March 11, 2015

Girls Just Wanna Have Gun

Nancy, Archival pigment print. 30x20 in. Ed. 1/8. 2014.
Nancy, Archival pigment print. 30×20 in. Ed. 1/8. 2014.


Welcome back! We’ve missed you, but we haven’t been hibernating over the winter.

We’ve been cooking up some great stuff, and now that spring is (nearly) here we’re ready to share with you everything that’s coming up and going down at AAC, starting with Resident Artist Dawn Whitmore.

We hope you’ll join her on the Upper Level during First Thursday, April 2, 6:45 – 8 pm to hear about the process and inspiration for her exhibition GUN LOVE.

You’re invited to come armed with curiosity and point-blank questions!

As an independent documentary photographer and visual artist Dawn’s work focuses on identity, gender and American culture. She most recently published work in the Virginia Quarterly Review, won second place in The Photo Review International Competition (2014) and is presently completing a month long residency at the Vermont Studio Center.

Joining AAC’s group of Resident Artists in January 2014, “has had a huge, positive impact on my studio practice and work because I’m surrounded by incredibly talented studio mates and supportive staff every day,” she said.

Today, she’s agreed to talk with us about her exhibition, because, let’s face it, it’s a little scary/exciting, and we have LOTS of questions about it. Read on to learn more about the girls (both in front of and behind the lens) of GUN LOVE.

Makeup artist prepping Gun Girl 'Beth' for her photoshoot
Makeup artist prepping Gun Girl ‘Viv’ for her photoshoot


Q: First, we wanna know, who are the women/people in your pieces? Are they models, or ‘real’ people really being portrayed as them(real)selves?

A: The women in the portraits are models. The women in Gun Girls (the small book) and in the YouTube videos are representative of themselves and are not models.

Q: If they’re models, what kind of direction did you give them to achieve your desired result?

A: I asked each of them to pose for me in a manner that they felt might go along with holding and/or owning a gun – I wanted to tap into the power that a gun has to transform one’s sense of power/image.

Q: By the way…what was your desired result?

A: I didn’t have a particular result in mind. I knew I wanted each of the portraits to convey a character that could be representative of a real person.

Beth, Archival pigment print. 30x20 in. Ed. 1/8. 2014.
Beth, Archival pigment print. 30×20 in. Ed. 1/8. 2014.


Q: And…um, what about the guns? Are they really real?

A: The guns in the portraits and the video titled ‘Gun Love‘ are not real, though they are replicas. I purchased plastic guns online (you’d be amazed at what kind of plastic weaponry is out there…) then painted and decorated them.

Q: Ok, so if some of them are really portraying real people, where did you get the images?

A: I use social media platforms such as Pintrest, Tumblr and YouTube to procure a lot of my images.

Q: A lot of artists appropriate (or borrow) images from the world (i.e. other artists, newspapers and magazines, other forms of popular culture, Internet and social media users, etc.). 

A: I am really interested in using existing content because there is so much of it being produced and posted in real time. For example, Facebook users upload 350 million images a day. The advent of social media has made it possible for anyone to peek into different cultural communities beyond their own and witness the unfolding of anonymous lives in real time.

I knew appropriation was the route for me because I am trying to create a balance of fact and fiction in this work – I wanted there to be enough of a backbone with actual content that it all seemed plausible, but then provide an entry into something stretched out of proportion; something to make you wonder, “hmm…what’s going on, what’s being said?”

Hello Kitty, Archival pigment print. 11x11 in. Ed. 1/8. 2014.
Hello Kitty, Archival pigment print. 11×11 in. Ed. 1/8. 2014.

Q. How did you decide that appropriation was the route that you wanted to take with this body of work? How do you know the legal limits of the images you use?

A. I do know the legal limits (well, for the most part) with image use, and while I’m very conscious of being respectful and never exactly using an image as it was captured, I do think we’ve moved into a hyper-sensitive time of copyright. As an artist, using materials within your reach is expected, even those that exist in the digital realm only.

I also think that you cannot accurately convey your message if you’re having constant work-arounds. For example, with GUN LOVE, I want to portray real women with real guns. If I had to stage every image, the project would lose credibility for not bringing in the present view of the discussion. The amazingness of social media (and all billions of participants) is that you can watch these events happen while staying butted up to the current moment.

Q: So, what is your experience with guns and gun culture?

