Distinctive works of two artists that relate to guns will likely generate questions and conversations on a timely topic at Vision Gallery.

The photographs of Kari Wehrs of Tempe and the sculptures of Nathaniel Lewis of Phoenix are being exhibited at “TOGETHER” through May 3 at Vision Gallery, 10 E. Chicago St. An opening reception for Wehrs and Lewis will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. tonight, April 6, at the gallery. The artists’ works are being shown together for the first time.

Wehrs photographed a series, “Shot,” showing people she encountered in the desert shooting guns recreationally using tintype photography, where images are processed directly onto a piece of aluminum in what she said is a “direct positive process.” The tintype process was invented in the 1850s and was the main method of photographic image-making in the 1860s during the Civil War, remaining popular into the 1880s, Wehrs said.

Lewis, a father of two and former toy designer, created sculptures that he said were created to illustrate “adult behavior that we don’t typically model for children,” including the use of guns, surveillance cameras and TSA stops. “The current gun debate in the United States can be very polarizing,” said Peter Bugg, visual arts coordinator for the City of Chandler, adding: “Many people discuss it in person, or argue about it online, in (an) attempt to get other people to agree with them – but that is not what these artists are doing. Kari is making her photographs in order to interact with people who she doesn’t see eye to eye with, try to understand their points of view and find common ground. Nathan makes his objects as a way to help him navigate the peculiarities he sees in the world, and his … own reactions to them. These artworks are a way to actively listen, as opposed to ways to yell at others.”

Both artists said their works are not meant to make judgments on gun use or other controversial matters but rather to raise questions and make viewers think.
“Both our bodies of work tread in in-between space that’s not so judgmental to say, ‘This is good’ or ‘This is bad,’” Lewis said. “It asks you a question and makes you come up with an answer and think about it.” Wehrs said on the surface, her photos are about guns, but on a deeper level they are a way to “investigate and provoke both personal and collective consciousness.” She shot the photos as part of her thesis work while earning her master’s degree in fine arts from Arizona State University and said the work examines social and “political divisiveness” in the world today. “My work is kind of stemming from these incidents of gun violence,” Wehrs said. “I think that his and my work when seen in the same space is going to create interesting conversations or just spark a new question. Many of us are kind of tired of the same old conversations.”

She said she deliberately used the tintype photography method used during the Civil War because today “there’s so much cultural civil war.”

“From scenes of gun violence that make the national news, to my 60-some-year-old mother suddenly deciding to carry, incidents of gun use haunt me with curiosity and fear,” Wehrs wrote in her thesis statement for the photography project. “Having no personal attachment to guns, I am grappling with present day societal reverberations and implications of the gun in American culture,” she added. She said she set up her darkroom tent and tintype gear in known target shooting places in Arizona’s desert and walked up to “gun enthusiast strangers” to see if they would be willing to be photographed. After creating the portraits, Wehrs gave the people she photographed the option of shooting the images as targets. Some of them did and left bullet holes in the plates.

“‘Shot’ refers simultaneously to my use of the camera and the participant’s use of the gun,” Wehrs said. She said the project might make people think “How might we need to re-consider this time in our history?” and other questions including “When do/did our rights become our burdens?” and “How do we want to think of our social or political opposite, and how might crossing uncomfortable boundaries potentially lead to positive change?”

Besides having a master’s of fine arts degree from ASU, Wehrs has a bachelor’s degree in visual communication from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse.
She now is an adjunct professor of photography at Chandler-Gilbert Community College. Wehrs also is an instructor at the Maine Media Workshops + College, where she teaches summer classes.

Tilt Gallery in Scottsdale represents Wehrs, 36, who is thrilled to be showing at Vision Gallery, in the community where she teaches. “It’s so exciting,” she said. “This is the first time we’ve shown together. His (Lewis’) work is much more humorous on the forefront.”

Lewis is also happy to be showing for the first time at Vision Gallery and is a fan of Wehrs’ work. “It’s exciting,” he said. “This is the first time that I’m showing a concentration of this work, a very specific vein of it. I’ve looked at her work and I really like it.”

Lewis was born and raised as an American in Saudi Arabia and worked for many years as a toy designer. He has a bachelor’s degree in sculpture from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in sculpture from Arizona State University.

Lewis said his experience growing up in Saudi Arabia and later making toys shaped his work as an artist. He began doing woodworking at 12 years old and said he has been pursuing it for the last 20 years as a sculptor. He and his family moved to the United States when he was almost 14 years old. Later Lewis worked for Maxim Enterprise, Inc. as a toy designer in Massachusetts, making trucks, houses, people and other items for various companies.

Besides working as a sculptor, Lewis also is a multimedia artist who creates video and photography and draws, and he also teaches at a private high school. “Toys are used to model adult behavior,” he said. “We teach them how to go to the grocery store or how to be a teacher.”

“I have been examining adult behaviors that we are ashamed of and don’t render as toys,” Lewis said in a statement. “Examples would be a TSA stop with a child-sized dynamite vest, or a Fisher-Price inspired case with a child’s gas mask, surveillance equipment etc. “When I came up with the image of a toddler carrying an assault rifle, it confounded me and somehow indirectly embodied a lot my fears. As a parent and a teacher, I am interested in the seemingly arbitrary ages we introduce violent concepts to young people,” he added. Noting “I grew up with the specter of surveillance, terrorism and war,” he said these things “have only recently become a part of everyday life in America.”

“As a parent, I struggle to explain the peculiar state of the world and I spend a lot of time trying to explain the unexplainable and control things that are uncontrollable,” he said. “These toys, while humorous, also reflect my own anxieties and the terrible conversations I have to have with my children.”
He has a 9-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. Lewis said most of his sculptures in the Vision Gallery exhibit are “toy size,” pieces a 2-year-old could pick up, though one installation piece is larger and mounted on the wall.

Lewis frequently creates public art including “The Catacombs of Professor McGee” in the Gallery @ The Library, Scottsdale Civic Center and at Grand Rapids Art Museum after he won the ArtPrize Phoenix Pitch Night competition at Found:RE Phoenix last year.

By COLLEEN SPARKS, Managing Editor

Article Originally Published in the SanTan Sun News