How Artists Commemorate Victims of Mass Shootings, Again and Again and Again and Again

Matt Kenyon had previously planned a memorial to the 10 victims of the teenage gunman who ransacked a Buffalo grocery store in May. At the closing of his Brooklyn exhibition, “Wolf at the Door,” the artist displayed a stack of papers with the names of the shooting victims in American schools since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

This grim information goes unnoticed to the naked eye, however, as Kenyon microprinted the names as an alternate rule on the stationery. Overall, the nouns appear as the lines on which students would practice their cursive. Viewers were encouraged to take a page and write to government officials about the importance of gun control legislation, ensuring that the names of the many dead, even unseen ones, are in the archives public.

Then another shootout. Nineteen students and two teachers murdered by another teenage shooter in Uvalde, Texas. Kenyon packed his bags and moved back upstate to Buffalo, where he works as an art professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

On Wednesday, he staged the “Alternative Rule” project at a bookstore a few blocks from the closed Tops grocery store. More than 50 visitors participated in the letter-writing event, which Kenyon hoped would bring comfort to the community.

“It’s all pretty raw here,” he told Artnet News. “People feel helpless right now.”

That same evening, three more shootings were reported: one at an Oklahoma hospital, another at a Pennsylvania Walmart, and a third at a California high school.

Kenyon said that given the increasing rate of gunshot deaths, he was already planning to print a second edition of “Alternative Rule” with the names of other deceased children.

“I want this project to be a way for people to push for the change that needs to happen,” Kenyon explained.

Volunteers writing letters for Matt Kenyon’s “Alternative Rule” project. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Art won’t solve the problem

Over the past 50 years, mass shootings in the United States have become more frequent and deadlier. Although there is no universally accepted definition of a mass shooting, the Congressional Research Service defines it as any event in which four or more victims are killed in public with a firearm. In 2019, a nonprofit called the Violence Project found that the deadliest assaults, often involving dozens of victims, have occurred in the past five years, including the 2017 Las Vegas shootings that left 58 unprecedented deaths.

Artists have attempted to visualize the psychic scars and immeasurable grief that plague communities mourning the dead, but the frequency of attacks has turned the commemoration of gunshot victims into its own genre. And in recent years, local governments have created formal processes for building monuments, sensing that more shootings are on the way.

Earlier this year, city officials in El Paso, Texas commissioned painter Tino Ortega to design a permanent memorial for the 23 victims who died in the 2019 Walmart mass shooting. Following the tragedy, Ortega began painting murals around the city, one for each life lost. He has completed 10 of these works in the past three years, but plans to continue even as he develops the official memorial. Murals featured balloons to boost community morale; the memorial will resemble a wreath to symbolize the dignity of those killed.

“My art is not there to stop the main problem,” he explained. “The art is there to help comfort members of the community.”

A memorial to the 19 children and two adults killed May 24 in a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

And again and again and again

Similar state-commissioned projects are underway elsewhere. In 2019, artist David Best came together with residents of Coral Springs, Florida to mark the one-year anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting by burning a monument to the ground. The temporary plywood structure, called “Temple of Time”, was set on fire in an act of communal mourning.

Three hours north of Orlando, some families of the 49 victims who died in the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting are now waiting for a $45 million museum and memorial complex to open. The project recently entered its final design phase, with some survivors complaining that it would turn their trauma into a theme park.

And in Las Vegas, city officials said they would begin accepting design proposals in July for its planned memorial. “Ours is not your typical art project,” said Tenille Pereira, chair of the memorial committee and director of the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center, which serves those affected by the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting. “One of its main purposes is to lead a healing process.”

Paul Farber, director of Monument Lab, a nonprofit that tracks the nation’s memorial landscape, said it’s difficult to gauge the number of memorials created to honor victims of mass shootings because many, like Raihl’s mural, function as temporary shrines.

“Art and expression are fundamentally tied to the myriad ways we as a society are responding to this crisis,” Farber said.

Indeed, in times of emergency, local memorials and unauthorized works of art become essential to the healing process. In the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, Janel Raihl began painting a mural in her Las Vegas neighborhood on a 60-foot-long wall donated by a member of her community. She filled the space with hearts as dozens of passers-by stopped to help finish the artwork. Local media also documented the event.

“One of the reporters showed up in the morning while I was prepping the wall,” Raihl said. “But they had to leave because there was another shooting.”

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