I cannot believe that I live in a country where I can send my children to school and it would not be shocking if they were gunned down while there. I remember my sister calling me hysterical on December 14th two years ago. I couldn’t believe an entire first grade class could be murdered in a school in the United States of America.
One of my sister’s children was in first grade in New York at the time, a sweet little blue-eyed boy. Unlike most people, I think, I let myself imagine the terror a child like him must have felt, huddled with his classmates, his teacher trying to protect twenty-one kids, no mom in sight to save him from this nightmare or gently shake him awake and tell him, “It’s okay, mommy’s here.” Our lawmakers refuse to prevent this from happening again and again and again, all to protect second amendment rights, which are more important than the right to life of defenseless six and seven-year-olds.
The right to bear arms is a man-made law, not a God-given right. The right to life is a God-given right, not man-made law. When did this country get this so horribly wrong? One would think that we still live in the 1970s Ford Pinto era, where a company can, with impunity, put in a memo it’s decision not to make an $11 repair to 12 million vehicles at the cost of $100 million dollars because it was cheaper to pay $50 million in lawsuits for an anticipated 180 horrific burn deaths and serious burn injuries.
Nearly two years after the atrocious massacre at Sandy Hook there are some beautiful tributes to those who died there. Don Droppo, owner of Curtis Packaging in Sandy Hook, commissioned Lucy Lyon, a Sante Fe glass artist to create a memorial to all of those killed in the massacre. She made the Sandy Hook Memorial Sculpture, which I’ve dubbed “Forever Empty Library.” It took her a year to make. It is a stunningly gorgeous glass sculpture of a library with twenty empty chairs for each child killed and six bookshelves for the administrators and teachers.
I am floored that two parents of Sandy Hook victims have created works that come from a place of love. Scarlett Lewis, whose youngest child, Jesse, died at Sandy Hook, has written a book, Nurturing Healing Love, A Mother’s Journey of Hope and Forgiveness. It talks about having compassionate schools to help with the epidemic of anger she sees in our country. I’ve been listening to Jimmy Greene’s album, Beautiful Life, a tribute to his daughter, Ana, who was one of the victims. I cry every time I listen to Ana’s Way, sung by Kurt Elling…”Giving lots of hugs each day…she loved to pray to the Lord for his blessings…We’ll miss her smile…”
Artists have been responding to tragedies through art since forever. Francisco Goya created the painting, The Third of May, in 1808, in response to the massacre of innocent people during the Peninsular War between France and Spain. Perhaps the most well-know artistic response to tragedy is Pablo Picasso’s painting, Guernica that he created in 1937 in response to the bombing of Guernica by German and Italian warplanes during the Spanish Civil War. The visual of the wailing mother, holding her dead child, gives me chills.
An artist from my hometown of Mendham, New Jersey, Suse Lowenstein, created Dark Elegy after her son, Alexander, was killed when Pam Am Flt 103 was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland. She created 75 larger than life sculptures of wives and mothers, capturing the moment they first learned of the death of their loved one. I saw this while in my twenties and was overwhelmed. Now that I am a mother with college age kids, it holds new meaning for me.
After 9/11, I created a memorial piece, Tower of Angels, for Mendham, NJ’s Day of Hope and Unity, which was held in November of 2001. It was a beautiful event, with veterans’ speeches and interpretive dances. I wanted to do something, as many artists do, in the wake of a tragic event. I came up with the idea of building a kid-like New York skyline with two wire mesh towers. I asked children to bring angels to hang on the towers. They did. One mom, whose little son lost an uncle in the attack, said she appreciated that he had a way to understand the tragedy on his level and a place to do his part.
Often, the first art that comes out of a tragedy is pointed and angry because it tends to be reactive. In later years it becomes more celebratory of the lives lost. Unlike my artistic response to 911, I wanted to make angry art after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I started searching for photos of the kids of NRA leaders and their supporters in the House and the Senate. I actually began making a photomontage piece that put their kids in a classroom with a teacher reading or cutting out snowflakes for their holiday concert. Outside the door was an armed-to-the-teeth gunman getting ready to burst in and murder them. And then I couldn’t do it. What an awful place to focus my energy. Even if I’d known about the show, A Call to Arms – The Newtown Project, which had very graphic, upsetting pieces, I couldn’t have made something like this.
As I listen to Beautiful Life, I think of all of those who continue to stand in the way of protecting our children. How do our lawmakers live with themselves? The NRA? Are they breathing a sigh of relief that they got unscathed through another shooting or are they smug in their continued victories over the American people and their lawmakers? Has Obama given up? If I were a president with little time left, I’d make sure keeping little kids safe was my legacy. We see all around us what is happening when a group or a person has an inordinate amount of power. Look at Penn State, Bill Cosby, the Catholic Church, the military, government leaders and the NRA.
My sister has another first grader who will go to school around the second anniversary of Newtown. Will she worry about her sweet and fiery, brown-eyed daughter that week? Will she hold her extra tightly each morning before letting her into the school where everyone is getting excited for the holidays and practicing the winter program?
Billions of dollars have been spent fortifying schools in the wake of Newtown, my kids’ schools included. No one is even talking about that cost. But the first graders still go out on the playground at lunch. A lot of good those billion dollar armored doors will do then. What is to stop someone from picking off dozens of kids as they play ball, jump rope or swing on the swings? I guess we could keep them in for recess, which we will do when that tragedy happens. Maybe build walls…
I find myself wishing that the Harry Potter stories are true and like Lily Potter, my love for my children can keep them safe from harm. Each time they leave the house, get in a car, or plane or walk to school, I visually wrap them in a bubble like Invisible Woman on the Fantastic Four in hopes of keeping them safe. But instead, I tell them things like “be careful where you sit in the classroom. If something does happen, try to get out.” I know they won’t because they’re kids and it’s not their job right now.
As was exemplified in the Ford Pinto Memo, the powers-that-be value money over people’s lives. I was heartened to hear that the Sandy Hook families are filing a class action lawsuit. Any money they win will be cold comfort but maybe the potential financial loss will bring about change. To the rest of the country, I would suggest that after each school shooting the parents and towns demand that their school be razed like Sandy Hook. When the cost to rebuild all of these schools gets so prohibitive, hopefully things will begin to change.
Up until recently, I didn’t think art could change circumstances. I figured it could inspire a few people to think about and maybe change things but I really thought of art as an agent to record history and how people felt at the time of an event. But then I think of Hannibal Buress bringing down the American icon, Bill Cosby, and I hope, maybe it could be done. Maybe Michael Moore would make another movie, with the blessing of the victims’ families showing exactly what happened at Newtown in all its awful detail. Maybe the painter, Gottfried Helnwein would create huge paintings of the victims of Sandy Hook and maybe Hannibal Buress would call all of those lawmakers and NRA folk to task now that he has the country in the palm of his hand. It’s just a thought.
Kathleen Thometz is an artist, writer and co-founder of and teacher with Doodle Art & Design, a lunchtime elementary school art program. She lives with her husband, kids and three doodle dogs: Rainbow, Sunshine and Thunderstorm. You can experience more about her at www.kathleenthometz.com