Last summer, Garland Martin Taylor Jr. drove 5,500 miles across the country with a 400-pound stainless-steel revolver in the back of his pickup truck. It’s not an actual, working revolver. Rather, it’s a sculpture, titled Conversation Piece—Taylor calls it a “war memorial”—made of scrap metal provided by a south-side manufacturing company. Welded onto the trigger are faces, which are meant to be anonymous. Stamped on the barrel, grip, and cylinder of the revolver are the names of people age 20 and younger who’ve been killed by gun violence in the neighborhoods surrounding Taylor’s home in Hyde Park. Each entry features the victim’s name, age, and date of death: brian weekly, 18 years old, 7 june 2014; anferneé durant, 19 years old, 23 jan 2015; arianna gibson, 6 years old, 7 aug 2011. There are 100 names in all.
Taylor, who is 46, applies these names to the gun through a technique in which he uses a mallet to hammer “stamps” onto the metal; unlike everyday stamps, on which the letters face outward, the indented marks are pushed into the base. The font and styling of the names resemble military dog tags. Looking at the sculpture is like “being held at gunpoint to think about gun violence,” Taylor says. “It’s raw.” He decided to drive Conversation Piece across America in order to encourage people to think more about the epidemic of gun violence, especially in black communities in Chicago. The title, Conversation Piece, refers to the discussions people have around the gun, but it’s also a play on words—a conversation about peace.
Taylor works out of a studio in McKinley Park. In early January, he was there, imprinting more letters onto Conversation Piece—”Little Rock, AK,” to note where he last took the sculpture. Each hit of his mallet rang out like a dull bell. He was preparing Conversation Piece for display at the “Black Creativity Juried Art Exhibition” at the Museum of Science and Industry, which ends this Sunday, February 21.
It was a Friday morning, and the parking lot outside Taylor’s studio was mostly empty. But as soon as the sculpture emerged, people began to appear. One man asked Taylor how long it took him to make the piece. Two thousand hours, Taylor said. Another admired the faces on the trigger. “The minute I put it on my truck, my private life is gone,” Taylor says of the giant revolver. “Everywhere I go it becomes a public art installation. It’s nice to see what a public sculpture means in society. Otherwise you put it in some park or public space, and unless you’re sitting there at the park, you don’t get to witness how other people engage with it.” Taylor stopped at Nana in Bridgeport for breakfast and parked Conversation Piece outside. Traffic on South Halsted Street slowed down as people tried to get a look at the sculpture. The Ninth District Chicago Police Department is only a block away, and two squad cars circled around toward the truck.
In Washington, D.C., last summer, Taylor was stopped for hours by the Secret Service when he parked outside the White House. After the agents were sure that the gun was not a working weapon, one of them told Taylor he had attended the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton with Michelle Obama last year.
On this day, the police left Taylor alone. But a beat-up Subaru pulled up behind the truck and a man in his 60s got out to examine the sculpture. He’d just come from taking his mother to the dentist, he said, and “just had to stop and see this.” When he learned that the names on the barrel are those of children killed by guns, he fell silent. “Oh no, that’s what it’s representing?” he said. “I just got chills now.”
The man’s reaction is not unique. “Two things I’ve learned: people love guns, and people hate stories of babies being killed,” Taylor says. “What do we do with that?”
That rumination sums up Taylor’s evolution as an artist, from creating abstract work that explores death to conceptual work that engages with the subject head-on.
Taylor was born in 1969 at Mercy Hospital in Chicago. He grew up in the Lake Meadows apartment complex in Bronzeville with his father, Garland Martin Taylor Sr., mother Nedra Louise, and an older sister and younger brother. He enjoyed painting, and he traces his aptitude for sculpture to a love of model cars and rockets. “Even as a kid, I’d have this itty-bitty studio on my grandmother’s dining room table,” he says. “I was making all of these pieces. My art has always been about lots and lots of tiny pieces that come together.” Taylor remembers the south side of his youth as being much different than the one he lives in today. “I never worried about gun violence,” he says. “We didn’t worry about getting shot.”