A: I grew up in relatively rural Maryland and guns and hunting was generally present all the time. It was pretty common to be playing outside and hear gun shots in hunting season.

Q: Is that what sparked the inspiration for the show or have you been brewing this concept for awhile?

A: The inspiration for this body of work started when I was learning about the culling of the deer by sharpshooters in Rock Creek Park (DC). I have a background in environmental conservation, and became interested in urban hunting. In doing this research I kept coming across images of women hunting with pink rifles and pink camouflage outfits.

That was really interesting to me – the notion of looking ‘cute’ while doing a traditionally messy and rough act, killing things. I researched further and found tons of images of women hunters with makeup on and pink gear posing in sassy ways next to a bloodied animal.

“As an artist and documentary photographer, that’s what I’m interested in – familiarizing myself with the other and experiencing how that responds within myself.”

This opened up a whole new world for me into the vast community of women who decorate their guns with fake jewels, floral prints or even the Louis Vuitton logo. One image I came across on Pinterest proudly displayed the paint job her small child had decorated her handgun with.

Q: Would you say that your work often refers to the sometimes-ridiculous glorification of a sub-culture, and then provides a means to destroy that sort-of naive fantasy with the gritty portrayals of those worlds? Is GUN LOVE an iteration of your fascination with the plethora of human sub-culture? 

A: Hmm…I’m not sure it consciously refers to ridiculous glorification, though sometimes that’s what particular elements are: ridiculous. No matter what window of culture you are looking through, there are always moments of ridiculousness based on the fact that it’s simply ‘other’. When you are not familiar with a particular community it is easy to see that odd moment as something really huge and so wildly different from yourself. As an artist and documentary photographer, that is what I’m very interested in – familiarizing myself with the other and experiencing how that responds within myself.

Dawn at the opening reception for GUN LOVE
Dawn at the opening reception for GUN LOVE

GUN LOVE is an iteration of my fascination with people and culture in general. We can all somehow be boiled down into one sub-culture or another just based on our habits and personal history. My driving force is to explore areas that I find interesting. I think being both a visual artist AND a documentary photographer allows me to dig deep (especially when shooting a long-term doc photo project), and then use that knowledge and curiosity with my more conceptual pieces. Each style feeds into the other.

Can you talk about that a little? How is GUN LOVE different from a body of work like Go Fast and Get Dirty, for instance?  

GUN LOVE is different from my documentary photos because when I’m out shooting a project like Go Fast and Get Dirty, I am completely immersed in the world of that other culture, oftentimes moving at a very rapid and intuitive pace. There’s absolutely no time to get into my head and start conceptualizing things. Especially in Go Fast and Get Dirty – whenever I’m at a racetrack I’m mostly focused on not getting run over. When I’m on the track, I am photographing real people and real events in real time. With GUN LOVE I get to interpret and input my own sense of self through aesthetic decisions and content choices. I have time to make decisions and then reshoot if necessary.

Was there something more exciting or more frightening about approaching this kind of subject matter?

GUN LOVE Installation. photo by Greg Staley
GUN LOVE Installation. photo by Greg Staley

I didn’t find any moment of this project particularly frightening (though the daily emails I received from friends about odd gun related news was jarring), I felt it to be very interesting because I knew nothing about guns. I guess, reflecting now I was pretty shocked when I was doing research and kept coming across adult websites focused on women and guns. So many searches for ‘women and guns’ come up with explicitly sexually based content.

Q. How did you feel about procuring and handling the toy guns?

A. I was a tiny bit nervous about the toy handguns, but not terribly so. I was probably most concerned while spray painting them outside – I was afraid someone would call the police on me for painting what looked like real firearms.

Q: Whew! That was awesome, but also a little rough! So, tell us, what’s coming up after GUN LOVE?

A: Right now I’m playing around with making videos – I’ve decided to spend my month-long residency here at the Vermont Studio Center (March 2015) experimenting in-depth with the medium. After that my next big project is going to focus on one’s first time coming across pornographic materials during youth. More on that in the months to come…

If you want to learn more about GUN LOVE, stop the galleries before April 4, and come hear from Dawn on April 2 at 6:45 – 8 pm on the Upper Level in the Wyatt Resident Artists Gallery. To learn more about Dawn, read her blog, and follow her on Instagram @dawn.whitmore and Twitter @WhitmoreDawn


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