Augsburger, Esther - VM - Steve Scott
Esther Augsburger: Guns into Plowshares
Catching the Vision
by Steve Scott
For twelve years the sculpture Guns into Plowshares could be seen in Judiciary Square, close to the Capitol in Washington D.C.
When I told the artist, Esther Augsburger, that I wanted to write about this piece, she sent me a quick condensed narrative of the origins of the work and some rather perplexing news concerning its current fate.
Esther wrote: ‘Guns into Plowshares is a large sculpture of steel, in the sculptural shape of a plowshare, with 3000 hand guns welded onto it. The guns were collected from several Metropolitan Police Department turn-in programs in which (the American boxer) Riddik Bowe donated $100 per hand-gun turned in to them. In turn the Chief of Police negotiated with me to build the sculpture, expressing that we can turn our weapons of destruction into that which will cultivate peace – a plow – a symbol of providing for the bread of peace. The theme was taken from Isaiah 2:4, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Our son Michael, gifted in art, and I designed and built the sculpture, a steel plowshare nineteen feet long and sixteen feet tall, with over 3000 guns welded onto the form. The guns were not melted down, but welded onto the form as a full expression of their being instruments of violence.’
I remember hearing Esther first talking about this project during workshops and lectures at different art conferences in Eastern Europe and South East Asia in the late 1990s/early 2000s. I remember looking at the projected images and being impressed by the balance of graceful form and weighty theme in the work. The stories of the inspiration and the circumstances behind the work also impressed me.
Along with the elegant design and the supporting narrative came the added bonus of a widespread response from people in different parts of the world as they learned about the piece and its inspiration. Not only was the artist’s imagination set on fire by the biblical theme of ‘swords into plowshares’ and the opportunity afforded by a citywide gun amnesty, but others caught the vision and responded, allowing the theme to resonate in their own life situations. Some would think about creativity. Some would pray. Some would imagine an end to violence in the cities and countries where they lived.
It is wonderful when art builds bridges into life in this way. It does not lose its status as ‘art’ by embracing a wider frame of reference, nor does it ‘transcend’ its material limitations or historical occasion. Instead it validates and dignifies those things while also being present to us, here and now.
Of course the work also addresses us in potentially uncomfortable ways. It would have been too easy to melt the guns into malleable anonymity. However, their clearly gun-like forms are present on the sculpture’s surface. We are not allowed to forget the former careers of these pieces of metal, even as they are redeemed and transformed in an artwork intended as a signpost pointing to grace and peace. Nor should we lose sight of the overall artwork itself, even though it was quietly moved recently from its former location without the artist’s knowledge or consent. This was done, apparently, to make room for an ornamental fountain.
There are many rich lessons of dialogue and cooperation that we can learn from the stories surrounding how this piece came to be. I do not doubt that those who have seen it or learned of it in some way continue to be touched in their hearts and minds by both its artistry and its message. However, I believe that the artwork itself, properly displayed somewhere in a public place, still has much to tell us in our volatile but fragile world of the 21st century.
Esther Augsburger: Guns into Plowshares, 1997, steel and 3000 handguns, 19 feet long, 16 feet high.
Esther Augsburger (born 1930) graduated from Eastern Mennonite College and James Madison University in art education and art. Esther served as a member of the Mennonite Board of Missions. In 1991 she curated an art exhibition by international Christian artists sponsored by the International Christian Media Commission in Sheffield, England.In 1993 Esther organized and convened a conference for Christians in Art at Mittersill, Austria, for Eastern and Western European artists. This conference now occurs every two years. She was also instrumental in the organization of the International Artists' Conferences in Moscow in 1996 and in Sophia, Bulgaria in 2008. View her work here: www.emu.edu/seminary/augsburger/images/gallery
Steve Scott directs CANA (Christian Artists Networking Association.) CANA seeks to engage, connect and empower artists in different parts of the world by running international conferences (SE Asia/Eastern Europe) and maintaining online communication (see http://cana-arts.blogspot.com).
ArtWay Visual Meditation November 6, 2011