSACRE, NEWTOWN, CT
This portrait is the first in a new Art As Social Inquiry series called, How We Die. I never imagined my first painting would come out of a mass murder at an elementary school. The painting shows our president (and by extension, us) being suffocated by the killings. It is a plea to President Obama to never waiver in his resolve to ban assault weapons like the one used to murder 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT. The pain. I see children being mowed down by an assault weapon that can fire bullet after bullet without being reloaded. I imagine tiny body bags being carried out of the school. I wonder about the people who had to put those bodies into the bags. I imagine some of the bodies were missing parts. Who sorted out the body parts in order for the bodies to be returned to their families? I remember my own children as first graders. What if their body parts had to be assembled? It’s all too much to take. Every defense of these assault weapons* in the hands of civilians makes think of the body parts of first graders all over again. After the shooting I reacted to a friend’s gun rights Facebook meme – one that I would normally ignore. Children murdered at school is just too much. I ask my friend if she would feel differently if one of the victims were her grandchild. Her son jumped into the Facebook exchange and called me an asshole for even suggesting such a thing. The son said, “Now I am jumping in. And I am sure my mom will be pissed. Everyone agrees that the situation this country has experienced over the past decade have been truly unfortunate and has to be stopped. However, to prove a point you suggest to one of your “friends” to imagine their grandchild’s head being blown off. To even think for one second that this statement was OK and feel good about putting that image in someone’s mind, regardless of friend or not. Then you are being ignorant. You are an Asshole, plain and simple. To make sure we are clear here, I couldn’t care less about your beliefs but show some class. ” This is what he was reacting to on behalf of his relative. “OK. Fine. I wonder if your ____, in posting this (the meme on gun rights),is willing to see ______ head blown off. It’s harsh. But that’s the reality we have to deal with if we take the position that assault weapons belong in the hands of civilians. It’s hard to face that reality when it’s personal.” Is the son’s outrage justified? For Noah Pozner and his family, the answer is no. The indignation is trivial. Venonique Pozner’s son had his “head blown off.” Is there a difference between Noah Pozner, my son, my friend’s grandchild, or anybody’s loved one? Is there? “On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza armed with a .22-caliber rifle killed his mother in her home in Newtown, CT. Lanza then stocked his mother's car with firearms and drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School. Wearing a bulletproof vest, he forced his way into the school and opened fire with a .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic assault rifle equipped with a 30-round large capacity ammunition magazine, killing 26, including 20 students' ages six and seven. As police closed in Lanza committed suicide by shooting himself with a handgun.”(This quote came from the NY Crime Commission. The link no longer works in 2020.) Veronique Pozner, Noah’s mother, wanted to talk about her murdered young son. Naomi Zeveloff of the Jewish Daily Forward interviewed Ms. Pozner and had this to say. “The details that stuck with me the most — and the details which I felt most conflicted about putting in print — were Ms. Pozner’s descriptions of the damage to her son’s body. He was shot 11 times; she told me that his jaw and his left hand were mostly gone. “There were certain things Veronique wanted for Noah’s funeral. She felt that his body had suffered too many indignities already; she was adamant that he not be autopsied. She wanted him to be buried with a Jewish prayer shawl and with a clear stone with a white angel inside — an ‘angel stone’ — in each of his hands. Veronique was only able to put the stone in his right hand because the left was ‘not altogether there,’ she told me, crying for the first time in our interview. She asked the funeral director to put the other one in the left hand spot. ‘I made him promise and he did. “But I still felt that I didn’t understand why she, as a mother, chose to see Noah’s body, so I asked her again: Why, for her? ‘I owed it to him as his mother, the good, the bad, the ugly,’ she said. ‘It is not up to me to say I am only going to look at you and deal with you when you are alive, that I am going to block out the reality of what you look like when you are dead. And as a little boy, you have to go in the ground. If I am going to shut my eyes to that I am not his mother. I had to bear it. I had to do it.’ Several family members also chose to view Noah’s body.” I choose to “view” Noah’s body by imagining this horrific event happening to me, so I am moved to be part of the solution. __________________ * Facebook Meme Firearms Refresher Course, Simple as this! 1. "Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not."~Thomas Jefferson
2. "Those who trade liberty for security have neither." ~ John Adams 3. Free men do not ask permission to bear arms. 4. An armed man is a citizen. An unarmed man is a subject. 5. Only a government that is afraid of its citizens tries to control them. 6. Gun control is not about guns; it's about control. 7. You only have the rights you are willing to fight for. 8. Know guns, know peace, know safety. No guns, no peace, no safety. 9. You don't shoot to kill; you shoot to stay alive. 10. Assault is a behavior, not a device. 11. 64,999,987 firearms owners killed no one yesterday. 12. The United States Constitution (c) 1791. All Rights Reserved. 13. The Second Amendment is in place in case the politicians ignore the others. 14. What part of 'shall not be infringed' do you NOT understand? 15. Guns have only two enemies; rust and politicians. 16. When you remove the people's right to bear arms, you create slaves. 17. The American Revolution would never have happened with gun control. PLEASE PASS THIS 'REFRESHER' ON TO TEN FREE CITIZENS. "I love this country, it's the government I'm afraid of"
**Gun enthusiasts will argue the term assault weapon applies only to automatic weapons like machine guns and not semiautomatic weapons like the AR-15-style Bushmaster rifle. The AR-15's capacity to inflict mass death place them squarely in the killing machine genre in common parlance. Under California law the AR-15 series weapons are considered assault weapons.