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Facing the fallout


By the time children returned to school this fall, the number of Rochesterians claimed by gun violence in 2023 neared 200. Mayor Malik Evans’s Gun Violence State of Emergency — originally put in place in July 2022 due to the staggering levels of gun deaths that year — has been extended multiple times throughout 2023, most recently on Sept. 14. Yet the deaths keep coming.

In early August, Rochester Contemporary Art Center launched a new public art installation on its East End exterior: a three-panel artwork bearing portraits of gun violence victims as well as handwritten letters to them, many from mothers to sons, with space for more images to be added.

“For me, one of the key aspects of this issue is the question of how we could — and I think some people would say, already have — become desensitized,” said RoCo’s Executive Director Bleu Cease.

The chilling title of the exhibit, “Who Will Be Next?,” speaks to the pervasive scourge of American gun violence in a way few discussions surrounding the issue have — it urges viewers to think of the lives that haven’t yet been lost, but inevitably will be while little progress is made to prevent those deaths from happening. It also asks members of the public to spend time with victims’ names and faces.

The installation’s images and words are line drawings, tracings made by members of the public from photos and letters sent to the project by people who have been affected by gun violence. It’s what the artists have referred to as an accessible, ritual act of community mourning.

“What we're going for is for people to not just be a statistic,” said Martin Krafft, one of the artists behind the project. He added that public remembrance helps assuage some of the shame associated with this manner of death, whether homicide or suicide. “I think the missing component in that conversation is access to guns makes these situations much more deadly than they would otherwise be,” he said.

Amplifying the voices of people affected by gun violence is something that Krafft, of Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, and his collaborator, Elena Makanski of Tucson, Arizona, have tackled since 2017 when they began collaborating with anti-gun violence groups to collect names, photos, and stories.

Locally, they connected with Rise Up Rochester and Moms Demand Action. Members of those groups spoke about personal loss and the role of community support in healing at a vigil held at the RoCo installation in August.

Krafft is continuously collecting images and stories to add to the project. He’ll be back in town this fall to add drawings of local faces and letters to the empty spaces on the mural panels. Until then, visitors to RoCo can stop at the tracing station and lend a hand to the project.

The installation and opportunity to participate continues through Nov. 12. Another vigil will be held on First Friday, Nov. 3.

Rebecca Rafferty is an arts writer at CITY and the co-producer and host of art/WORK, an arts conversation video series created in collaboration with WXXI. She can be reached at [email protected].