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A creative response to gun violence

A creative response to gun violence

Mia Zierk (left) and Langtian He take turns printing posters at the Delicious Design League, a local design/illustration company. The two were part of artist-in-residence Rick Valicenti’s “Heartbreak” course, which encourages students to examine gun violence through an artistic lens. (Photo: Nicole Ferentz)

By Drew Sottardi  


That’s how many people were killed in Chicago in 2016, according to Police Department statistics, making it the deadliest year in the city in two decades.

It’s a staggering number, so large that it can be difficult for many people to comprehend. For college students in particular, Chicago’s homicide problem can seem a world away—something that only happens in certain parts of the city and that doesn’t affect them at all.

Loyola artist-in-residence Rick Valicenti wants to change that line of thinking. He hopes to move beyond the raw data and show that there are actual victims behind the statistics. And he’s doing it through art.

Since the beginning of the year, Valicenti has been teaching 20 students in a capstone class called “Heartbreak: Responses to Chicago Gun Violence.” The course brings together fine arts students and visual communication majors to flex their creative muscles and examine gun violence through an artistic lens.

It’s a philosophy Valicenti calls “moving design”—or, in his words, “to see what happens when design and creativity enter the conversation around a difficult issue.”

“Our focus has been in response to gun violence and how we, as empathetic creative individuals, can awaken civility, public awareness, and policy discourse—and all the while renew respect for life,” Valicenti said.

A personal perspective

To help his students better understand Chicago’s gun violence, Valicenti brought in a series of guest speakers. They included aldermen, activists, an emergency room physician, and a young Chicago woman who has lost more than 20 loved ones to gun violence.

For Valicenti, who has worked on moving design projects around the world, using art to shine a light on social issues is nothing new. But for many of his students, this merger of art and social justice has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Jack McCusker, a junior majoring in visual communication as well as advertising and public relations, is part of a team working on four zines, or mini-magazines, about gun violence. The zines will feature text and images and be distributed to local businesses, hopefully to spark conversations among customers and residents.

One way students are doing that is to tell the stories of homicide victims beyond the generic information you would find in a police report. So instead of listing someone as “a 21-year-old black male,” the students might create a word cloud about the victim that says “talented singer, best friend, uncle.”

That made more sense than just trying to tell people about the issue, McCusker said. 

“People know what’s going on,” he said. “They don’t really know what to do about it. So we’re trying to get people to care about an issue that they already know about.”

Fellow visual communication major Timberlene Gilliam, also a junior, said she had grown immune to all of the news about homicides in Chicago—until she started working on one of the zines.

“One of the people we’re featuring died the day before my birthday last year,” she said. “While I was out celebrating with friends, he was fighting for his life. That definitely changed my perspective.”

Fine arts majors in the class did their part as well, creating paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, and ceramic pieces to put their own spin on the issue. Those works will be displayed in the University’s Ralph Arnold Gallery during the upcoming Weekend of Excellence.

An inspiring installation

But the main piece to come out of the class will be a large, hands-on art installation on the East Quad that starts at 11 a.m. Sunday.

The project will mimic a forest filled with fallen trees, a powerful metaphor for the lives cut down by gun violence in the city, Valicenti said. Rounding out the piece will be several long white tubes, on which students will write the first names of every homicide victim in Chicago from 2016 and early 2017.

It’s a simple act, Valicenti said, but having each student write roughly 40 names also serves a much bigger purpose. “It’s a solitary moment that causes you to reflect and connect with a lost soul,” he said.

Visitors will be invited to stand amid the installation and watch dancers and hear remarks from people affected by gun violence. They’ll also be encouraged to pick up the tubes and carry them in a procession to Palm Court in the Mundelein Center, where the pieces can be restored to their upright position.

Valicenti hopes the installation will help people realize that gun violence isn’t an issue confined to only a few neighborhoods in Chicago. It affects us all—and we all must play a role in helping to solve the problem.

“If we can inspire 20 people to do one thing about gun violence, we will have succeeded,” Valicenti said. “And if each of them can inspire 20 more, then we might be able to actually move toward a better place regarding the issue.”

• Click here for more information about the Ralph Arnold Gallery, including hours of operation and location.
• And click here for a Q&A with Rick Valicenti, written by student Alexandra Senycia, president of the Loyola Art History Club.