This Is Not a Gun: A Conversation with Cara Levine Explores Collective Trauma, Grief, and the Power of Ritual
November 16, 2021
To say that gun violence is an epidemic in the U.S. is, well, an understatement. The news doesn’t lack for stories of school shootings, acts of domestic terrorism at concerts or movie theaters, or police stops gone tragically wrong, particularly when the so-called suspects are Black. Far too often this last case occurs because a trained law enforcement officer mistakes an innocuous object—a cell phone, a Bible, a sandwich—for a gun.
In December 2016, under the title “Trigger Warning,” Harper’s Magazine published a list of more than 20 objects that had, as the introduction stated, been “mistaken for guns during shootings of civilians by police in the United States since 2001.” Artist Cara Levine found herself stunned then grief-stricken by the Harper’s list. As she explained when we spoke, she wasn’t naïve about gun violence or how often it occurred in Black communities at the hands of police. What she found unfathomable, however, was how these everyday objects could be interpreted as threats. So she turned to her art as a way to understand the seemingly incomprehensible.
That grew into the multi-faceted This Is Not a Gun project, which so far comprises Levine’s own carvings of the “Trigger Warning” objects, an essay collection in which artists, activists, and other creatives shared their own responses to the collective trauma of gun violence, and an ongoing series of community workshops in partnership with local activists, which foster a space for communal grieving and, hopefully, healing.
Colossal contributor Paulette Beete spoke with Levine via video about how This Is Not a Gun has informed and evolved her art practice, her understanding of both individual and collective grief and trauma, and the importance of ritual. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Paulette: Let’s start at the very beginning. What was your road to becoming an artist?
Cara: It has always felt like there was never anything else I could do, which feels like a very privileged thing to say. I just remember even in school feeling like the most valuable use of my time was to explore creativity and personal expression. I still feel like the most valuable use of my time as a professional artist and a teacher is to help cultivate other people’s creativity and expression. The thing most worth living for, for me, is making art.
Paulette: Did your art practice start with sculpture, or did it evolve from something else?
Cara: In high school, I had a teacher who taught ceramics, and he was the teacher who empowered me to make things. I was always the kid to break things and try to put them back together. My brothers made fun of me as I used to destroy their Tonka trucks and put them back together. I was a terrible drawer. There were kids who were good at drawing in school, but I wasn’t allowed in the club. I loved getting messy. I loved destroying things and working with my hands. I fell in love with clay. My first path was a potter. When I took time off from school, I worked for a ceramic artist in Spain as a formal apprentice. That opened up a whole world of craft. Through that, I found woodworking.
[I’m attracted to the] idea that different materials tell different stories through the methods of making. It seems like with the wood carvings for This Is Not A Gun, I’m not only understanding the object that I’m replicating, I’m also learning the methods of the material. They go hand in hand.
Paulette: There also seems to be an experiential aspect of your art practice.
Cara: The This Is Not A Gun project is a good example of that as it has multiple components. It has a studio component; I’m using the process of making the work to create an experience for myself. I think of it as a devotional process. I use the time to actually grieve what is happening in the country. The grief is coming through my hands, my time, my intentionality. I also wanted very quickly to invite others into this conversation on racism and police brutality and have done so through the creation of the now five-year deep This Is Not A Gun workshop series.
I also just completed a project called Dig: A Hole To Put Your Grief In. In that project, I spent eight days digging a hole on land in the Los Angeles mountains, the Malibu mountains. I invited the public to join me in digging this hole. They could come anytime and dig. The purpose of [creating] the hole was catharsis and coming together collectively to grieve. We punctuated the week with different events run by other artists and spiritual leaders around how to collectively grieve. The hole became this physical presentation of this pain that we are all living to different degrees, for different reasons. It also became a stage for people to enact different rituals and beliefs.
I can be intense about my belief that something is not real until you’ve experienced it. You can’t think your way out of a problem, trauma, or grief.—Cara Levine
Paulette: I was going to say that there is that element of ritual to your work, which is not surprising as you said before that your work is connected to your body. I think it’s through ritual that grieving and celebrating become more than a mental exercise; ritual gives somewhere for the energy to go.
