The Art Center College of Design, known world-wide for graduating hotshot illustrators and car designers, has inserted itself into one of the most pressing issues facing this country: gun violence.
The Pasadena institution published a series of four children’s books that illustrate what a gun-free world could look like.
One of the books, titled “Amos’ New Life,” by Vivian Shih, begins like this:
“Amos the Bullet was born in a cold place called the gun. One day, somebody shot the gun. Bang! Swoosh."
At first Amos breaks things, but when he meets ”useful” objects like pencils and lipsticks, he decides he wants to be more like them.
The series is part of “Uncool: The Anti-Gun Violence Project.”
To get the word out about the books, the Art Center's Helen Cahng led readings and workshops at libraries, donating books to the shelves and giving free copies to the workshop attendees.
At the last event in a north Pasadena public library two weeks ago, she read “Zoarmax 133’s Big Question” by Art Center student Kin Lok. Zoarmax 133 is an alien with a toothy smile, big blue head, and a little red hat. He talks to a chemist, a snowman, and a grandmother who all do cool things -- and think guns are uncool.
After the reading, kids used acrylic paints to make posters of cool things in their lives.
Cahng said the books are part of an initiative that teaches Art Center students to use their design skills for social change.
“The goal of this class was to address the issue of gun violence and why children think guns are so cool at an early age and in a way that doesn’t frighten them,” she said.
Art Center instructor David Tillinghast said when he and the students looked for children's books on gun violence, they didn't come up with much. Those they did find were too serious and heavy-handed. They wanted to create books that appeal to kids and parents in a positive way.
“We had to find a way into their imagination and storytelling that didn’t show guns, particularly, didn’t infer violence in any way, didn’t show blood, didn’t show murder, we had to talk about how a world without guns could be empowering for children,” he said.
Tillinghast said as early as the first grade, kids already think guns are cool. The learn it from images on television, videogames, and product advertising.
At the Pasadena workshop, fifth grader Christian Solorzano painted a poster of soccer balls. That’s not all he plays with at home.
“I have BB guns, a machine gun that’s a BB gun, and two more pistol BB guns,” he said.
Johnny Chavez, also in fifth grade, used black paint to draw the X-Box video game he got for Christmas. His favorite games? Black Ops 2, Batman Arkham City, and Mortal Kombat. All three are shooting games.
“We have talked about that dad has used a gun for hunting, and he uses it to kill things to eat,” said Melissa Townley, mother of a six- and nine-year-old attending the workshop. Her kids attend private school in Pasadena.
“We’ve talked about it in that way," she said, "but not -- I’ve never talked to them about anything in the media that’s happened.”
She'd read the Zoarmax book to her kids. She likes how the author uses a space alien to start a conversation about whether guns are cool.
“My job is to guide my children not to tell them how things are, to help them come to their own conclusions is what I would try to do with this book,” she said.
Art Center College of Design received a $100,000 grant from the Cummings Foundation to publish a thousand copies of the books. Gun violence touched the campus at about the time the project started. Beloved 50 year-old instructor Norm Schureman was shot and killed at a party in March of 2010. The project is dedicated to him.
Tillinghast wants to approach New York publishers to expand the run because messages to combat gun violence aren’t being heard.
“Especially with the size of the NRA lobby in Washington, the power that they have, the money, their ability to reach in all sorts of pockets, all sorts of places," he said. "There isn’t that messaging on the other side."