Art Project a Weapon of Peace
Burying guns, violence in “Tree of Life” work
By HELEN CULLINAN, PLAIN DEALER ART CRITIC
Neighborhood residents on Cleveland's near West Side will place a cache of dismembered guns in the ground under roots of a magnolia tree to symbolize coming together in peace.
Planting of the tree will take place during an open-to-the-public block party from 3 to 7 p.m. today at Herman Park, a city-owned children's playground at Herman Ave. and W. 58th St.
The event celebrates completion of “Tree of Life,” a mural commissioned as part of the summer-into-fall “Surmounting Fences” program of the New Organization 'of the Visual Arts (NOVA) aimed at combatting racism through art.
The mural is one of six component projects in the program, chosen in a citywide competition. Each project brings artists and community residents of all backgrounds and ages together in the creative process.
“This represents my vision and a dream come true,” said artist Bernice Davidson Massey, who conceived and directed the Herman Park “Tree of Life" project, encompassing the tree-planting and mural painting on a nearby concrete wall bordering the playground. The central portion of the mural depicts a coming together of the various races against a Lake Erie backdrop and Cleveland skyline.
"The whole thing started out as a hungering to do something, from an artist's perspective, about destruction in the inner city, especially as it involves weapons,” Massey said.
"The sole purpose of weapons is to destroy. I had a dream one night about people throwing guns into a lake in society reaching a level of consciousness whereby they had no use for playing with such toys. So (in drawing up a Surmounting Fences proposal), I decided to find a weapon and change it from an instrument of destruction into art.”
Massey didn’t have to look far; a distraught friend gave her the 38 caliber Smith & Wesson handgun her brother had used to commit suicide. By then, the Herman Park wall in a racially diverse neighborhood had been chosen as the project site, and Massey received contributions of other weapons from neighborhood residents, including children relinquishing cap guns, squirt guns, and the like.
To prevent reclamation, the entire collection was chopped up into pieces at an automated packaging plant with giant saws.
Massey, who is deep into mythologies of world cultures, relates the gun burial to the story of a prophet who unified the warring Iroquois Indian tribes by persuading the Warriors to bury their weapons. In the Herman Park mural she also introduces the universal concept of Phoenix rising from the ashes; the painting depicts doves of peace rising from the ground with the weapons are buried.
Working with artist Rita Montlack and community leaders Alanna Myers and Rita Kiousis as a liaison with neighborhood residents, Massey devoted six weeks to the project. Neighborhood gang members became friends. Children who frequented the park were particularly eager to help, and their handprints form hearts on borders for part of the mural framing a printed pledge-“I will work for peace”-that residents can sign. Massey, a veteran environmental and peace activists, has an ultimate vision but no illusions about changing the world.
“We peace workers have to take tiny steps toward peace in our own neighborhoods,” she said.