Looking For a Forest Through the Trees

The woods of downtown New Haven.
The woods of downtown New Haven. // Samantha Bensinger

“Through the Trees” is more than a collection of artwork. Its artists specifically emphasize that the exhibit is not merely “art for art’s sake” — its goals are to raise awareness about gun violence, and to memorialize victims of such violence in the process. To this end, the artists constructed six makeshift wooden trees, spray-painted them silver and hung them with highly varied pieces of artwork. Many of these are ornaments created by New Haven public school children. Paper mache cylinders painted with wintry scenes hang from the branches. Among them, paintings, largely of doves depicted in rainbow colors, have been slipped into the front of empty CD cases for protection against the weather.

The art is as touching as it is varied. Written on one tree are the words, “Mom, where’s my sister?” An ornament features two pictures of a young man — “sunrise” is written beneath a picture of him as a young child, and “sunset” beneath a picture of him taken soon before his premature death. There are other heart-tugging images of friends who died too young pasted onto heart-shaped cardboard, surrounded by glitter glue. Plain sneakers, spray-painted blue or covered in marker and stickers, hang from the trees by their laces.

The artists specifically sought interaction with the public, even providing free art supplies that viewers could use, and their decision to leave the gates to the exhibit open during the night allowed for some anonymous additions. Various fake birds have appeared: One large mallard, facing the ground, hangs from the branches of one of the silver trees, and a few other, smaller birds decorate one of its neighbors. This flock’s significance may be clear to the artist who put it up, but doesn’t seem obvious to anyone else.

During the afternoon that I spent at the exhibit, the element of public contribution was especially apparent. One woman squatted in the snow for nearly ten minutes, soaking her sweatpants as she carefully wrote her message: “STOP the violence … never give up … there’s always hope out there.” Other messages were harsher: “Gunz don’t kill people. People kill people. Smarten up people.”

Unfortunately not all would-be artists made such relevant contributions. As is inevitable with any exhibit that encourages its audience to draw, paint and write on the art itself, “Through the Trees” attracted its fair share of jokesters and ne’er-do-wells. Amid the serious work were helpful pieces of advice like “Shrek yourself before you wreck yourself” and meaningful comments like “#tree” scrawled in purple and green marker. These immature additions made it difficult to take “Through the Trees” as seriously as it deserved.

The exhibit does good work, but I have to wonder whether its true purpose was fulfilled — indeed, whether this sort of public can achieve the social change it seeks. The collection — with the rawness of its emotions, the passion behind its sentiments — likely struck any who stumbled across it, forcing them to think about the problem of gun violence. But when I visited the exhibit, my fellow attendees were mainly people who had been somehow involved — the artists themselves, patrons of the exhibit, teachers whose students had contributed. Some viewers seemed to be more interested in the free buffet (the artists had planned a reception to kick the exhibit off) than in the art. Creating and publicizing art on this topic seemed cathartic and effective for the contributors involved, but I’m not sure how many new people it reached. Those who cared, it seemed, were already there.

“Through the Trees” asks how effective art can be outside the aesthetic realm. Can art change people that are far removed from it? Would a murderer shift his attitude after seeing these trees? Whether or not the answers are yes, it seems important to raise these questions.

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