When psychiatry and psychology professor Rolf Loeber suggested an art exhibition to address the growing problem of violence in the U.S., staff members at the Society for Contemporary Craft were interested but knew that would take them far beyond their procedural comfort zone. That didn't deter them. After four years of effort, "ENOUGH Violence: Artists Speak Out" debuted in September, and the response has been gratifying, said executive director Janet McCall.
"I've never seen such an outpouring of appreciation for a show. People have come up to me to say, 'Thank you. This means so much to us that you've taken up this topic. We're so grateful.' "
"ENOUGH Violence" is an art exhibition that continues through March 22. But it is also a community forum, a think tank, a site for organizing and an affirmation of the power of individuals to confront issues sometimes considered too large to effectively tackle. Forty artworks by 14 artists were inspired by the kinds of aggression that feed daily headlines including violent crimes, youth and gang violence, domestic abuse, war and genocide.
Mexican native and New York resident Claudia Alvarez places guns in the hands of life-sized ceramic toddlers in heart-tugging scenarios of innocence and danger. Onetime Pittsburgh resident Boris Bally, of Providence, R.I., reconfigures weapons from a local gun buy-back program into benign objects such as a menorah. Baltimorean Joyce Scott's painstakingly crafted beaded figures are survivors of rape suffered in war zones and in their own homes.
"I think that art is a birthright and should be available to everyone," Ms. McCall said. "It makes me sad that there are those who think it's irrelevant or who have no opportunity to participate."
Several women from a support group for those who have lost loved ones to gun violence met at the society with nationally recognized Pittsburgh fiber and story quilt artist Tina Brewer to make quilt pieces that represent their individual stories. The pieces are displayed together during the exhibition and then will go home with their makers.
"[The women] had never been here before," Ms. McCall said, and they were able to experience "what comes out of simply putting their hands in material, to find a way through their grief, through their emotions, to make something that allowed them to move forward."
Another group of visitors were in early recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. They made a talisman, an art activity for visitors designed by artist Gerry Florida.
"Although they had never been here before, they got the show. They understood. They connected. They shared their stories and told us they were willing to talk to other women. Their addictions came out of the violence they had suffered earlier in their lives and they wanted to help. This show reminds us that there are opportunities to reach out to others and help," Ms. McCall said.
Blaine Siegel, an artist-in-residence at Wilkinsburg High School, worked with students and members of the marching band. Some of their poems are gathered in a binder in the gallery.
"It's unbelievable what these high school kids are living with," Ms. McCall said. "They worry every day: 'Am I going to lose my brother to gang violence? I love him so much. How do I keep him safe?' "
While the subject matter is grim, the artworks invite conversation as they confront significant issues that need attention now. SUNY Buffalo professor Stephen Saracino's conceptually and technically exquisite metalworks include a chilling "Columbine Survival Bracelet" inspired by the notorious high school shootings in 1999 and comprising two meticulously constructed sterling silver handguns. His "Green Line Sedan," which references the boundary that theoretically separates the Israelis from the Palestinians, is a dated automobile bisected by an oversized detonator. He also created the 2010 "War Trophy: Nation Building, 3rd Place (NeoCon Series)," with armored car, soldiers and grenades.
In the same vein but visual worlds away is Doug Beube's backpack stuffed with altered encyclopedia pages that call to mind an improvised explosive device but magically scatters "streams of knowledge" instead of death. The Canadian native now lives in Brooklyn.
The abject fiber figures by Maimuna Feroze Nana, who resides in Milan, Italy, are a response to the treatment of women and girls that she witnessed during a visit to her home country of Pakistan after a several year absence. They are meant to give voice to women worldwide.
Leroy Johnson, who was born in 1937, gives voice to those who died in the inner city of his native Philadelphia in found object mini street scenes that at first glance seem to celebrate the neighborhood but also reflect the strife and loss of a marginalized population.
A half dozen additional artists stir response through works that similarly provide new inroads to thinking about problem solving.
The society has projected about 25,000 visitors during the exhibition's run. Last year's overall attendance was 36,000.
"I'm definitely seeing a lot of foot traffic and first-time visitors," Ms. McCall said. "It's attracting a more diverse, nontraditional audience. Each program has had good response. The crowd sizes vary -- sometimes 15, sometimes 40 -- but the conversation has always been extremely rich.
"It's a show that slows you down, or maybe stops you in your tracks. Art can bring new understanding, new insight."
Mr. Loeber, a project adviser to the exhibition, has served on the society's board and is considered an expert on antisocial and delinquent behavior in youth. He is a distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, School of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh.
Other project advisers were: Patti Ghubril, a trauma specialist at the Center for Victims, Pittsburgh; James M. Kelly, professor of social work and co-facilitator of the Carlow University Grace Ann Geibel Institute for Justice and Social Responsibility; Randy Jayne Rosenberg, executive director and chief curator for Art Works for Change, Oakland, Calif.; Tim Smith, executive director of the Center of Life and pastor of Keystone Church, Hazelwood; and John Wallace Jr., Philip Hallen chair in community health and social justice, School of Social Work, University of Pittsburgh.
As curatorial staff reviewed artists to invite to exhibit, education staff met with Pittsburgh Public Schools to design a 30-page curriculum guide that is available free on the show's website or at the society. Students from middle school through high school, and from colleges, have visited the exhibition and additional tours are scheduled.
Other staff researched local service agency resources and developed extensive programming that includes community members and experts. The society partnered with more than 20 anti-violence social service groups, many of which have provided representatives as public resources in the galleries on the first Saturday of each month.
A goal is to keep the conversation going after the exhibition closes. It will travel next to the Ohio Craft Museum in Columbus. A group of collectors from Oakland, Calif., here to see the 2013 Carnegie International, stopped by "ENOUGH Violence" and said they would like to see the show in their city. Discussion with other venues is ongoing.
The show's dedicated website, www.enoughviolence.net, and social media hashtag #ENOUGHViolence, are firsts for the society. The website is a resource that continues to grow and that future venues will be able to add to. It includes relevant discussions that are held monthly on the radio program "Saturday Light Brigade" (6 a.m. to noon on iQ kids Radio, several local radio stations and 6 to 9 a.m. on PCTV).
The society is also inviting elected officials and community leaders to tour the exhibition with Ms. McCall.
"We all own the problem," she said. "We all need to be coming together to talk about the problem and solve it."
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925.