Art as a Catalyst for Change: Ian F. Thomas’s Exhibit Confronts Gun Violence in America

(Warning: content may be triggering for some.)

A spring semester exhibit by assistant professor of ceramics and sculpture for the studio art program, Ian F. Thomas, drew attention for its poignant and powerful commentary on gun violence in America. Titled “Everything Will Be Okay,” the exhibit used everyday objects to create a visceral and thought-provoking narrative about the impact of gun violence on individuals, families, and communities across the country.

As a father of two, his powerful series of installations incorporated items such as his children’s stuffed animals, school chairs, a backpack, and shoes, all meticulously arranged to tell a story of loss, trauma, and resilience. Thomas also displayed slugs of clay that were shot with an AR-15-style rifle, portraying the staggering power of a single gunshot.

“I wanted an exhibition that wasn’t about the horror of a shooting, so there wasn’t anything visually gory in the exhibition because I’m not thinking about the actual person who was shot, I’m thinking about how can I visualize that moment without having to create something off-putting,” Thomas says. “I wanted the art objects to allow the visualization to happen within the mind of the viewer, versus me painting red all over the wall.”

Thomas’ use of personal belongings in the exhibit is particularly striking, as it speaks to the pervasive nature of shootings, infiltrating even the most intimate and safe spaces of our lives, and our children’s lives. From his children’s participation in active shooter drills to the unsettling prevalence of mass shootings, the exhibit captured the tragic and traumatizing effect guns continuously have on American culture.

“I kept thinking about the parent who has these innocent objects from their kid’s childhood that are fun to look back on, but when their child gets ripped from them for no reason whatsoever, then that parent has to go home to a room full of their child’s belongings – the toys or shoes or backpacks or teddy bears then become these anchors of sadness,” Thomas says, before pausing briefly to repress his emotion. “I have not lost a child, and I can only imagine how hard it must be to deal with these things in the aftermath.”

In addition to his children’s belongings, the clay slugs that were shot with an AR-15 rifle served as stark symbols of violence, creating a powerful visual metaphor of the destruction caused by a single bullet. The installation was not meant to unveil answers for the epidemic, but rather was designed to compel viewers to engage in meaningful discourse about gun violence in America.

“I was pleasantly surprised at the conversations I was having and also overhearing,” Thomas says. “I wanted people to talk about guns in a dialogue that is deeper than the norm of, ‘oh, did you hear there’s another mass shooting.’”

As the national conversation around gun violence continues, exhibits like Thomas’ play a crucial role in keeping the issue at the forefront of public consciousness. Thomas’ work serves as a reminder that art can be a formidable force for social change, offering not just a reflection, but a vision for a brighter future.