Artist Natalie Baxter is acutely aware of America’s complicated relationship with guns. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, the 29-year-old was exposed to firearms from a young age. She came to accept them as a common component of America at large.
It wasn’t until December 2014 that Baxter, now living in Brooklyn, began to question the complex and often emotionally charged role guns play in American culture. While visiting a friend back home, she noticed his display of handguns above the fireplace, which she interpreted as a mix of tradition and reverence for gun ownership. The wall of guns felt odd to her, yet weirdly intriguing. She immediately went home and began sewing a pillow shaped like a shotgun. And so the series Warm Gun was born.
Almost two years later, Baxter has made over 100 hand-sewn, pastel-colored guns—often quilting them during her hour-long commute to work. Each gun is modeled on a gun of Baxter’s choosing. Hand-sewn, they are not exact replicas but instead playful interpretations of a wide range of fire-arms. The material that composes each “warm gun” is usually a pastel color—some even have floral patterns giving them a playful and approachable quality. They could easily blend into a toy store. Earlier this month, Baxter’s first solo show of Warm Gun sculptures, OK-47, opened at Institute 193 in Lexington.
Baxter works mainly in the medium of video, photography and sculpture. Her work often explores issues surrounding gender, identity, and place—especially related to American subcultures whose own definitions of masculinity and femininity are shifting.
Her past work includes an in-depth investigation into her Appalachian heritage, where she profiled women between the ages of 5-85 living in Eastern Kentucky. The documentary, which Baxter filmed herself, presents a series of individual portraits of women (including her grandmother) who share their thoughts on coal mining, jobs, and drugs, and how these influence their daily lives in Eastern Kentucky.
Warm Guns took root in the same setting of Eastern Kentucky, a place that has become a source of inspiration as well as a stage for much of her work. Here, she learned to quilt with her grandmother, practicing an age old folk tradition typical of the region.
“I began the project in the wake of Ferguson, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin. Black Lives Matter marches were happening all across the country and police brutality and gun violence were hot media topics and fresh in everyone’s minds. So looking at this entire wall covered in guns felt uncomfortable and strange and something I would never see anywhere in my new of New York City,” she tells The Creators Project.
Baxter began to envision a wall of guns—not handguns or shotguns—but hand-stitched replications. The hobby-cum-project allowed Baxter to juxtapose the two worlds she inhabited—liberal artistic New York City with the more pro-gun South. Having always been interested in the themes of gender and identity, she used her new venture as an opportunity to explore the relationship between American gun culture and masculinity. Her cuddly creations spark a dialogue among audiences with polarizing views. Because of the appearance of these pink or floral gun cushions, there is an inviting element to Baxter’s project—that puts outsiders at ease—making them pause to consider the pivotal role of guns in American cultures—as well as their deleterious effects throughout the country.
She says, “You also have to understand where people are coming from in the context of the gun debate. Stricter gun control laws sound unnecessary to the rancher in Montana but logical to someone living in New York City.”
As Baxter’s project continues to gain momentum, she notices how the intertwined issues of gender and guns have pushed her to do more research. She’s especially interested in the rise of women in gun culture. Baxter says, “There are a lot more women purchasing firearms, going target shooting, and carrying guns than in years past.”
Natalie Baxter: OK-47 is on display through April 23, 2016, at Institute 193. Click here for more info.
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