Arts

There's an illegal weapon in every work of art you see here

"Raise the Caliber" is on now at Toronto's Only One Gallery, and it is so not a typical gun show. Why this U.S. project is giving confiscated weapons to artists.

This is so not a typical gun show. Why this U.S. project is giving confiscated weapons to artists

As she writes on her website, Tracy Hiner photographs confiscated firearms to "symbolize the transition from pain to beauty." A selection of her prints are on display at Toronto's Only One Gallery to June 15. (Courtesy of Only One Gallery)

Inside Toronto's Only One Gallery, you'll find a table piled with confiscated weapons. There are shredded guns, shell casings — all suspended in transparent hunks of Lucite.

Doug Schwartz (a.k.a. DetroitWick) is the artist behind these sculptures. His work, along with prints by Los Angeles photographer Tracy Hiner (Black Crow Studios), is showing at OOG to June 10 as part of a show called Raise the Caliber — which is also the name of the U.S. initiative behind it all. It's an exhibition of art created with real decommissioned weapons that were collected by police departments in five U.S. cities (Detroit, Newark, San Franscisco, Miami and Hartford) — a literal "swords into plowshares" kind of project, or AK-47s into decorative sculptures, as the case may be. Schwartz fossilizes old firearms, like bugs in unusually precise blocks of amber. As for Hiner, she photographs guns inside aquariums, swallowing them up in blooms of colour. She gets the effect by dropping paint in the water, a technique more famously associated with artists like Kim Keever and Mark Mawson.

[The artists'] biggest challenge is there's literally nothing beautiful about a cut up AR-15.- Jessica Midich , founder of Raise the Caliber

Jessica Mindich is the founder of the Raise the Caliber project, and she says the intent of this show — the initiative's first exhibition in Canada — is to increase awareness for gun violence and gun control. As part of the initiative, she assembles a collective of artists and creatives, Schwartz and Hiner included. (Shepard Fairey is arguably the biggest name in the crew.)

"As an artist you are trying to create beauty — something that will attract people," she says. "Their biggest challenge is there's literally nothing beautiful about a cut up AR-15."

In Schwartz and Hiner's case, neither had been making work on the subject of gun violence before meeting her. "It is their first foray into using art as an activist, and I bring it to them," says Mindich. She also brings them all those guns.

There's a fundraising function to Raise the Caliber, with 20 per cent of sales going towards gun buyback programs in the project's partner cities — violence-prevention initiatives where police will literally buy weapons brought to them by members of the community, often with no questions asked. Mindich has worked with U.S. police departments on this project since 2012. The decommissioned firearms that police collect are given to Raise the Caliber, then recycled in art projects such as the ones on display at OOG this month. (Mindich's jewelry line, the Caliber Collection, operates under the same principle.) "None of the guns we've taken in over the years are legal," she says. "Many of them are stolen from rightful gun owners and many of them have rap sheets a mile long."

Like just about every talking point about gun control, the effectiveness of buyback programs in combating gun violence is the subject of debate. But there's a symbolic impact involved in the Raise the Caliber project, one that she sees going beyond the cities directly involved in the initiative — or the U.S./Canada border. "Conversation is such a vital part of education and change," she says, "and I think that art does that. And I think that people will be inspired to do something on a topic that can make you feel so powerless."

Take a look at what you'll find at the show.

Gallery view of Raise the Caliber at Only One Gallery. (George Pimentel (WireImage/Getty Images)/Courtesy of Only One Gallery)
Sculpture by Doug Schwartz (DetroitWick). (Courtesy of Only One Gallery)
Sculptures by Doug Schwartz (DetroitWick). (Courtesy of Only One Gallery)
View of works by Doug Schwartz (DetroitWick) and Tracy Hiner at Only One Gallery. (George Pimentel (WireImage/Getty Images)/Courtesy of Only One Gallery)
Photograph by Tracy Hiner. (Courtesy of Only One Gallery)
Photograph by Tracy Hiner. Part of the Raise the Caliber exhibition at Toronto's Only One Gallery. (Courtesy of Only One Gallery.)

Raise the Caliber Art Creates Change. Featuring Doug Schwartz and Tracy Hiner. To June 15 at Only One Gallery, Toronto. www.onlyonegallery.com