Nevertheless, weapons helped feed his family. Garland Sr., a former cook in the army, was an independent businessman who made and lost a fortune selling military goods in the Middle East in the 1970s. Though he knew little about his father’s work while growing up, Taylor says he has been able to figure it out thanks to a trove of correspondence and receipts Garland Sr. left behind. According to these documents, the elder Taylor sold everything from guns to helicopters to cooking oil, and his clients included Major General Adnan Khairallah, Saddam Hussein’s cousin and brother-in-law, who was named minister of defense in Iraq after Saddam became president in 1979.
“God knows how many guns my dad sold and how many of those guns took other lives,” Taylor says. “That haunts me.”
After years of struggling with hypertension and kidney disease, Garland Sr. passed away in 1983 from a heart attack. Taylor was 13 years old. The family was left in debt and could no longer afford the apartment in Lake Meadows. His mother moved the kids to a smaller place in Hyde Park and took a job teaching children with learning disabilities at Von Humboldt Elementary School on the west side. Taylor enrolled in Kenwood High School, but it would be more than a decade before he decided to become a professional artist. Despite encountering some sculptors as a child—he met Richard Hunt while growing up in Bronzeville and Virginio Ferrari as a teen in Hyde Park—art seemed more like a hobby to Taylor than a career path.
When Taylor graduated from high school in 1987, he headed to Los Angeles with his best friend, Stephen Gazaway. The two had dreams of becoming stunt drivers for the movies, but didn’t have any contacts or experience. “I went and knocked on the gate at some studio and said I want to become a stunt driver, and the guy told me to go away,” Taylor says with a laugh. “Then I was stuck in LA.”
In need of money, Gazaway joined the air force and Taylor enlisted in the navy. In January 1988, he went to boot camp in Orlando and then was sent to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. His time in the navy was short-lived, however: after just 11 months, Taylor broke his left leg while running, the result of a recurring stress fracture he sustained while working as a lifeguard in high school.
He was honorably discharged and went to live with an aunt in El Cerrito, just north of Berkeley, California. Taylor decided to try his hand at construction; the Loma Prieta earthquake had hit northern California in 1989, and there was a big demand for plaster repair. After reading a book at the library on plastering, Taylor wrote a bad check and bought some knives, hammers, and other small tools he thought he would need. He got a job repairing the historic H.J. Heinz Co. Factory in Berkeley, which was then being used as a business center. It was there that he first thought about becoming a sculptor. “I was plastering the pillars and walls, and one day I said, ‘Oh cool, I’m a sculptor,’ ” he recalls. “It was a joke. But thinking back, Richard Hunt was my first example of an artist, and it was natural that I would think ‘sculptor’ before ‘painter.’ ”
Feeling homesick, he moved back to Chicago in 1990. He continued working full-time in construction, but started thinking of himself as more of an artisan than tradesman. He did restoration work and custom mosaics on houses and businesses in Hyde Park. At home, he had a small studio where he painted “really bad” figurative paintings and pastels.
In 2001, Taylor decided to pursue art more seriously. He enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and earned his bachelor’s degree, in visual and critical studies with a concentration in sculpture, in 2005 and his master’s degree in the same fields in 2007. There, he studied under Ferrari and Preston Jackson, who introduced him to the scrap-metal material he still works with today.
It was at SAIC that Taylor first began exploring death in his artwork. For both his undergraduate and master’s thesis projects he created mixed-media sculptures and sound installations about his father’s passing. He says that he had never properly mourned his father, and the pieces were his attempt to better understand the man with whom he shares his name.
“I spend all of my time with dead people,” Taylor says. “I’m always chasing the dead.”
After graduating, Taylor continued creating large-scale, abstract sculptures, but he experienced a turning point while working at the DuSable Museum of African American History in 2011, when he came across the art of Henry Jackson Lewis, the first African-American political cartoonist. Taylor was fascinated by Lewis’s work and started researching his life. A self-taught artist, Lewis had been born a slave in the 1830s. As a freedman, Lewis headed the art department at the Indianapolis-based Freeman, the nation’s first illustrated African-American newspaper.