Cara: I can be intense about my belief that something is not real until you’ve experienced it. You can’t think your way out of a problem, trauma, or grief. It is important to talk about it, think about it, and go to therapy. In my art practice, I try to set up situations for myself to understand or reconcile a problem that I otherwise can’t reconcile or understand. In order to do that, my whole body needs to go through a process. I’m not going to understand it until I get to the other side. Sometimes it is aggravating. I make this stuff and it isn’t that interesting, but I had to do it that [particular] way. I had to live with pain in my body. I’m lucky as right now I’m not experiencing any pain, but when your body is not working the way it should, it highlights how embodied we are all the time without thinking. I don’t take that for granted.
Paulette: Where did This Is Not A Gun start for you?
Cara: The project began in December 2016. I had been living in Oakland for a number of years at that point, and I had just moved to Portland, Oregon, for a teaching job. We were also two years into the Black Lives Matter movement, and the [anti-gun violence movement] was very active in Oakland. When Trump was elected, it was like this dark cloak was pulled over many of us. It compounded a lot of the fears I had. I don’t know what I thought, really. I was bereaved. I was having nightmares all the time. I had also spent about a decade working with artists with developmental and physical disabilities. I felt like anybody on any margin was basically going to be exterminated in a really disgusting way—immigrants, disabled people, women, trans folks, people of color, like everybody now was having to protect themselves like their lives were on the line. It felt true; it was true.
That December, an article came out in Harper’s called “Trigger Warning,” which listed 23 objects [all of which have been mistaken for guns by law enforcement]. I felt really angry and overwhelmed by the dismissal of the context of the way these shootings happened. There was no name, age, race, gender, location, circumstance [in the article]—just the object.
I thought, “If I can carve a sandwich, somewhere in the process, from block of wood to sandwich I can understand how someone might think this is a gun. If I just spend all the time understanding its form, maybe I’ll understand how it was mistaken as a gun.”—Cara Levine
I needed to slow down and understand what I was looking at because I don’t want to live in a world where someone can be killed eating a sandwich. We are getting this information so fast. I decided first to carve. I thought, “If I can carve a sandwich, somewhere in the process, from block of wood to sandwich I can understand how someone might think this is a gun. If I just spend all the time understanding its form, maybe I’ll understand how it was mistaken as a gun.” That was the exercise. While doing that, I started to do some research. I have a sense of what is going on, but it was important to start at the beginning and understand the judicial system, the prison system, and understand how slavery led to the prison system. That was a personal education.
The project continued to evolve on its own. But I felt like I was drawing focus towards me; [making the work] helped my anger and frustration. Instead, I wanted it out of my hands and in front of people, starting conversations. I worked with other educators, community leaders, and activists of color talking about collective grief, trauma, hierarchies of privilege, accountability, and so on. In 2020, we were able to put out a book [also called This Is Not A Gun] where I was able to invite [as contributors] 40 other artists, writers, activists, and healers who I had relationships with through the project, whose voices were so important to the project but nobody knew. I just wanted to put together this book so everyone knows about their brilliance.
Paulette: There is also a workshop component to the project. Can you take me through what happens in the workshops?
Cara: The workshops are usually 15-40 people. We have a table with the objects that people will replicate, mundane objects from life like a cell phone, truck, etc. And we have a binder that has all the articles that I told you about that correspond to the shootings. Usually, the way we start is to ask people to get some clay [which we provide], tell them briefly that every object on the table has been mistaken for the gun of an unarmed civilian, and tell them just choose an object that resonates with them. Don’t think about it too much, just grab some clay and get started.
When I decided that it was important to open [this work] up to a public conversation, I knew it had to be done in clay. Clay is the most foundational material. Anyone can use it. All you need is dirt and water. All you have to do is use your hands. The clay aspect made it accessible and fun. We’re working together like a community to make something from an idea that is tragic and painful. But to touch the material also brings a lightness to it, which really draws people in. It draws out your emotions, so that’s really experiential.
