Death of an AR-15

This summer I received a message on Facebook from a man who wanted to give me a gun.

Having only shot a handgun once in my late teens, walking away from the range nonplussed by the loud bang and kickback, I never developed an affinity for them. It was such and unusual offer. Reading his message brought up questions, so I sent a few his way.

His reasoning was pretty straightforward. With mass-shootings ravaging communities across our nation, the gun had become symbolic of something he didn’t stand for. This lifelong gun owner, raised in the thick of northern Wisconsin gun culture, hoped I could decommission it in a meaningful way.

He was offering me an AR-15 assault rifle.

As an artist who’s work does not shy from debate, I understood why he contacted me. However the gravity of this ask was not simple. In order to understand the rifle, I’d need to live with it, to sit in contemplation of the ramifications of its existence, as well as potential outcomes from granting it a death.

I seldom pause when considering materials, but like the signage from shuttered Planned Parenthood healthcare centers from my home state of Wisconsin, I sensed this offer deserved both time and reflection. My final decision hinged on whether or not I felt I could transform the object into a vote.

We set up a visit.

His home was welcoming.  The rifle lay in a case on the living room couch. Immaculately designed, lightweight and beautifully surfaced my tongue slicked with sick. A civilian version of the M-16, engineered to fire bullets that tear orange size chunks of flesh from the body in quick succession, and yet it’s curvature asked to be lifted and held to mine.

I left empty handed and shaken.

I said yes.


00_bill of sale

In the state of Wisconsin, you don’t need a receipt for the transfer of ownership of a firearm, but we both thought it best to make one. A background check isn’t necessary either. This is commonly referred to as the “Gun Show Loophole”.


Between Bodies

I began this project with questions.

The answers arrived in the form of drawings.

As I began working though ideas, I soon realized handing the AR-15 off to a foundry– while it could help me avoid the uncanny feeling of being in the rifle’s proximity, would mediate the project too greatly. A corporeal exchange between my body and the gun was necessary. I had to use my hands to bring it down.

The AR-15 needed to be reduced to a powder reminiscent of what we all become. This project would be in part a ceremony.

As guns are designed to fit and respond to the human form, the AR-15, like all other weapons is engineered to mark, impede or kill another body whether human or animal. Guns don’t fire without a body. The AR-15 is designed to deliver a bullet that jaggedly carves through a body on impact. This inherent relationship shared by the assault rifle and the body spoke to why my body should be an active agent when cutting, sanding and grinding it to dust. Like preparing a loved one’s body for burial, my hands could grant a humane end to a inhumane design.

I embraced the many hours ahead as a meditation on mortality, power and transition.


To UnGun

Untucking the AR-15 from a hiding spot in the basement I brought the rifle upstairs and set it on the dining room table. My parents had dropped by on their last day visiting the Midwest. My stepdad, a retired Army veteran and rancher from Northern New Mexico, had agreed to help me learn how to break the the assault rifle down.

While I wanted to learn the steps, I also wanted to talk with someone I knew and loved about guns and gun culture. This time with William provided both. As soon as we got started the usual family banter began, but this time the debate was on if guns killed people or if people killed people. Mom weighed in from the couch holding their Chihuahua.

For a little over an hour we practiced. His hands moved across the weapon like a concert pianist disassembling and assembling its components. I on the other hand, fumbled through each step awkwardly handling each part like the city slicker pacifist I am.

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He was patient and good humored. I was over exuberant from nerves.

While I will always be ambivalent about the 2nd Amendment and William will support it, we found common ground. We agreed more mental health resources need to be readily available for all, as do mandatory background checks, and semi-automatic and automatic weapons really have no reason to be in civilian hands.

Relieved and giving hugs as they headed out, the AR-15 was in pieces.


From Live to Inert

Over the next four weeks, I set to work on the AR-15 in a small corner of the studio usually used for wet working ceramic and glass.

Work sessions began with checking the seams of my makeshift work tent made of draped plastic and rubber sheet to ensure they were still sealed. Then I’d attach my iPhone on to a tripod, put on safety gear and hit record.

While I’m pretty disciplined about documenting the stages of my projects, this was the first time I’d recorded a series of full length videos. I felt others may find meaning in watching the transformation an AR-15 from live to inert, whole to part, weapon to dust. I saw my studio as a sight of synthesis involved in a much larger conversation, and hoped these contributions would be of service in some way.

As hours passed at the bench, understanding how to unmake each part became easier. The chest strap needed to first be frayed by picking it apart with a needle before being snipped to fluff with scissors. Chopping 1/4″ segments from the steel barrel expedited the grinding process, leaving the grinding wheel cleaner as they generated less heat than larger chunks.

I focused on the material at hand as a strategy for overriding the physical discomfort of the process. I thought of the school yards, the synagogues, the mosques and the churches. I saw the faces of the survivors leaving night clubs, concerts and movie theaters. I recalled the voicemails shared by media outlets made by people hiding under desks, in classrooms or caught out in the open. I envisioned surgeons in theater and in waiting rooms talking with families. I sat in a space of reflection as the weapon shifted into sparks and powdered debris.

At the end of each session, I’d dust myself off and methodically collect as much of the debris as I could. Then I would write.

This video combines footage from the process with The Time It Takes– written word recorded during the project.  Full length segments are available here. Click here for a link to the text only.


To Dust

To Dust and the Revolution Print Series are the resulting physical artworks to come from the AR-15.

Niki Johnson

“To Dust”, Ground AR-15 assault rifle, glass box, 4”x 12”x 7”- Niki Johnson, 2018

Detail image of “To Dust” with box open

Niki Johnson

Detail of striation and layering of materials

Niki Johnson

Detail from side

Niki Johnson

“Revolution Prints- Plastics 1-3”, Remnants of the handgrip and buttstock of an AR-15 assault rifle on sanding discs- Niki Johnson, 2018

Niki Johnson

“Revolution Prints- Aluminum 1-9”, Remnants of the upper and lower receivers of an AR-15 assault rifle on sanding discs- Niki Johnson, 2018


Artist Statement

I’m wrapping up this post with my statement to place this project into my broader practice.

I create when I can see how the right alteration to a material will animate its meaning. In the studio I am regularly scaffolding upon techniques so I can incorporate unusual materials into projects, to shape the voice of each piece. As a woman, I am invested in addressing power structures, equality and identity.

Affective theory guides my decisions in how a piece is made and what it is made out of, as both are essential to the way art can communicate.

Simply, I sculpt for justice. I build in meditation. I work to better understand.

This year I am building a new body of work as a reflection on resistance. To Dust and American Tapestry: Border State are part of this new body and are representative of both the subject matter and visceral nature of what is to come. My intention is to exhibit the culmination of artwork made in the upcoming year in a solo exhibition by 2020.

Please visit my website to see more artwork and for further information.