Blog Post Written By “Toy Gun Teddy Bear” Creators Beth Enterkin, LCPC, Julie Ludwick, LCPC, ATR-BC, and Adrienne Weiss, LCPC, ATR.
This grassroots community art project was born when Marion Greenwood posted a question on a Highland Park community Facebook page asking what could be done with the toy guns that her children owned. Marion and other Highland Park families no longer wanted these painful reminders in their homes and were seeking responsible ways of disposing of these toys, which cannot be recycled. Upon seeing Marion’s post, Beth Enterkin responded that perhaps they could be turned into art. As an Art Therapist who has focused her career on the healing of trauma survivors, Beth’s belief is that transforming our trauma triggers creates space for healing in a way that goes beyond simply disposing of them. She saw this as an opportunity to do something transformational by taking an object that represents something terrifying and coming together as a group to reshape it into something beautiful, empowering, or comforting.
Other Highland Park parents and community members began commenting that they and their kids wanted to be involved, too, and as the interest grew, it became clear not only that there was support for this project in the community, but also that it was a powerful and all too rare opportunity for kids to get involved in the healing of their town, not just as recipients of support and care, but as young, growing agents of change themselves. Kids wanted to turn in their toy guns and wanted to be part of the process of transforming them into something new. In mid-July 2022 The Art Center Highland Park allowed us to set up a collection box in their entryway where kids could drop off toy guns in a symbolic act of standing against gun violence. In just a short time we collected many Nerf guns, squirt guns, and other gun-like toys that children were willingly donating to the project. Every toy gun used in this project was donated by a child from Highland Park, in the wake of our community trauma. Of course, we do not seek to shame other families for choosing to keep toy guns in their homes, or to erroneously link playing with toy guns with future violence (studies have not found a clear link.) The goal of this project is to honor the families and children who decided that they no longer want to own or play with toy guns, and chose to donate their toys, by creating something meaningful out of them.
The next step, determining what to do with the toy guns that had been donated, was more complicated. We were inspired by the artist Corrina Sephora, a blacksmith who transforms real guns into works of art with the hopes of creating a dialogue about the impact of guns on our communities and society. Corrina talks about a traditional belief that there is a type of spirit in the metal she works with, as a natural element from the earth. She works with a concept that she can “set the metal free” or spiritually transform it from a gun into something beautiful. It quickly became clear that the plastic guns we had collected were materially quite different. We spoke to experts in plastics recycling and engineering, and discovered that this material is incredibly difficult, and even dangerous, to work with. Melting them down would release toxic fumes. Smashing them would release shrapnel. Disassembling them would be very time intensive. From a practical and safety standpoint, we would have to leave the toy guns whole, and so we began to think about how we could transform all of the donated toys together, as a group, using them as building blocks to create a sculpture.
After discussing many possibilities with the group of parents, community members, and Art Therapists who came together, the idea of the teddy bear was chosen because of its poignant symbolism of childhood and innocence. If the goal is to transform the toy guns, what could be more transformational, more different from the idea of a gun, than the idea of a teddy bear? Corrina Sephora often transforms the real guns she works with into flowers, birds, and other organic shapes, returning the metal to a natural form. The plastic of these toys was man made, and intended for children as a plaything. So it felt fitting to return it to the form of something playful and childlike. Interestingly, the symbol of the teddy bear has an inherently pacifist history, having been named after Teddy Roosevelt who infamously refused to shoot a bear.
There is a push and pull between the imagery of toy guns and that of a teddy bear. Although both are childhood playthings, one symbolizes innocence and comfort, the other aggression and even, to some, trauma and violence. The cognitive dissonance of seeing toy guns inside a teddy bear highlights the dissonance we face as we navigate parenthood and childhood after a mass shooting. Viewing this piece calls up many uncomfortable questions: What is the significance of the toys we give to our children to play with? How do we raise children in a society where mass shootings like the one we experienced here in Highland Park occur again and again? (see footnotes and) And, as one community member who helped to collect the donated guns put it “when there are so many toys available to kids to spark the imagination, why imagine shooting?” We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but confronting our own discomfort and dissonance is an essential step. As Art Therapists, guiding communities and individuals to find safe ways to express and explore their own cognitive dissonance about troubling subjects is often a part of our work.
Before even putting this piece on display, we have wrestled with a variety of responses from those who have viewed the sculpture, ranging from gratitude and enthusiastic support to anger. These reactions are a reflection of the polarization in our society, as well as the shattering, splintering nature of trauma. People may see their own traumas and biases reflected in this piece, and as such, viewing it might not be comforting to everyone. Although the sculpture we have created may be viewed as provocative, the process of creating it was a healing experience for those involved.
