What do you get when you combine Lockheed Martin with Fisher-Price? Arizona artist Nathaniel Lewis seems to have the answer. His Little Terrors series juxtaposes military artillery with the cutesy tropes of childhood in ways that are both humorous and deeply unsettling.
There's the Playtime Gasmask, the Pull To Play grenade, and an adorable minesweeper crafted out of the same wooden parts and pastel paint many grew up with. There's even a TSA checkpoint complete with a suicide bomb vest and a backscatter X-ray machine. Lewis’s most recent addition, Automatic Fun, is a Colt AR-15. You know, for toddlers.
A former toy designer, Lewis, 36, was born in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. His playful sculptures address some of our most extreme post-9/11 anxieties through the lens of a Toys R Us catalog. VICE caught up with the artist via phone.
VICE: What was it like spending the first 14 years of your life in Saudi Arabia?
Nathaniel Lewis: My father worked for Aramco, [the largest oil company in the world, valued at $2 trillion.] We lived on a compound very similar to a military compound in a lot of ways. It had a 1950s America vibe. At the same time, we were all readily aware that our phone lines were being tapped and all of our mail was gone through.
We had to leave the country for two months every year, the way the visas work, so we would travel all over the world, visit family in America, then we would get back and spend four hours in customs while they went through every videotape, every book, and everything to make sure you weren't bringing any illicit materials into the country. So it was a little unusual, but it was normal to me growing up.
My mom couldn't drive outside of the compound… but we would leave the compound fairly regularly. There's a neighboring town called Rahima full of old-school markets and shops, the kind of place where you could bargain with people.
So from a young age you had plenty experience living in a mass-surveillance police state.
Yeah. The idea of never doing or saying anything you're not comfortable with everybody knowing is something that I grew up with, but has only become a part of everyday life for Americans in the last ten years or so. It happened at the same time as the social media revolution, where people were voluntarily giving up their privacy anyway.
During your time as a toy designer, what did you do?
I worked for a small toy company whose main business was developing and manufacturing wooden toys for companies that don't typically make wooden toys. We did work for Playskool, Tonka, Buy Buy Baby, Walmart. I was on a really small design team of three people, working on the same toy from conception, to the mechanics, to the prototyping, to the packaging, and the advertising—the kind of holistic designing experience you don't really get at a bigger company where you might sculpt Ken's hair your entire time.
Your Little Terrors series reminds me of my childhood in this really twisted way.
Oh, good. I try to evoke that feeling. Whenever I come up with a toy, no matter how ridiculous or offensive or strange, I always put into it a level of practicality. We used to have learning goals for toys. So when I designed the Automatic Fun piece I went in with the mindset of the target audience for this being one- to two-year-olds because that's an audience you would never make an AR-15 for. So then I thought, Well, what's the play value of this? I need to have a sliding bead coaster to do counting, a rattle that makes noise, a spinning wheel for the face, so that you get play out of it while you rock it back and forth.
The X-ray machine for the TSA stop actually folds up so that you can take it with you somewhere. Including those elements are the things that make it ring true and also strangely gets a lot of people asking if they can have one for their kid. That was kind of an unexpected side effect.
Have you gotten a lot of those offers? How do they make you feel?
More than I thought, yeah. If you're of the mindset where this would never even register as a strange or a negative thing, you won't read it that way. I try not to deliberately scare people away.
I think their intent is not a negative one. I'm sure guns are part of their world and so they see the inappropriateness of it as humorous, versus humorous and maybe something that they shouldn't be wanting. I don't want to say it's unfortunate, but when you leave any kind of openness in a project, you do leave it open to some interpretation that wasn't intended.
I will never make these things for sale that way. I’ve had a couple of hits about the grenade. The gas mask hasn't gotten anybody requesting one beyond people who want one as an art piece. I think because it's very overt. There are only negative connotations regarding a gas mask, whereas there's at least a chunk of the population who use semi-automatic weapons as playthings.
You also work as a teacher, right? Was the Automatic Fun piece in response to the Stoneman Douglas high school shooting?
Yes. It was actually something that I've had in mind for a long time, I just never had the impetus to do it. My wife actually came up with the name Automatic Fun—she's an artist as well.
As a teacher, all these school shootings that are going on, dealing with particularly young men every day, and trying to understand where they are and how they're viewing the world now, and then how guns fit into that, and having children of my own, and being concerned about them every day at school. I'm a worrywart. I know statistically it's highly unlikely, but it's something that's on my mind every day. Where I stand in the auditorium, I think about “Oh, where's my out?” And I work at a super safe school. But it's still something that's back there.
Would you say that these pieces are coming from a place of anxiety?
Yeah, there's definitely an element of anxiety, an element that's always been there for me. My father was riddled with post-traumatic stress between living in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, he barely missed going to Vietnam and everyone in his platoon died, and he was on the last train out of New York on 9/11. He’s a major shaping force in my life.
When you're designing things for kids to play with, you spend a lot of time figuring out why you can't make something, why something isn't a good idea. What kind of behavior do you want to model for a kid? So much of child play is modeling adult behavior.
There are things we don't make into toys for toddlers—and that's probably because we're a little ashamed of those things, we’re ashamed that we don't trust each other enough that we can't ride on an airplane together without being afraid that someone's gonna kill everybody. So now we have to construct this weird elaborate system that we just have to be okay with.
I grew up being totally okay with it because it's the only thing I've ever known. My daughter, for her it's the only thing she's ever known. But when you have to explain to somebody like, why do you take off your shoes? Or why are there cameras everywhere, why are there all these things in the world? And you don't have a good answer that isn't because we don't trust each other.
It's a hard thing to contend with, because with your own children, I want to be honest, but I also know the limitations of honesty. I don't want them to be worried about everything all the time either. I can't listen to NPR with my kid in the car because they talk about school shootings all the time, and there's no amount of knowing about school shootings that's gonna help my daughter not get shot at this point in her life.
You talk a lot about this fear that you have and I'm drawn to that because I have a lot of the exact same fears. I mean, every time I go through TSA I'm like super nervous for no reason. It's not like I'm smuggling weapons or drugs or anything, but I'm just on edge.
When you see a cop car’s lights behind you, no matter how far away, no matter if you're going like five miles under the speed limit, there's this instantaneous moment like, “Oh no, they're gonna find out.” Maybe that just says that you're a well-programmed individual or a responsible citizen or you don't actually do anything bad because you have that much worry in you that perhaps that predisposes you to not doing significantly bad things.
When you go through TSA checkpoints does it remind you of living in Saudi Arabia?
Oh yeah. I was always astounded by how quickly you could get into America when I was a kid. I just remember like walking out of the airport and being like, “Oh man, that was really quick,” because we would literally spend four hours in customs on the way back to Saudi Arabia. My mom would tell my older brother to take a toy away from me so that I would just start screaming uncontrollably so that they would rush us through customs.
Do you let your own kids play with toy guns?
The only toy guns that my daughter owns are two Nerf pistols. When I was growing up, we weren't allowed to play with guns. I don’t think playing with guns necessarily equals violence. I think it does normalize guns in a way. [I think we should] back up and really think about what the actual, original intent of the amendment was, which is about regulated militias and has nothing to do with Joe Blow owning an assault rifle.
Have you gotten any negative or angry messages about your artwork?
Usually it's more people who are not picking up on what I'm putting down, like a shameful look from an older woman, somebody who's like, “Well, that's just [tsk-tsk] inappropriate.” And I can live with that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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