We ask people to make the objects and contemplate certain questions. People will be working, and talking amongst themselves. We hold a larger conversation about 45 minutes in to discuss the definition of community [asking] questions: How does art have the power to heal from trauma? [What are] methods to care for your community? Where do you feel safe?
I have done 20 workshops, and I maintain an archive of many of the ceramic projects. In it, I have 300 objects, and I was able to catalog them in an exhibit on a blue-painted floor. It feels like a memorial with all the objects. I want people to be overwhelmed by the number and mundanity [of the objects]. These are everyday objects that these civilians were holding. This is deeply inhumane and tragic. The objects [on exhibit were] made with love and by many non-artists. They convey a complexity in the loss, I hope.
Paulette: A couple of words that have come up continually while we have been talking are trauma and grief. How has your understanding of those words changed over the life of this project?
Cara: I now think of grief as something that is like a connective tissue that is containing all of us. A friend of mine coined the term “ambient grief.” She describes this feeling that we are all in quicksand or standing in water, and the grief is the water. It’s holding all of us, and I feel that to be true. Behind every joy, there is a knowledge of deep loss, fear, worry, trauma. So how do you hold up that joy and let it live? It’s so delicate. I think that the grief has become more complex. I accept now that grief is in all of us and is all the time. There is a collective trauma and individual trauma. This is a more complex nuanced realm than I first understood.
I feel a lot of trust between me and the co-hosts, collaborators, and participants. People have trusted me with their grief and trauma, sometimes personally and specifically. Entering this project, I did not know that I was going to be a holder of that. That has taken patience for me to learn how to do. It has been humbling. It grows more love. I fall in love with people who are willing to be vulnerable.
Paulette: In a project like this where you are engaging around a type of violence that happens not exclusively but predominantly to people of color, how do you navigate your own privilege as a white woman? How do you recognize that at a certain point you just can’t really understand what this type of violence feels like for people of color?
Cara: I think therein is part of the answer; I had to understand what I could not understand. This is a complicated and a simple question. The simple response for me is I entered this through a very basic hurt. The word injustice is not enough. There is an inhumanity I cannot fathom, stomach, and understand. It’s a human response to what is happening [as] Black men are being targeted by police. The complicated thing is I am not a person of color. This is not my community. I try to be transparent and ask for a lot of help. I have four or five friends of color who I feel comfortable talking about race with and who will be direct with me. I asked them to help me navigate. I don’t want to not do this project because I’m white. There are plenty of conversations where I know this is not for me to speak about and so on. We, as white people, need to be in this conversation. That felt clear. There has to be a way to be in the conversation.
Moving forward, the project This Is Not A Gun is going to be a collaborative project with Angela Hennessy. I have known her for a decade. She is a woman of color and a survivor of gun violence. She comes to this project from a different angle than me, and her energy is used differently in the project than mine. Her voice is essential to the project. One last thing I will mention about This Is Not A Gun is that a long time ago, another collaborator [Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo], and I made a toolkit so that other communities can run these events, independent of us.
Paulette: My final question is what do you wish I had asked about this project or about your work?
Cara: I think the thing I’m thinking about now the most is how we are going to protect each other from this transition from isolation [because of the pandemic] and how are we going to make it new. So much happened after the killing of George Floyd. I think a lot is changing even if some people forgot. I’m thinking now about care. How can we care in this world? Do we have agency and choice? I have a lot of fear around that.
Paulette: I think there is something there about the idea of ritual. Our collective grieving tends to be expressed in things like a moment of silence, which is not embodied.
Cara: Right. It’s alone. I’m lucky I grew up in a religious spiritual practice that marks time through ritual. I didn’t realize how valuable this was for me. Every year, there are moments to grieve, repent, and celebrate. That has taught me a lot about how to move through and come out the other side. We have all gone through, to some extent, this pandemic together. Yet, we are adrift. We need to create this new world that is people suffering together and creating joy together.