For those of us who worked on the piece together, we enjoyed a sense of community and benefited from talking about our shared experiences while actively making something with our hands. We had discussions about the impact of the shooting on ourselves and our families and ways we have chosen to act and take care of ourselves in the aftermath. We supported and empathized with one another. We found grounding in the repetitive nature of building a structure out of chicken wire. We also experienced the frustrations of working with materials that were not always forgiving and enjoyed the group problem solving efforts we took on together. We celebrated milestones along the way, the finishing of certain elements, the relief and joy that certain parts were taking the shape we hoped for. The ups and downs of our art process mirrored the ups and downs of our own healing processes and grew more pronounced as we edged closer to the anniversary of the shooting. We felt immense pressure to complete this sculpture in time for that date and felt an equal sense of relief when the majority of our work was complete in time for us to rest and regroup with our own individual communities and the larger Highland Park community over the July 4th weekend.
While one of our goals in creating this piece was transformation, we also sought to provide containment. Containment for us meant to make these toys less accessible, to in some way, at least symbolically, neutralize the threat of potential violence. To accomplish that, we created containers, armatures constructed from chicken wire, to encase the toy guns. We also wrapped some portions of the armatures in plaster gauze, both obstructing the viewer’s eye from some of the guns and creating more of a barrier to accessing the items that are locked inside. Perhaps the most debate we had during this project was whether to cover more of the sculpture with plaster or to leave it as is (plaster covering the teddy bear’s head plus a t-shirt with a window in the center). Questions we asked ourselves included: What feels safer? What reflects our intention more strongly? What does the community need? And aesthetically, what works better? Feedback from community members and our group’s own perceptions fueled some concern that we did not provide enough containment, enough safety in our sculpture for the community to be able to view it safely. We had to dive into our own trauma reactions and check in with the pulse of the community and where it was taking them. In the end, we have decided that the toy guns need to be seen to have the intended impact, but with sensitivity and acknowledgement to those who may not be ready or able to view objects that symbolize violence and potentially trigger trauma reactions. We intend to provide some word of caution, so that viewers can make a decision for themselves about whether to view the sculpture or not. These toys, so easy to obtain and often used without consideration of what they are modeled after, become a strong symbol when viewed within the context of the shared experience of our community and the larger society that is impacted by gun violence. We realized in processing this dynamic, that our art process mirrors the internal struggle we share in wrestling with the fact that we have not been able to take away the threat of gun violence from our families and communities. But what we have done is come together in a powerful way and we hope to share our experience and our art with the Highland Park community and beyond.
We chose to wrap the teddy bear in plaster gauze, the same material that is traditionally used to create casts for broken bones; a symbol of healing. Some of the children and families who originally donated their toys to this project came out to help with the construction of the bear and the application of the plaster gauze. As we worked, we discussed the white color of the plaster gauze we were working with. Should we leave the bear’s face, neck, and t-shirt white? The white color of the plaster gauze caused us to reflect on our racial identities. We discussed gun violence in the United States and acknowledged that BIPOC communities and individuals are more likely to be affected by gun violence. It is important to recognize that BIPOC communities are disproportionately affected by gun violence while simultaneously typically having less resources to support healing in the aftermath. Black Americans are 10 times more likely than white Americans to die by gun homicide. Hispanic and Indigenous people are more than twice as likely to die by gun violence than white people.
In light of the impact of gun violence on communities of color, and the whiteness of the plaster material, we wondered if we should paint the bear, covering the white gauze with color. In the end, we chose to leave the bear white to support our original intention to symbolize a cast, viewing it as a symbol of a healing material rather than of skin color. We invite anyone who may feel so moved to use a sharpie to write a message of hope for healing on the bear, much the way you might write “get well soon” on the cast of a friend with a broken bone. Although it is our psyches, our community, and our society’s relationship with real guns that needs healing, not the toys inside this sculpture, we hope that the symbolic acts in this process, from donating or giving up a toy gun, to wrapping a sculpture in plaster gauze, to signing the outer cast, can provide some opportunity to be a part of a process of transforming the pain that our community has endured into comfort, hope, and dialogue about change.
Special Thanks to all the children who donated toy guns to this project, Marion Greenwood, Steve Sarowitz and family, and The Art Center Highland Park
- Highland Park’s parade shooting was one of 636 mass shootings in the US in 2022, according to Every Town for Gun Safety https://everytownresearch.org/mass-shootings-in-america/
- Including Highland Park’s parade shooting, there were 720 mass shootings in the US in the 1 year from 7/4/22 to 7/4/23 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mass_shootings_in_the_United_States_in_2022 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mass_shootings_in_the_United_States_in_2023