Taylor says that Lewis and other black artists who fought to “subvert the negative images in the media” continue to exert a big influence on his work. In 2014, the Arkansas History Commission awarded Taylor a Curtis H. Sykes Memorial Grant for African-American history in Arkansas to further his study of Lewis. “African-American art as a whole has always been functional,” he says. “It has tried to advance the cause of social justice.” Taylor also received a 2014-’15 Mellon fellowship at the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago. Along with political science professor Cathy Cohen and documentary filmmaker Orlando Bagwell, Taylor taught an interdisciplinary course, the Politics and Art of Black Death, in the spring quarter of 2015. The three also led workshops exploring death and violence in black communities with law enforcement officers like Sergeant Heather Taylor of Saint Louis’s Ethical Society of Police and community leaders like Father Michael Pfleger of south-side church Saint Sabina.
As part of his Mellon fellowship, Taylor decided to make a sculpture that addressed some of the topics they covered. Up until that point, most of Taylor’s work had been abstract—he decided to create “a piece that was engaged with reality, a piece that was socially engaged.”
Cohen says Taylor more than succeeded in that objective with Conversation Piece.
“It is a spectacular piece because it is recognizable,” she says. “When you’re hanging out with Garland and he has the piece in his truck, people come up to you to ask questions. In that process, you see all the ways in which violence and death affects people’s lives and the different stories they tell about loved ones lost either in death to violence or lost to incarceration because of violence. I think the stories that are being told on an individual level build out to a bigger picture.”
One reason Taylor says he decided to take the sculpture on the road last summer was to build a bigger picture about gun violence and to make the work a truly public installation. To fund the trip, he sold some of his sculptures and enlisted help from his past patrons, his wife, and his father-in-law. He stayed mostly with friends as he drove through 12 states, and paid for only two hotel rooms during his four-week tour.
On the road, people opened up and shared stories that still linger with him to this day. In Carbondale, Illinois, a teen showed him the 2010 funeral program and memorial T-shirt for his cousin—Brandon, aka “Juice Man”—who had been shot in Chicago. Later, in Brevard, North Carolina, an older man named Frank Hardy lifted his shirt to show Taylor the scars from five bullet wounds he sustained when he was shot by someone who mistook him for someone else.
The experience was harder than Taylor could have ever imagined.
“I never thought about the consequence, what I call ’emotional recoil,’ ” he says.” Try it. Take an eight-hour day and read about these deaths and research every aspect of them, how they’re connected, how they’re quote-unquote ‘gang related.’ It’s tough. The more intricate the gun got, it was just me procrastinating the pain of thinking about these dead children.”
After Taylor returned to Chicago last August, he was emotionally and physically drained. He had cried for three straight days on the trip, thinking about all of the kids on his piece and the people he had met on the road. Taylor dropped Conversation Piece off at his studio and decided to take a break from the project.
Just two weeks later, 25-year-old Reginald Sanson was shot in front of Taylor’s home in Hyde Park. Taylor’s 11-year-old son heard the gunshots, and they soon saw the flash of a police car’s lights. Through the window, they could hear Sanson’s mother crying.
“It was the crying of that mother, hearing her wailing and wailing as the ambulance was moving away with the body,” Taylor says, that renewed his resolve.
Taylor spent more than a year working on Conversation Piece. While he says that he’s finished adding names to the gun, the project is far from done. He hopes to take the sculpture on the road again and to continue having conversations about gun violence.
“The more I get around with the gun, the more people are asking the question: What’s going to be done to stop this?” he says. “Sooner or later someone will have an answer. That was the whole point of the piece, to get out and have people ask that question.” v
“Black Creativity Juried Art Exhibition” shows through Sun 2/21, Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore, 773-684-1414, msichicago.org.